The biggest classroom in the building 



Libraries staffed with certified librarians in many schools hold unexploited potential to raise achievement and meet the more rigorous demands of the Common Core.  


This spring, when your school board is debating where to make the inevitable cuts in your district budget, be prepared to go to bat for your school library and the people who staff it.  

Consider these sad figures: 

  • School libraries are some of the most underfunded classrooms in schools (Ballard, 2012). 
  • Nearly 50% of school libraries in Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Oregon, and Utah don’t have a certified school librarian, while the same is true of more than 75% of school libraries in California.
  • Almost 9,000 public schools don’t have any school library, much less a school librarian (American Library Association, 2011).  
  • More than 22,000 public schools with school libraries have neither a full- nor part-time certified school librarian (American Library Association, 2011). 

Do school librarians matter? The statistics would seem to indicate that many decision makers in many schools believe school librarians and even school libraries are expendable, even though the school library is often the largest classroom in a school. 

Mary Ann Bell, a longtime librarian and professor of library science, says a school librarian is like an iceberg. Visitors get a glimpse of what a librarian does when they visit the library, but that’s just the tip. The biggest piece — the important work that only a trained librarian can do properly — is hidden under the surface.  

So here’s some guidance to help you make the case for keeping or expanding the school library in your district. 

What does a school librarian do, and what difference does the school librarian make for teachers, staff, and, most important, for students? 

To start, school librarians are technology experts. They’re trained to know how to use the newest technologies. They know all about iPads, iPods, e-readers, smartboards, apps, and web sites. They know how to create web sites, wikis, prezis, blogs, and vlogs. A school librarian can provide myriad resources to educators, including books, DVDs, periodicals, technology, instruction in how to use that technology, plus knowledge of how to research online and offline. If you need a resource, you might want to check with your school librarian. If they don’t have it, they can probably get it for you. As a resource provider, teacher, and technology expert, the school librarian can provide professional development about a variety of topics.  

What does someone with a master’s degree in library science or with a certification as a school librarian know that others probably won’t? 

In their mixed measures study of Ohio schools, Todd and Kulthau (2005) identified eight areas of help that a trained librarian strategically incorporates in the school library. In addition to serving as agents of resources, skillful librarians know how to support students in developing literacy and lifelong learning interests. Experienced librarians talk to students about what they’re reading and what they should read next. They sell students on ever-widening materials and deepening complexity of texts. As agents of information literacy, librarians are equipped to ground today’s student in information resources and the wise and ethical use thereof. Librarians serve as agents of knowledge construction and the consequent, research-confirmed increase in test scores. 

A school librarian is actually a teacher, technology guru, researcher, and collaboration expert (Hartzell, 2002). Not only does the librarian provide students with access to a multitude of resources for information, he or she also provides an opportunity for learners to experience emerging technologies. 

Think about the following devices and web applications: digital cameras, document cameras, tablets, tablet PCs, and e-readers, wikis, MOOCs, and webcasts. What are the advantages of one over another? What are the most cost-effective devices on the market when it comes to operating costs, maintenance, and versatility? You might want to ask your librarian. They will know the answers to technology questions, and they’ll know how to calibrate them to the school’s staff and students level of technical competence. 

One of the obstacles teachers encounter when presented with new equipment or web-based applications is lack of sufficient training. Nothing is more frustrating to a principal than seeing thousands of dollars worth of technology gathering dust. The librarian can be a principal’s best resource when it comes to finding affordable, ongoing professional development for the faculty. The school librarian is responsible for keeping abreast of the latest tech tools, web sites, and electronic devices (AASL, 2009). A school librarian can provide technology expertise for the staff and also can help provide professional development opportunities and training tailored to faculty needs (Lance, 2001). Today’s school librarians are from a multiliterate generation. As research specialists, school librarians are leaders in educating teachers and students in how to access information, use it, and create new knowledge from a variety of sources in multiple media formats as responsible digital citizens. Books are still a part of what the librarian has to offer, but now the librarian can offer so much more.  

The greatest learning sometimes comes through unstructured just-in-time learning opportunities to which the ever-ready and knowledgeable librarian can respond. The most elusive goal of education — individualized learning — can be a librarian’s strongest agency. Todd and Kulthau’s work revealed that students recognize and care about having a professional school librarian available. “Personal engagement . . . to initiate and enable learning and achievement is a critical component of an effective school library” (2004, p. 1).  

Is there any evidence that students learn more in schools that have school librarians? 

Regardless of how rich or poor a community is, students tend to perform better on reading tests where and when their library programs are in the hands of endorsed librarians. 

The research on school librarians and their association with student test scores is remarkably consistent in its findings: Regardless of how rich or poor a community is, students tend to perform better on reading tests where and when their library programs are in the hands of endorsed librarians. Having a certified, highly qualified professional has repeatedly correlated to increased student achievement in decades of studies of both quantitative and qualitative measures (Kachel, 2011). Furthermore, at schools where library programs gain or maintain an endorsed librarian when school budgets get tight, students tend to excel. At schools where library programs lose or never had an endorsed librarian, students suffer as a result (Lance & Hofschire, 2012). 

Lance and Hofschire confirmed the results of earlier studies regarding the relationship between the employment of highly qualified librarians and Colorado students’ advanced reading levels and added the following: Students scored at the advanced level in 45% of the schools that retained qualified librarians and 49% where schools added qualified librarians (2012). By contrast, only 33% of schools that lost librarians had students who performed at advanced levels and only 29% where schools never had certified librarian staffing.  

Research, technology, professional development, and collaboration may be important pieces of a school librarian’s work, but testing and accountability are at the forefront of education reform. How can school librarians help with that? 

The school library and its certified staff is positioned to be the secret weapon for success when tackling the needs related to Common Core implementation. 

The Common Core represents a tsunami of change, and all K-12 educators must know what those standards involve, regardless of whether they’re working in one of the 45 states that have adopted the standards or in the remaining states that need to increase rigor and depth of instruction. The Common Core standards emphasize literacy. They call for students to “read and comprehend independently and proficiently the kinds of complex texts commonly found in college and careers” (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010, p. 2). Once again, the school library and its certified staff is positioned to be the secret weapon for success when tackling the needs related to Common Core implementation. Librarians have been trained and have been teaching many of the exact skills, particularly with regard to literacy, that the Common Core requires (Achterman, 2010). A strong library program can be integral in the literacy and learning process, from the first day of school through graduation.  

Other than being a leader in literacy, how can the school library help when it comes to the Common Core? 

As quintessential lifelong learners, librarians are reading and digesting research regularly. The standards themselves are complicated and extensive. Most school personnel will need help applying theory to day-to-day classroom teaching. The standards contain detailed plans for the type of literacy instruction and texts to be used. One example is with regard to the standards requiring that teachers and students use more nonfiction texts than in years past. Librarians maintain the best collections of nonfiction available in the marketplace, and they carefully choose the best books based on reviews and applying criteria to evaluate whether a particular book is a good choice for inclusion in the school library and whether it could be used to meet the Common Core.  

While providing the best resources may be the single most difficult part of implementing the Common Core, school librarians can also help by collaborating with staff to raise student reading proficiency. There is no other single individual more strategically positioned to provide such assistance than the school librarian. When teachers are trying to implement the highly structured Common Core requirement regarding mastering complex texts, school librarians can provide examples and help teach them by providing lessons in the library. 

So, if you had to sum it all up, what’s your best elevator speech about why school librarians are important? 

By using the campus librarian’s expertise in technology and teaching, school administrators and teachers can bump up student achievement levels on standardized tests (Hartzell, 2002; Lance, 2001; Lance, 2002). Librarians can open the largest classroom in the building for 24-hour student access. He or she also can provide resources for any and all lessons, including Common Core needs, and the librarian can be a go-to person for professional development. Learning today is information-fueled. Librarians are great filling stations to provide that fuel to students, teachers, and the entire campus. Librarians instruct information consumers to evaluate and apply information in ethical ways to build knowledge. The resources that supply the information are managed, explained, and made accessible by librarians who apply instructional strategies for effective learning. Without a librarian, the fuel might just dry up.  


Achterman, D. (2010). Literacy leadership and the school library. In S. Coatney (Ed.), The many faces of school library leadership (pp. 41-59). Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited. 

American Library Association (ALA). (2011). Presidential task force to focus on school library programs. 

American Association of School Librarians (AASL). (2009). Empowering learners: Guidelines for school library programs. Chicago, IL: Author.  

Ballard, S. (2012). ALA presidential task force: Focus on school libraries. School Library Monthly. 

Hartzell, G. (2002). The principal’s perceptions of school libraries and teacher-librarians. School Libraries Worldwide, 8 (1), 92-110. 

Kachel, D.E. (2011). School library research summarized: A graduate class project. Mansfield, PA: Mansfield University. 

Lance, K.C. (2001). Proof of the power: Quality library media programs affect academic achievement. Multimedia Schools, 8 (4), 14-20. 

Lance, K.C. (2002). What research tells us about the importance of school libraries. Teacher Librarian, 30 (1), 76-78. 

Lance, K.C. & Hofschire, L. (2012). Change in school librarian staffing linked with change in CSAP reading performance, 2005-2011. Denver, CO: Colorado State Library, Library Research Service.  

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common core state standards. Washington, DC: Authors. 

Todd, R.J. & Kulthau, C.C. (2004, January). Student learning through Ohio school libraries, Part 1: How effective school libraries help students. School Libraries Worldwide, 11 (1), 63-88. 



Citation: Kuon, T., Flores, J., & Pickett, J. (2014). The biggest classroom in the building. Phi Delta Kappan, 95 (7), 65-67. 

TRICIA KUON ( is an assistant professor of library science in the College of Education at Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas.
JUANITA FLORES is a doctoral student in the College of Education at Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas.
JANIE PICKETT is a doctoral student in the College of Education at Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas.

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