Utah State Study Reveals Need for Teacher-Librarian Collaboration on Information Literacy Instruction | Backtalk

In 2022, librarians at Utah State University collected 58 survey responses and conducted 10 interviews with high school librarians and teachers in Utah to better understand information literacy instruction happening within our high schools. Along with investigating the skills being prioritized, our study looked at how teachers and librarians are collaborating as fellow educators.

Katie Strand and Niki Fullmer
(l. to r.) Katie Strand and Niki Fullmer

The flexibility of the library profession has allowed us to evolve to meet the changing needs of users, but what role does that play in the steady removal of librarians from K–12 schools? Our ambiguity becomes problematic when teachers and administrators fail to recognize our strengths and we don’t advocate to better position ourselves. We need to make our expertise clear, so it can be harnessed in our educational systems to empower students and support teachers.

In 2022, librarians at Utah State University collected 58 survey responses and conducted 10 interviews with high school librarians and teachers in Utah to better understand information literacy instruction happening within our high schools. Along with investigating the skills being prioritized, our study looked at how teachers and librarians are collaborating as fellow educators. We naturally felt that collaboration would be essential, as school librarians have typically earned both a teaching certificate and a master’s degree in library science, making them uniquely qualified to instruct students on information literacy skills and concepts. However, our research quickly revealed an unfortunate reality.

Information literacy education, at its core, is about teaching students to be critical thinkers and responsible information consumers and creators. These skills are relevant and crucial in every subject area. On both the survey and interviews, educators agreed on the importance of information literacy instruction, while also noting the lack of critical information seeking skills that today’s students possess. As one high school teacher explained of students’ readiness for college level research, “Google and Wikipedia have all the information that they’re ever going to need, according to them, so they’re woefully unprepared.” Having access to copious amounts of information means that this generation, more than any before, must develop strong critical thinking skills.

However, responses revealed a conflict of data when we asked teachers more about their process for teaching these skills.

Paradoxical finding #1: 71 percent of surveyed educators said it was both the teacher’s and librarian’s role to teach students information literacy skills, but only 37 percent reported that they collaborate with librarians to teach students these skills.

Paradoxical finding #2: The vast majority of surveyed educators rated their confidence levels very high in their abilities to teach information literacy skills to their students; however, none said their students have strong information literacy skills by graduation.

To sum up, 1) teachers feel that it is a shared responsibility to teach information literacy skills, but they don’t actually share the responsibility; and 2) teachers feel they are qualified to teach students these skills but are not at all confident in their students’ skills upon graduation.

If teachers feel that students are not prepared, it might be time to try something drastic, like utilizing the expertise of school librarians, rather than shutting down school libraries. As information professionals, librarians should be considered valuable assets in helping students meet information literacy outcomes, and one of the first resources consulted when teachers and students are struggling.

We found that this lack of collaboration largely stems from a lack of understanding of the librarian’s role within their educational systems. For most people, it’s difficult to see beyond books when thinking about the profession, and our schools are no different. One school librarian shared, “I don’t think [instructors] always know what I do, and that can be really hard.” So how do both professions find the time and space to explain the role of a librarian in education and information literacy?

Administrators should be facilitating teacher/librarian connections and collaborations. However, our research demonstrated that school administrators are also unsure of what being a librarian entails.

When there is a lack of understanding of how to utilize the school librarian, administrators resort to assigning the tasks that don’t fit under other teachers’ roles. One teacher said, “The librarian does a lot of what I consider ancillary or additional work. She’s also in charge of testing for the entire school, and so that impacts our ability to communicate and our ability to work with each other often.” Administration’s confusion about what librarians do inevitably trickles down to the teachers. Teachers are not sure how or even if they should collaborate with librarians. This leads to hesitancy in building real partnerships that could ultimately improve instruction efforts. When asked about teacher-librarian collaborations, one teacher wrote:

“Knowing how to utilize her skills can be difficult. I know in my first couple of years teaching that I also felt kind of intimidated to go and talk to her, not because of her personality or anything, just because I felt like I should know how to prep. I should know how to teach this. I should know how to prepare these lessons. And I felt like I was asking somebody else to do my job. So, I think understanding what she's there for is also really important.”

One of the most impactful areas that librarians can and should be working in seems to be the one that teachers and administrators are hesitant to ask them to take on. Laminating posters for a classroom is a perfectly acceptable ask, but talking about pedagogical strategies for teaching students complex research skills is felt to be outside of their purview. Somehow schools have managed to paradoxically take too much and not enough advantage of K–12 librarians’ expertise. Administration defines and reinforces the librarian’s value within the school. Administrators need to take the necessary steps to meaningfully integrate librarians into the curriculum by leading discussions on how information literacy is woven throughout course outcomes and providing the time and space needed for librarians and teachers to build mutually collaborative relationships.

The lack of understanding of how fortunate schools are to have these highly educated professionals is no longer something we can shrug off. Applying the knowledge of the educators who participated in our research, we recommend school librarians begin with the following:

  • Initiate strategic outreach to new faculty
  • Provide concrete examples of information literacy lessons you have taught or would like to teach with future teacher collaborators
  • Explicitly communicate your skillset to administrators, explaining how you can best support student learning

Not integrating and collaborating with school librarians does a disservice to our students who will be joining a world of ever-changing information without the tools to decipher their information needs.

Katie Strand is First-Year Experience Librarian, Utah State University; and Niki Fullmer is Educational Outreach Librarian, University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

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