« Best Practices for Meeting CIPA Requirements | Main | Why, What, How and WHO of Staff Development »

Virtual librarian

Building Indispensability: the Virtual Librarian and Other New Roles
July 2005

Author’s note. An earlier version of this article appeared in our state school library association publication Minnesota Media, Fall 1993, published again in IMPACT: Association for Teacher-Librarianship in Canada, Fall 1999, and again was reprinted in ACCESS 2005, the journal of  ASLA the Australian school library association to suplement to the keynotes I gave at T-L conferences in Perth, Newcastle, and Sydney. Seems to be holding up OK.



Who can find a virtual librarian?
for her price is far above rubies.
after Proverbs 31:10

The three roles of the teacher-librarian as outlined in ALA/AECT’s Information Power are just fine as far as they go. Teacher, information specialist, and program administrator are, and will remain, important roles for our profession. But some form tasks have been around since 1988 years in print, and conceptually long before that. Seventeen years! - an eon in a time when an encyclopedia of information can travel across the globe on a beam of light in an eye blink. Long before the Internet as we know it; before we recognized all students need high levels of information literacy skills; and before tight budgets demanded every professional in schools demonstrate how his or her efforts impact student achievement.

I suggest we need to add three more roles to our profession: Virtual Librarian, Crowsnester, and Rabblerouser.

Virtual Librarian
I’ve helped design any number of new and remodeled media centers in my career. But designing a new media center in 1993 was the first time I’d actually bargained away floor space. Floor space had always been the last thing I’d give up when the inevitable budgetary cutbacks were made. Carpet, air conditioning, more shelving, or display cases could always be added later, but once floor space was relinquished, it was gone. In designing this middle school library, however, I argued that floor space at a certain number of dollars per square foot be traded in for a computer network running throughout the building. Why?

Information has gone digital – no question. Already some speculate that 90% of the world’s information resides in an electronic form. Our media centers already reflect this. Our school media centers have online encyclopedias, real time connections to the outside world through interactive television and the Internet, searchable databases of full-text periodicals, and movies and music that are streamed to us as digital files. Our spaces hold powerful equipment that allows students to produce information in digital formats – movies, photographs, webpages, and multimedia presentations. The card catalog is no longer a wooden box of drawers but a spinning platter of rust coated plastic with a keyboard attached. Information exists ever less in physical space, and ever more in “virtual space” made of electrons, not atoms.

Does physically reducing the size of the media center mean our jobs as T-Ls are becoming less important? That depends on how well our profession accepts the role of Virtual Librarian. One of the beauties of digital information is that it travels extremely well. Connect two computers with copper wire, glass fiber or a wireless transmitter and the transfer of information between them is nearly instantaneous. If we accept that our resources are legitimate in electronic formats and that they reside in virtual space, stringing wire or creating wireless networks to all the classroom computers in our school makes the entire school the media center. Wow!. If we place wireless transmitters throughout the school and give students wireless laptops, every desk in the school becomes our media center. Double wow! Create a library webpage that links to our library’s online resources and our students’ homes become our media center. Triple wow! Our physical media center may have shrunk, but our virtual library has expanded explosively. Our virtual presence can be everywhere – 24/7. Will there be any stopping us? I think not!

What might some of the functions of the Virtual Librarian be? Network administrator certainly. Staff trainer in using e-mail, remote file storage, and Internet search engines. An electronic information evaluator and selector. A teacher who can develop information evaluation skills in her staff and students. Certainly webmaster for the library, if not the school. When information is transmitted to a class instead of the class being transmitted to the media center, where should the Virtual Librarian be working with students? Simply, everywhere – both physically and as a “cybrarian.”

I strongly maintain that the only way we will remain viable as a profession (and have any job security) is to offer indispensable services no one else in the school can or will. The Virtual Librarian delivers such services.

Our professional literature does a wonderful job of outlining how the T-L can support restructuring and educational reform. Efforts in problem-based education, whole language instruction, inclusive education, constructivist education, brain-based teaching, diversity awareness, and global education are all getting help from the library profession. Libraries are essential even to “back-to-basics” movements: we have a major impact in making sure all students can read and problem solve.

Yet it seems too often the teacher-librarian is one of the last to leap on the tailgate of educational change rather than the one to sit in the driver’s seat. And unfortunately we are ignored by some staff development activities all together because we are not viewed as being “real teachers.”

T-Ls need to become inhabitants of an educational crowsnest. Like the sailor high atop a ship’s mast, a critical role of our profession is to scan the horizon for educational, technological, and societal changes that will impact our students, teachers, schools, and communities. And we must morph our library programs to support those changes.

Crowsnesters read. They read a variety of general professional education periodicals, not just library journals. Crowsnesters know the latest debates on educational listservs on the Internet. They download challenging newsletters (and blogs) from the web. Crowsnesters seek, read and use research about best practices in all fields of education, not just library science.

Crowsnesters travel. They raid other schools for great ideas. Crowsnesters regularly attend professional conferences and technology workshops and computer seminars. They take classroom teachers and principals and board members and students with them when they travel, so that when exciting things are seen or heard, others share the dreams and visions.

Crowsnesters learn and teach and learn some more. Once it was enough for information-technology specialists to garner a body of specialized knowledge and then, like wizards, ration it out to patrons who needed it, often creating resentment in the process. Advances in technology have made the “wizard” approach to service unethical. Everyone needs not just information, but the ability to harvest it and work with it and use it. The most valuable person in an organization today is not the one who knows the most, but the one who can learn the best, and can teach that which is learned to others. The Crowsnester who empowers others through teaching useful skills, concepts and applications, instead of being resented like the “wizard,” is valued and respected and, yes, sometimes even liked.

I strongly maintain that the only way we will remain viable as a profession (and have respect among our fellow professionals) is to offer indispensable services no one else in the educational organization can or will. The Crowsnester delivers such services.

T-Ls and other educators write many wonderful visionary documents. But like inspirational sermons heard only by the choir, do the words in them actually changing anyone or anything? Unless the T-L accepts the role of Rabblerouser, these visions of improved education will never become reality.

I have a personal list of things I believe absolutely stink about schools and society, and that something should damn well be done about. Here’s a partial list:
  • schools don’t serve all children equally, and many children not at all
  • schools lack effective leadership
  • classrooms lack excitement and stimulation
  • most learning is not motivating or enjoyable
  • children are treated as second class citizens, especially in regard to information
  • media and technology programs (which are child-centered) are not adequately funded
  • censors get too much attention, and promoters of intellectual freedom get too little
  • ethical use of technology is not taught
  • children are not being taught to think for themselves
I could go on. One doesn’t have to agree with a thing on this list, but I think everyone must believe schools and society can be made better.

The T-L’s role as Rabblerouser is not one of critic, but one of builder. Remember the Noah Principal: “No more prizes for predicting rain. Prizes only for building arks.” Rabblerousers have a plan, vision or principle around which the roused rabble can rally. If your budget were magically increased 1000%, do you have an improvement plan you could immediately start implementing? If you were suddenly given total control of you school’s staff development program, do you know what you’d teachers to learn? If you were made King or Queen of your school, what decrees you would immediately enact?

A clear vision, well-articulated by the T-L, can have a tremendous impact on a school. The T-L as Rabblerouser can fill a leadership void. We’re especially good Rabblerousers because:
  • Our programs impact the whole school climate.
  • We advocate information skills and individualized learning for children of all ability levels.
  • We have few subject area biases and territories to protect.
  • We’re extremely charming and wise (and often very good looking to boot).
Rabblerousers must challenge the system to be effective agents for change, and do so by working on school governing committees, leading staff development activities, and exemplifying great teaching practices. Rabblerousers are involved in curriculum revision. They write for their district newsletters and talk to their parent-teacher organizations. They hold offices in their unions and other professional associations. Rabblerousers are politically involved. They form strong networks with fellow Rabblerousers inside and outside their profession.

It’s impossible to be a good T-L without being a Rabblerouser. We need to remind those who enter our profession that it takes just as much courage to be an educational Rabblerouser as it does to be a police officer, firefighter, or soldier. It’s not even a role one adopts only as a T-L, but as a caring, involved member of the human race who has passions beyond oneself.

I strongly maintain that the only way we will remain viable as a profession (and sleep with a clear conscience) is to offer indispensable services no one else in society can or will. The Rabblerouser delivers such services.

Consider this school year, the one or two or three new things you can do in each of these roles. As Mother Teresa once said, “We can do no great things – only small things with great love.” And those small things DO add up both for our profession, our students and our societies.

Sidebar: Surviving Educational Transformation
Surviving Corporate Transition (William Bridges, William Bridges and Associates, 1990.) is a pretty awful title for a pretty good book. While Bridge’s audience and examples are from the business world, much of the theory he extols works just fine in schools and should be heeded by T-Ls in this time educational transformation.

Downsizing, restructuring, role redefinition, site-based management, local empowerment, accountability, consolidation, co-location, and TQM seem to be the current educational buzzwords of choice. The number of T-Ls in my region has decreased, while the amount of work asked of those who remain has grown. As society changes because of the information explosion, everyone’s role in it will change - including yours and mine. I happen to be rather fond of getting a paycheck, and I know everyone’s position is vulnerable to cuts. Bridges offers three valuable suggestions for keeping one’s job:

1) Head for the edge. The people who work along the interface between the organization and its external environment are the sources of all the information that is needed to survive in this rapidly changing world.

Are you, as your building’s information expert, capitalizing on this important task? Do you read, filter and direct information to your patrons (including your administrators) who not only use it, but become dependent upon it? As information moves from print to digital format, are you the “interface” to those resources?

Are you the school’s emissary to other organizations in the community that also provide services to your “customers?” Do you facilitate the use of other libraries in the community? Can you tap into the information services and professionals of local post-secondary institutions, government agencies, business, and health care organizations?

Do you “add value” to the information search process?

2) Forget jobs and look for work that needs doing. Security in turbulent times comes from doing something important for the organization, not from filling a long-standing position.

The most successful T-Ls I know listen carefully to teachers’ and principals’ problems. As we all know, most teachers aren’t shy about sharing them. What in your building is important and may not be getting done? Interdisciplinary units? Staff development in technology? Care and circulation of equipment? Running a site-based council? Parent-teacher organization chair? Building newsletter editor? Student council advising? Peer counseling? Computer network management?

I’ve always had an affinity for jobs no one else wanted - especially those my boss liked to pass off. If my job and someone else’s job were both on the line, my supervisor’s reasoning might go thus: “If I fire Johnson, I’ll have to find someone else to do all those nasty jobs he’s taken on, or I’ll have to do them myself. Hmmm, let’s see who else I might axe instead…” (If they fire me, I want people to rue the day!)

I would not be too narrow in my definition of a professional task either. It might be better to perform vital clerical or technical work than an unnecessary “professional” duty. But then lobby for support.

3) Diversify your efforts into several areas of activity. Like diversified investors, people with composite careers can balance a loss in one area with a gain in another. Consequently, they are not subject to the total disasters faced by people who have all their bets on one square.

Some T-Ls I know are removing their teaching endorsement from their license. Now if you feel that if you can’t have a job as a teacher-librarian, you’d rather not have a job in education at all, that’s exactly the thing to do. But unless you have a real good feeling about the last lottery ticket you bought, be aware that the employment in the “real world” is not always that rosy either. (I knew somebody who worked in business once and he complained a lot about bad bosses, inhuman demands, long hours, and poor pay. Remember Dilbert works in the corporate world, not education.)

The smart thing for those of us who must work to do is to add areas of endorsement and expertise. Coaching, English as a Second Language, administration, reading endorsements, and technology certifications, all make one a more valuable employee. In the same vein, a list of successfully completed projects, grants, or workshops show administrators that you are versatile. If your media job is reduced or eliminated, a great track record betters your chances of the school finding a new place for you or of your securing work in another district.

“Making Change Work For You” is the chapter from which these nuggets of wisdom were lifted, and the title captures the spirit of true proactivity. Remember the Chinese word for crisis is made of two separate characters: one meaning danger, the other meaning opportunity. Do everything you can to stay in the library and in education. All students need great people like you in their lives!

Posted on Monday, July 16, 2007 at 08:41AM by Registered CommenterDoug Johnson in | CommentsPost a Comment

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>