School libraries are much more than books. They are evolving spaces at the forefront of connected learning and hubs of creativity that spark real-world interests, from local culture to STEM, writes journalist Jessica Willis.
The teacher librarians who work within school libraries are highly qualified – the only teaching role that requires a post graduate degree in a school – and are highly valuable leaders in education.
IEUA-QNT members and teacher librarians Louise Maniaty and Sarah McCallan (pictured above) have almost two decades’ combined experience specialising as teacher librarians. Both entered the profession due to a passion for education, young people and literacy.
Maniaty started out as a classroom teacher, completing postgraduate study while working.
“As a child I loved reading and I wanted to share that love of books and the escape a good book can bring,” Maniaty said.
“Teacher librarians play a big part in supporting schools’ reading culture by providing a well resourced and welcoming library.
“It was important for me to have a wealth of classroom experience so that I can properly support the needs of teachers.”
McCallan took an alternative career path into her current role as teacher librarian, originally working as a qualified librarian in university and government libraries for 15 years before gaining her teaching qualification.
“Most people would have an initial teacher qualification then complete a master’s degree to become a teacher librarian,” McCallan said.
“I took a different route and completed a Graduate Diploma in Library and Information Studies at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) after graduating from my undergraduate degree.
“I wanted to become a teacher, and specifically a teacher librarian, because I saw it not only as a dynamic and creative profession, but as something that is increasingly important in a world where traditional literacy rates are declining and the omniscient and seemingly boundless information on the internet demands that we use critical thinking skills more than ever.”
At the same time, there is a steady decline in resources dedicated to stocking and staffing school libraries.
“The latest panic about literacy levels seems to be in direct opposition to the importance placed on libraries, reading and teacher librarians,” McCallan said.
“I have been very lucky in my current role to have a supportive leadership team, but it doesn’t mean that my role isn’t at risk of erosion, as I have always had a high teaching load which leaves less and less time for the specialised library teaching and teacher support that I should be doing.”
A 2013 study conducted by QUT found school library funding and resourcing varies greatly between schools, states and education systems.
Many schools are underfunded and specialist teacher librarian positions are declining, compounded by inadequate funding Australia wide, the study found.
Another study found increasing library staffing numbers are associated with better results on high stakes testing – where school librarians were lost, there was “likely to be a negative influence on student learning and achievement”.
There is also abundant research showing the positive impact a qualified teacher librarian has on literacy outcomes, independent of socio-economic factors.
School librarians have a critical role in mitigating the impact of socio-economic constraints on student reading achievement which has flow-on effects to all other areas of learning.
School librarians fostering connection
Teacher librarians are integral in fostering connection between staff and students from different areas of the school community, transcending age, learning levels and social groups.
Libraries not only offer open spaces for collaborative and individual learning, they are also safe havens for students who need to escape from the rough and tumble of the playground – a third place to learn, create, gather socially and relax.
“Some of the joys of being a teacher librarian are the connections you make with teachers and students throughout the entire course of their schooling,” Maniaty said. “I love matching kids to books, helping them find the right books, seeing students read a chapter book for the first time and sharing in the happiness that brings.
“I love being able to buy books for students that they might not otherwise get to read – a good book collection is so important.
“I believe it is so important to have a welcoming, safe space for kids to come to and enjoy making the library that place for students and teachers,” she said.
McCallan explained school libraries also provide significant resources for classroom teachers – from print to digital – and qualified teacher librarians are trained to help support and enhance classroom teaching.
“I love to be able to work with other teachers to help them in their work, particularly in the areas of teaching literacy and research.
“I love team teaching and collaborating with other teaching professionals to add value to their roles and to the students’ learning.”
Supporting teacher librarians
Supporting teacher librarians both professionally and industrially is important for all education sectors.
Challenges faced by teacher librarians include:
• different arrangements across different schools, sectors and education systems, leading to disparities in working conditions and pay
• unclear guidelines on working arrangements, such as hours of duty, appropriate teaching load and lunchtime duties, and
• increasing cuts to financial resources.
“Professional development is crucial for all professionals, and it is of course very important for teacher librarians,” McCallan said.
“We exist in a working environment where we may be the only library professional, which can be isolating.
“It is important for school leadership teams to understand that having access to professional development, and particularly to supportive networks of like-minded professionals, is key to remaining relevant and refreshed.
“It also means that libraries can continue to remain relevant and useful to school communities and can anticipate any potential environmental threats or digital disruption,” she said.
To Maniaty, professional development is crucial to maintaining a growth mindset and developing new skills to help lead the school community.
“This cannot happen without the right professional development – you can’t share what you don’t know,” she said.
“Industrially, the challenge for teacher librarians in particular is that there is no way to increase pay once you have reached the top scale for teachers, even though you may be leading change and organising resources for a whole school community.
“There is also the challenge of job security and the number of teacher librarian positions not being replaced or put on.
“I am lucky that I work in a school community that values the library greatly.”
Widening disparities between communities
Declining numbers of qualified teacher librarians worries McCallan, particularly in regard to widening disparities between communities with differing socioeconomic statuses.
“I do get worried when I hear more and more that schools are doing without teacher librarians, while others have extra funding for libraries and qualified staff.
“It means there is a disparity in services and educational opportunities for students in these different schools.
Only one university in Australia, Charles Sturt University, still offers a Master of Education (Teacher Librarianship), after QUT phased out its course in 2018.
“There are fewer options for librarianship and teacher librarianship courses at universities in Australia, which I think sadly reflects the lack of importance placed on these roles,” said McCallan.
However, teacher librarians and school libraries are integral in teaching and supporting skills of the future.
Teaching and supporting skills of the future
McCallan said she believes the proliferation of information on the internet and the ease with which we can access all sorts of material has led many educational leaders to think that libraries and librarians are defunct.
However, it has made school libraries critical, now more than ever, as places of multi-disciplinary learning where problem solving, research and analysis, and critical thinking skills are taught by specialist teacher librarians.
Teacher librarians are ensuring that school libraries are centres for clubs, workshops, technology, creativity and, of course, getting lost in books.
McCallan runs extra writing workshops and encourages students to engage with authors, and Maniaty said she has learnt skills such as stop-motion videography, picture editing and coding, as well as understanding all types of digital devices.
“A large part of my role involves technology, and I enjoy the change and the challenges that has brought to the role,” Maniaty said.
“I have had to learn a lot about computers and networks, how to solve tech problems and how to be an onsite tech support resource.
“It has been very important for me to learn these things to support the wider school community with the introduction of the digital technology curriculum and with the amount of technology there is in schools now.”
Teacher librarians have the capacity to provide tailored lessons and classroom support for their school communities, saving time and potentially decreasing workloads for classroom teachers.
These are all aspects which will elevate Australian education and ensure our students are well prepared to succeed in the future.