Academic Column: The Rewards of Research

Thank you to the MSLA Awards Committee for recognizing with a research grant the work done in the course of writing my dissertation Transitioning a high school library to a learning commons: Avoiding the tragedy of the commons. The ongoing support of MSLA colleagues has been deeply appreciated.


In July of 2012 I began a doctoral program with Northeastern University. If I had known how difficult it was going to be I never would have started, and now that I am finished I encourage everyone to consider pursuing a doctorate. If I can do it, so can you. It is a three-year quest that consumes all free time, forces the brain to work harder and establish new pathways of learning, and most valuable for me, renewed my appreciation of how demanding it is to be a student. This quest experience has directly impacted how I teach my high school students, how I organize online materials, how I conduct both formative and summative assessments, and the value of clear communication on everything from rubrics to due dates.

The Doctor of Education process consists of course work designed to teach research skills as well as critical content on topics ranging from educational pedagogy to organizational structures. Throughout the process the researcher is building a literature review, and iterating the research question(s) that will ultimately determine the topic of the dissertation and the direction of the research. Each course requires research and writing that informs the research question with a new lens.

The research conducted for the dissertation focused on the process of transitioning a traditional high school library to the learning commons service model, identified the requirements of the model, and the factors that either promoted or undermined the success of the transition.

A general inductive approach based on a qualitative methodology was used to collect and analyze data obtained from three Massachusetts high school librarians who self-identified as having successfully transitioned a high school library to a learning commons, were all members of the MSLA, and worked in public high schools. The two research questions for the study were:

(1) What factors determine a successful transition?

(2) What factors undermine or threaten the transition?

Data was collected through multiple methods including: field notes from site visits, review of participant created websites, as well as interviews conducted in person, by telephone, and by video conference. Coding was used to sort and evaluate data that identified categories and themes that influenced the success of the transition.

The transition to a learning commons was analyzed in the context of the tragedy of the commons scenario (Hardin, 1968). The tragedy scenario has its roots in pre-Roman England when farmers grazed their livestock in communally held fields. The growth in demand for the common fields led to increasing herd sizes with no corresponding incentive to maintain the shared resource, leading ultimately to overuse, depletion, herd starvation, and collapse. The tragedy scenario has been applied to analogous issues such as over-fishing, deforestation, and in this study, the highly demanded resources of a modern learning commons.

Through analysis of the transition experiences of the three participants, the trust of the building principal was identified as the primary hallmark of success. The attributes of the school librarian that positively influence the trust of principals are identified as vision and an implementation plan, data-driven practice, communication, and consensus building skills.

Based on research relating to the learning commons service model, a successful transition includes a reduction and reorganization of the book collection to increase space for collaborative activities. An integral part of the shift in the mission of the library collection is a de-emphasis on print reference and a transition to e-books to replace print reference, with priority placed on purchasing high interest young adult fiction and narrative nonfiction to promote curriculum and pleasure reading for students.

The revitalization of the former school library to a learning commons requires diverse seating, working, and production options for students, as well as access to technology for equity, learning, creation, and sharing. The virtual learning commons is a space that promotes curated access to curriculum content as well as communication and scheduling for students and faculty.

In conclusion, the learning commons is a model designed to support student learning and achievement in a period of evolving and dynamic change in curriculum and digital information and presentation technologies. This study situates the learning commons as central to school change, and identifies the factors that promote a successful transition. The tragedy of the commons scenario represents a transition process that is undermined by lack of support in key domains.  Without the trust of the building principal, the school librarian faces challenges in implementing the model, and positioning the learning commons at the heart of student and faculty work within the school. With trust, the learning commons can play a central role in school goals, school change, and student achievement.

The experience of conducting authentic research on school librarianship was both challenging and invigorating. I am filled with gratitude for the generosity of the three participants in sharing their time, work, and expertise. My third reader, Dr. Mary Frances Zilonis, was extraordinary in identifying gaps in the research, as well as highlighting the opportunities for advocacy for the profession. Dr. Zilonis was truly a transformational partner, and immeasurably improved the caliber of the research and findings. Deeply engaging in various aspects and domains of school librarianship through research has been deeply rewarding. I look forward to future opportunities to work with data from our profession in order to continue advocating and contributing towards greater understanding and appreciation for the substantial benefits school librarians bring to student learning.

Work Cited

Hardin, G. (1968). The tragedy of the commons. Science162(3859), 1243-1248.

Northeastern University. (2015). Doctor of Education. Retrieved March 29, 2015,
from Northeastern University College of Professional Studies website:

Robin Cicchetti is the librarian at Concord-Carlisle Regional High School

Academic Column: School Libraries: Historical Context

School libraries and the profession of school librarianship have a rich history that reflects global changes in politics and culture. As we face the ongoing challenges of reduced budgets and mandated testing, school librarians and the critical information, media, digital skills and associated characteristics of citizenship that comprise out content area, are more stressed than ever. A quick overview of how school libraries evolved accomplishes two goals: reaffirming that we are an integral part of the dynamic and evolving story of U.S. education, and developing research-based strategies that will allow us to continue this story.

Schools and school libraries evolved in a series of waves that have reflected the transition of U.S. society at large. The first wave covered the transition from agricultural workers (production) to industrial workers (consumption) to the third wave that saw the shift to today’s information society, labeled “prosumer,” or one who both produces and consumes information (Martin, 2011). School libraries in the production phase began as storehouses of books and materials chosen to support the curricular goals of the school, and in the subsequent consumption phase evolved to more sophisticated sources of information that included digital, database, and multimedia resources. In the current prosumer phase the school librarian is a certified teacher of the information literacy skills required to locate, evaluate, and ethically use content to make and share new learning. The instructional role of the library teacher has gone from managing materials to instructing students in sophisticated information tasks that promote high level critical thinking (Loertscher, 2009).

School library studies traditionally focus on determining the impact of the school library program on student achievement. Within the environment of standards-based testing and increased teacher accountability it has been challenging for teacher librarians to assume effective leadership roles because test-based curriculum has squeezed out constructivist pedagogy (Eisner, 2013). The barriers to effective school library leadership have a number of roots, but the result is diminished effectiveness at establishing collaborative planning relationships with teachers, and diminished opportunities to provide information literacy instruction to students (Martin, 2011).

History of School Library Impact Studies

Research studies designed to determine the impact of school libraries on student achievement began in 1963 with the Gaver study (Callison, 2005). Gaver compared test scores of students in schools that had classroom-based libraries to students in schools with separate libraries staffed by professionally trained librarians. The results showed that students from schools with professionally staffed libraries outperformed those from schools without libraries and qualified librarians. There were obstacles to the study that included the challenges of managing such large amounts of raw data and the inability to control for a wide range of variables such as community conditions. From the Gaver study through the 1970’s and 80’s impact studies took the form of literature reviews, with little original research.

In 1987 National Public Radio conducted an interview with William L. Bainbridge, a commercial vendor of school data (Callison, 2005). The topic of the interview was how parents who were relocating to another community could find data and identify the best school districts for their children. Bainbridge’s company, School Match, conducted analysis of schools and school districts using a wide variety of data points, and had a deep databank of in-house analysis. When the interviewer asked what single factor had the greatest impact or influence on a schools performance Bainbridge immediately said spending on the school library was the greatest correlation to school performance and student achievement. This response created a surge of publicity and a new era of research.

The era of research conducted in the 1990’s reflects the early efforts of the Gaver study, and as a result of the School Match research, focused on quantitative research and analysis. The Colorado study in 1993 confirmed that students who attended schools with well-funded library media centers performed better on standardized reading tests, regardless of socioeconomic background (Martin, 2011; Callison, 2005). Building on numerous quantitative studies conducted in a number of U.S. states and Canada since then, the Ohio Study took a qualitative approach that explored the perceptions of students and teachers about the “help” they received from their school library and teacher librarians (Todd & Kuhlthau, 2004). It is important to note that participating Ohio schools were required to submit a self-assessment that determined whether their programs met the criteria of “effective” as defined by the study as adequately budgeted and staffed. This is crucial, because the findings of the study are tied to principal support in the form of adequate funding and staffing.

The results of the study validated the previous quantitative results, and confirmed that effective school libraries positively impact student achievement, regardless of other socioeconomic factors. The Ohio Study also established that perceptions of “help” contributed to the understanding of what it means to be an effective school librarian. The results of the many previous quantitative school library impact studies were confirmed by the results of the qualitative Ohio study on the positive impact of effective school library media programs on student achievement.

The quantitative studies of the 1990’s and early 2000’s have confirmed that schools with effective school libraries positively impact student achievement. The perceptions of “help” established by the qualitative Ohio Study confirmed the positive impact on student learning, but did not provide specific interventions for teacher librarians on how to transform their practice to improve their overall effectiveness.

The perceptions of principals and administrators have been identified as crucial in setting the staffing and budgetary conditions of the school library, as well as the opportunities for effective leadership (Castiglione, 2006). Research studies have been conducted on identifying the variables that influence the perceptions of principals; yet determining how these variables should be implemented remains to be addressed (Levitov, 2009). The perceptions held by building principals of their school libraries, and research-based strategies that can be used to influence those perceptions, will be addressed in the March edition of The Forum.

Works Cited

Callison, D. (2005). An interview with Keith Curry Lance, Director, Library Research Service, Colorado State Library & University of Denver.

Castiglione, J. (2006). Organizational learning and transformational leadership in the library environment. Library Management, 27(4/5), 289-299.

Eisner, E. W. (2013). What does it mean to say a school is doing well? In D. J. Flinders, & S. J. Thornton (Eds.), The curriculum studies reader (4th ed., pp. 279-288). New York, NY: Routledge.

Levitov, D. D. (2009). Perspectives of school administrators related to school library media programs after participating in an online course, “School library advocacy for administrators” (Doctoral dissertation).

Loertscher, D. V. (2009). Evidence-based practice: Evolution or revolution? Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, 4(2), 178-181.

Martin, V. D. (2011). Perceptions of school library media specialists regarding the practice of instructional leadership. Advances in Library Administration and Organization, 30(), 207-287.

Todd, R. J., & Kuhlthau, C. C. (2004). Student learning through Ohio school libraries: Background, methodology and report of findings. Retrieved from http:/

Robin Cicchetti is the librarian at Concord-Carlisle Regional High School