This article appears in the November 2004 issue of the BC School Trustees Association publication  Education Leader

It is also in available as Nov-04.pdf file.

Form versus Function: Improving British Columbia’s School Libraries

The BC Coalition for School Libraries has a very lofty mission statement: "to advance literacy, culture and student achievement through strong school library programs in British Columbia".  This small group of parents, educators, publishers and librarians is concerned, along with parents and educators all over the province, that provision of quality school library programs in BC is rapidly deteriorating.  We believe that our lobby efforts may encourage the Ministry, Districts and schools to apply the necessary resources to achieve the objectives outlined in our mission statement.

Every elementary school in British Columbia has a library, but there are many configurations.  There are tiny little book rooms, grand expansive spaces created long before the current limits on school construction, and basic classroom size spaces crammed with books, tables and chairs and the traditional circulation counter.  There are spaces that have been re-created from other functions ? offices, courtyards and multi-purpose rooms, while some are re-shaped by the addition of computer labs.  Every new school has a library as part of its design. What is it that these libraries do? How do they contribute to the learning outcomes the school has adopted?

However, the issue is not about space but function. We have many school libraries that really have little to do with the schools they are meant to serve.  How can a library manned by a part-time clerk or .2 teacher-librarian "advance literacy, culture and student achievement" with an outdated collection largely supported by donated materials ? not selected based on units of study or the needs of students engaged in that curriculum?  A new school in the Sooke District launched its school library in September with so few materials it is not yet lending books.

We all expect that the library will contain books, periodicals, reference materials, videos and kits and computer connections to the Internet.  If we expect that those things will be "learning resources," then it follows that we should expect that the library would play a very important part in the process of teaching and learning in the school.  The school library would be the focus of a program that makes a difference to learners in the school.  If we expect that program to offer quality resources and appropriate instruction in its use and application, we must expect that an educator ?trained as a teacher-librarian, would deliver the school library program. A qualified teacher-librarian must be available to assist both students and other educators to access and benefit from those resources.

Without an orchestrated program, it is difficult to expect the library to engage children and their teachers in meaningful ways.  Few children will be expected to use the
library when it has little or no relationship to the objectives of their classroom or their lives.  As well, the library collection becomes less relevant as teachers find other means to meet their objectives.  The classroom collection, with its obvious limits, becomes central.  It is the teacher-librarian who is key to this "orchestrated program" and it is this specialist who has been taken out of the schools.  Consider what we lose in that action:

• The teacher-librarian plans a comprehensive program of library and research skill development in consultation with teachers.  This is the "cooperative planning" concept that supports the teacher-librarian as they integrate library instruction into curriculum.

• The teacher-librarian makes the library into a literacy centre supporting reading at every level for every child.  The library has always been seen to be a crucial support for reading in a school.

• Blended with reading, the library becomes a cultural centre in the school emphasizing multiculturalism, Canadian perspectives on the world, and unique resources that reflect the school in the community.

• The acquisition of quality learning resources that reflect the demands of the curriculum, teachers and students is a prime responsibility for the teacher-librarian.  This process demands interaction between teacher and librarian to ensure that every child will find appropriate resources in the collection.

• The teacher-librarian must also administer the library and direct its staff.  Materials must be purchased, catalogued and made ready for circulation so they are made as accessible as possible to every student.  The electronic catalogue must be maintained and updated.

For many small schools a library is a method of assembling scarce resources for shared use.  Even in small schools with limited resources sharing teacher-librarian time with another school might remediate some of the deficiencies of such a circumstance.  [In one District on Vancouver Island, 2 teacher-librarians serve 18 schools!]

We know that many "studies demonstrate, with great clarity, that an investment in school libraries and teacher-librarians provides the sorts of dividends educators now seek from public school funding: better student achievement, improved literacy and reading skills, and enhanced readiness to succeed in a post-secondary environment" . In this province, literacy has been given a high priority by the Premier and the Minister of Education, yet school libraries have not been identified as important to the process of developing a literate society. It is often the librarian in the library who helps the non-literate student discover the joy of reading. The infrastructure ?the school libraries, are in place but the teacher-librarians necessary to make them work are missing.

To effect the Coalition’s mission: "to advance literacy, culture and student achievement through strong school library programs in British Columbia" a substantial reassignment of priorities would need to be undertaken at all levels.  The provision of school library programs is not equal or accessible to all children in B.C. .  It is not possible to advance the school library program without direct recognition of its importance by the Ministry of Education. We need strong provincial standards to ensure that all children have equal opportunity to engage quality school library programs.

The BC Coalition for School Libraries welcomes your support.  It may be reached through: by phone at 604-683-5321 or by mail at BCCSL, 150-900 Howe Street, Vancouver, BC, V6Z 2M4

Donald Hamilton is the Chair of the BC Coalition for School Libraries.  He recently retired from the University of Victoria where he was Education Librarian for many years.  In that position he developed many programs for the education of teacher-librarians.  He also serves as a trustee on the Greater Victoria Public Library Board.





...because student achievment is the bottom line...