top of page
Confident Female Teacher

The Librarian in the Classroom

Library Media Connection
October 2009

“School libraries are truly the red-headed stepchild of the library world,” Doug Johnson lamented to American Libraries about the neglect of school libraries by public and academic libraries.  And when the rest of the library world does notice school librarians, we are sometimes criticized for our emphasis on teaching.  Dr. Keith Swigger, Dean of the School of Library and Information Studies at Texas Women’s University, caused a stir in the October 1999 issue of School Library Journal when he said that school librarians should “focus on serving their clients instead of trying to help them master information systems.”  In other words, when a patron asks for something, we should get it for them rather than try to teach them how to find it themselves.  Yet school librarians are often the red-headed stepchild in our own schools as well.  Although we have teaching certificates, we are not considered teachers.  When a class comes into the library, we “present” lessons and “assist” the students.   But teaching?  We may be librarians in a school setting, but we are not considered teachers. 

School librarians teach through collaboration with the classroom teacher, who comes to the library with a content assignment and the librarian infuses it with information skills lessons.  But this type of collaboration is often hindered by various obstacles, including the teacher’s reluctance to devote the time needed to achieve it. Keith Curry Lance argued in the October 2007 issue of School Library Journal that collaboration may not always be feasible, and that “we risk frustrating people by continually urging them to do something that they’re really not in a position to do.” Lance observed that the school librarian who “spent more time in leadership activities–like meeting their principals, going to faculty meetings, serving on committees–were likely to spend more time in collaboration.”  Moreover, Lance argued, “if you’re in a public school and you want a teacher to collaborate with you, they’d better perceive you as a teacher or it’s just not going to happen.” 

School librarians teach through collaboration, but we cannot collaborate until we are viewed as teachers.  Attending faculty or committee meetings is not enough.  Teachers are in the classroom.  “School librarians want to be teachers–just not in the classroom, thank you,” Dr. Swigger claimed.  But a librarian who wants to be viewed as a teacher needs to step out of the library and enter this world, even for a short time.  Having a classroom connection will change a  library  more profoundly than any other activity or program.  When my co-librarian and I began teaching elective classes ten years ago, our library program became more effective, relevant, and enjoyable as a result.  Our classroom teaching developed stronger relationships with our students and staff, helped us gain a broader understanding of the school curriculum and goals, and made the library an essential part of the school community.

School librarians should first understand the importance of their roles as teachers.  Brian Kenney’s editorial in the April 2007 issue of School Library Journal reminded us that “school librarians are unique.  They focus on the relationship between libraries and learning.  They believe squarely in the educational role that libraries and librarians can play in young people’s lives.” What school librarians do on a daily basis--teach kids how to be independent information users--actually benefits public and academic librarians.  When I go to the public library and see one of my students independently using the online catalog, I am proud of the work we do.  We perform our work so quietly, however, that no one realizes what we have accomplished.  When a student asks for books on Ancient Greece, I could do as Dr. Swigger recommended and take them to the resources.  Instead, school librarians perform a slick maneuver where it appears that we, too, are working to find the books.  “Let’s do a subject search.  Oh, we have twenty-five books, and they all begin with the call number  940.2.  Let’s go browse that shelf...” Students believed that they have acquired this knowledge themselves, while public and academic librarians take it for granted that everyone knows how to navigate “information systems.”   We know that we teach library skills every time we are asked for help. 

School librarians also need to understand the difference between teaching in the library and in the classroom. Before I was a librarian, I was a high school English teacher and used library research to extend the curriculum.  I was so excited about the library’s potential to enrich learning that I decided to pursue this full time.  But being a librarian was not like being a teacher taking her class to the library.  Seeing students once every two weeks did not establish relationships with them, and I found that library lessons were not as effective as a result.  Students often didn’t even know my name, let alone feel as comfortable or confident in me as they did their teachers.  When I tried to make students accountable for their skills or behavior they looked at me with a mixture of surprise and resentment.  And if the class did not go well, they left the library with a negative impression of both it and me, and this would remain until the next time they visited.  When a lesson does not go well in the classroom, there is always the next day to make amends, and the relationship between teacher and students steadily grows despite these momentary setbacks.  Classroom teaching, like any relationship, progresses at a sometimes bumpy rate.  Eventually, familiarity breeds comfort and understanding.  I missed that. 

The school librarian who wants a classroom connection should look for staffing opportunities.  In Montana, library staffing is based on student enrollment.  With our middle school population of roughly 600, we are allowed 1.5 librarians, and eleven years ago I was hired to be the .5.  At the end of the year, my co-librarian proposed to our principal that one of us be allowed to teach elective classes in order to make us both full-time.  Our principal liked the idea.  She wouldn’t have to hire another part-time teacher, who often left when a full-time position became available elsewhere, and having the half-time librarian in the school the entire day would create more continuity and communication between us.  Moreover, full-time staff members were usually more committed, experienced, and satisfied.  

School staffing is a fine art, understood only by administrators and personnel directors.  Our principal worked out the courses and FTE, and we tried to make sure we still had the required amount of time in the library.  This was the tricky part.  Because middle school elective classes last from 6 to 8 weeks, it was difficult comparing the number of hours taught to the year-long classes.  We created a chart of class hours and library time for each of us, multiplying the hours for each class by the number of weeks in the year.  When we presented the chart to our principal, however, she simply said, “FTE is difficult to compute.”  Unfortunately, often we simply have to trust our instincts on whether the library is receiving the professional attention it requires.  

This is the main objection we have received from other librarians towards classroom teaching.  Librarians are protective of their professional time, and should be.  Administrators will do whatever it takes to stretch their staffing, and sometimes it is too easy to “borrow” it from the library.  We should not be pulled from the library to cover a class at the last moment because it reinforces the notion that librarians have a clerical position.  But classroom teaching is not substitute teaching.  Our time is actually more carefully protected when we have a teaching schedule, and people are less likely to pull us away from it.  Because we teach elective classes, there is enough flexibility in scheduling  that one of us is always in the library and we have lunch breaks and prep times.  But the nature of the school librarians’ job is to respond to the needs of others, so this frequently changes and we do our best to adjust to this.  

Another disadvantage of teaching elective classes is that they frequently change.  We have taught Communication Arts, Reading Workshop, Writing Workshop,  Information Skills, Advanced Information Skills,  Reading Strategies, Vocabulary Workshop, Enrichment, and created a new curriculum for each one.  But the advantage of this is a better understanding of the school curriculum and its goals and needs.  When I taught Writing Workshop, I realized that we had very few writing resources, and beefed up that part of the collection. I used literature circles in my Reading Workshop class, which helped me when my teachers began using literature circles in their own classrooms.  Reading Strategies gave me a better understanding of the particular needs of struggling readers, so I developed a collection of fiction with strong appeal at a lower reading level. 

Some classes provided an opportunity to incorporate library skills directly into the curriculum.  6th grade Information Skills was a required six-week course in computer skills and keyboarding, and in the eight years that we have taught it has evolved into a true course in understanding “information systems.”  We teach word processing and presentation software in conjunction with research using books and the Internet.  Students learn not only how to search for information, but how to evaluate it for accuracy, reliability and currency.  Despite Dr. Swigger’s claim that “understanding how to use [information systems] should not be the goal or end in itself,” students are already using information, mainly from the Internet, and using it poorly.  Each year, we provide each 6th grade student with some tools to manage information better.  And in the classroom we can do this more thoroughly by monitoring each student’s understanding.

The main advantage of classroom teaching is the relationships we develop with our students.  Through Information Skills, we get to know every 6th grader in our school, a relationship that continues through 8th grade.  We know each other’s names, we know each other’s quirks and needs, we understand how to work together.  Students feel comfortable approaching me for a book recommendation, and confident that I understand them well enough to make a good one.   When we teach a library lesson, they give us the same attention and respect as their classroom teachers, because we are classroom teachers.  Rather than today’s guest speaker, we play an important role in their educational lives.  They are far more likely to ask for help from the teacher they had for six weeks rather than the librarian they only see occasionally. 

This relationship extends to the staff as well. When we teach in the classroom, even as little as one period for one six-week term, we have worked in the trenches.  We have created lesson plans and rubrics, assigned grades, and talked to parents about their child’s progress. Teachers ask us for insight into the students we have shared and get ideas and resources for lessons we have taught.   They see the library as an extension of their classrooms because we are not isolated from the school community.  Leadership positions continue to multiply in the school system, but the leaders who inspire the most confidence have been in the classroom.  The school librarian who joins them will earn the respect and camaraderie essential in building collaborative relationships.

School libraries are not like other libraries.  Our business is education, and specifically the educational needs of its district.  The school community needs a librarian who understands its needs and can fill them.  We can advertise our importance through websites, newsletter articles, and annual reports, or we can demonstrate it through our work.  The librarian who teaches in the classroom will gain knowledge of the school community’s needs and its confidence and respect.


Achterman, Doug.  “The Sower.”  School Library Journal.  October 2007.

Kenney, Brian.  “Where in the World is Joyce Valenza?”  School Library Journal.  April 2007.   

Swigger, Dr. Keith.  “Librarian, Teach Thyself.”  School Library Journal. October1999.

The Librarian in the Classroom: Work
bottom of page