Mad About School Libraries

Everyone knows school library media centers improve student performance, right? Well, no. Given the way school libraries and school librarians have been treated in recent years, it’s clear that administrators and their boards could use some new data. That data would show that student success is directly related to services and instruction offered by the school library media center and its professional librarians.

Portage Northern High School Library Media Center

The school library media center is a unique type of learning environment, offering students a wealth of resources and diverse perspectives. It encourages independent thought and imagination and helps foster relationships based on mutual interests and interpersonal skills. The school library media center facilitates learning in many different and important ways. Still, as budgetary issues continually force widespread and cavalier elimination of school programs that may seem unnecessary, the library is in danger of being left out of the curriculum. In fact, there is a wealth of research illustrating the critical role of the school library not only as the center for reading, transliteracy, and research, but as a communal environment for exploring interests and honing myriad cognitive and interpersonal skills.

Library Spaces

Perhaps the best way to gauge the varied learning activities happening in the school library is to look inside. While some people continue to proliferate the stereotype of the library as a mausoleum for books, school library media centers are among the busiest, most relevant places in any school environment. They are constantly occupied and, in the case of high schools, are hotspots for students and adults, alike. As such, the media center’s appropriate atmosphere is often the subject of scrutiny. To their detriment, many school librarians believe that libraries should remain a quiet place to support silent reading and studying. Others have looked at the success of Library 2.0 applications in public and academic libraries and have redesigned the library’s parameters. Students are talking, listening, creating, reading, studying, Web surfing, writing–all activities occurring simultaneously in a lively atmosphere grounded in education. Studies have shown that environments of this type encourage learning and are connected with greater literacy skills and better student performance. School libraries are becoming lit and spacious places with free wireless access, soft background music, and lounging areas.

Savvy administrators know the effects of a welcoming, flexible environment on literacy. Ergo, they apply the appropriate marketing and design strategies to create and nurture those spaces. Again, school libraries are raising performance rates and test scores by aiding literacy. Too often the literature on new library spaces focuses on large academic and public libraries and how they facilitate success. Perhaps more emphasis should be placed on the physical library media center as an engine of student success. It’s clear that the new school library media center fosters not only information literacy, but also cognitive skills, testing strategies, and behaviors that aid lifelong learning.

Improved Test Scores

Standardized exam scores are perhaps the most accessible means for assessing the school library media center and its affect on student performance. The links among reading, vocabulary expansion, and cognition are well known. So too are the improved grades of students with strong library media programs. School libraries are directly linked to higher standardized test scores, while students from schools with poor libraries or no library at all have produced inferior scores. These less-fortunate students have also demonstrated deficiencies in their abilities to contrast variant perspectives and to think contextually, the higher order skills that facilitate continual and evolving comprehension.

National and localized research has produced indisputable evidence of the school library’s role in elevated performance evaluations. Particularly in the areas of language arts and the sciences, students with regular curriculum assistance in the school media center have fared far better than others on standardized tests. This is especially evident in schools where there is at least one degreed librarian on staff. Test scores are generally lower in schools where the media center has only paraprofessional staff.

There is also evidence of lower test scores among students who have access to a well-staffed media center but choose to utilize their public library for research and study. School libraries and public libraries have different missions and different patronage. School libraries provide materials and technology essential to curricular and instructional needs. School library media specialists teach information literacy skills fundamental to academic achievement and prepare students to be lifelong learners. They are familiar with state educational standards, the school’s curriculum, and class texts. They are also members of a partnership with faculty and administration. School library media specialists work closely with faculty to help facilitate comprehension of course material and to help students employ effective research skills and strategies. While public librarians nearly always hold a graduate degree and are supposed to be versed in reference materials, they simply cannot offer the same insider assistance that a school librarian offers. For all the work that public librarians do with students to help with research and to promote literacy, the school librarian has a skills set, a knowledge base, and a network of connections, all central to educating students.

With the push toward increased state test scores, the school library media center is more important than ever in helping the school succeed. Studies consistently show that libraries with modern materials, convenient operating hours, and certified librarians can provide students with access to information and the skills to evaluate and use information. The activities and behaviors present in the school library translate visibly to increased test scores and overall academic achievement. At all grade levels, test scores tend to be higher. Where school libraries are properly funded and managed, students of all ages are learning and practicing the information literacy skills necessary to excel on tests and as lifelong learners. The connections between quality school library programs and academic achievement cannot be explained away as products of socio-economic factors or school conditions. So it is maddening to see the continual mistreatment of library media centers as the current budget deficit continues to plague our school districts. Perhaps the right studies simply don’t always reach the right hands. Whatever the reason, it is clear to this librarian that the school library media center should be considered indispensable and essential to student success.

Ugh. Sometimes I just get mad.

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About Steven V. Kaszynski
librarian, editor, contributor

One Response to Mad About School Libraries

  1. Pingback: 2010 in review | the Go Librarians

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