We’ve all had to answer some version of this question over and over, right?
When I went to library school 14 years ago, I was excited to be a buyer and recommender of books. I still love books, you guys -- giving kids their next favorite book is one of the best parts of my job. But a lot of people we meet, when asked “What is a school librarian?”, still think the answer is, “A school librarian is the keeper of the books.” We all know the problems with that mindset. For one thing, paying a person whose entire job is books is too limited for the 21st century school. “Keeper of the books” sounds low-tech and not sexy at all.
The problem with that answer, I found, was the very breadth that had seemed so appealing. It’s too easy for administrators to slot “Information Professionals” into the latest buzzwordy priority, and suddenly I was spending all day fixing the Chromebook carts and teaching teachers how to use Google Docs. That’s important work, but were all those tech emergencies the best use of my expertise? I needed to sell a more specific vision.
So what is a school librarian? I am a teacher of research skills.
Let’s take the second part first: research skills. In today’s world, being smart about looking stuff up online is as much a daily skill as writing. But unlike writing, most core curricula assume it’s not a thing we need to teach deliberately. They’re digital natives, right? They’ve got this internet stuff in the bag!
Of course, they don’t. We’ve all seen articles about the recent Stanford study of student internet research. 80% of middle school students weren’t able to tell a “sponsored content” advertisement from a news article. 80% of high school students accepted a photo posted on social media as evidence of the effects of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, without ever questioning its source.
The Common Core Literacy standards recognize the importance of research skills. But Common Core doesn’t specify how those standards should be taught, or by whom. That’s where we come in. Our colleagues are experts in social studies or ELA or science; we are experts in up-to-date research skills.
We’re the ones who teach the difference between the Google Featured Snippet and real research. We know that Wikipedia has its uses on your research journey, and that anybody can buy a .org domain; it doesn’t mean the website is owned by a reliable organization. We can suggest concrete strategies for writing an effective Google search, and for choosing from the list of links that result. Research skills are our expertise and our curriculum.
Now let’s go back to the first part: we are teachers. We’ve all heard good teachers should be “guides on the side,” not “sages on the stage.” We can’t teach research skills in a one-day presentation of sources on the classroom stage. We can’t teach them in one research project a year. And we can't teach them without buy-in from classroom teachers.
Kids need consistent expectations in all things, and research is no exception. We need to advocate for integrating research skills across the curriculum, every time a teacher tells a student to “search that up.”
Imagine this ideal school. Students do multiple projects a year with a research component, whether in social studies or Spanish or science. Each project is co-designed by the subject teacher and the librarian to build on the skills from the last project. Often the librarian is there themselves, teaching mini-lessons and guiding students through their research process during independent work time.
Research lessons happen authentically -- when a student needs to answer questions in order to move forward with a project. Students hear the same message at every grade, in every class, from every teacher: source evaluation matters, critical thinking is critical, citing your sources isn’t optional. Students learn to be the critical thinkers who will change the world. This is the ideal we should be advocating for.
But start where you are. I’ve had success embedding myself as a co-teacher in class projects, often for weeks at a time.
But we teach at schools of every size and schedule, and what works for me may not for you. You may need to maximize your capacity by teaching your colleagues how to teach research. You may build partnerships with your classroom teacher friends, or get top-down buy-in from the principal or department heads. Find the ways that work at your school. But be clear with everyone that research is your priority.
This election gave us an opportunity. Everybody’s talking about “fake news,” including many of our students. Own that. Teaching our budding citizens the difference between fake news and real news? That’s us. That’s our brand.
We all wear many hats at our schools, and that’s as it should be. But we can’t do everything. If we don’t define ourselves as teachers with a specific curriculum, we let others tell us whether we matter. When anyone asks, “What’s a school librarian?” our answer should be simple and clear.
We’re the research teachers.