Popular Culture in the School Library: Enhancing Literacies Traditional and New

Article excerpt

In an evolving landscape of traditional and new literacies, the roles of the school library and teacher librarian are changing. In order to support instruction in multiple literacies, teacher librarians must rethink both collections and services. Materials featuring popular culture influences are explored for their relevance to several types of literacy instruction. The inclusion of popular culture materials in school library collections can support achievement in traditional literacy while facilitating connection with everyday literacy practices. Popular culture materials also provide instructional opportunities for critical media literacy as well as information literacy. Popular culture texts are worthy of inclusion in school library collections for reasons enhancing both pedagogy and enjoyment.

Who are 21st century learners? In the United States and around the world, teacher librarians are seeking to understand 21st century learners and their unique needs and challenges. While the nature of information and the introduction of collaborative technologies have added new responsibilities to the teacher librarian's job, the need for literacy achievement remains constant. Teacher librarians and school library programs are two of the primary supporters of literacy in schools. However, we cannot assume that 20th century literacy instruction will serve the needs of 21st century learners effectively. As a teacher librarian studying children's language and literacy education, I have learned that the notion of literacy is changing. This generation of learners coupled with the evolving modes of text encourages questions about literacy in today's world. What does literacy mean in the 21st century? How do changing notions of literacy impact school libraries? What impact do the "new literacies" have on school library collections and programs? There is no simple answer to these questions. Each topic could easily fill books, or endless screens of blogs and wikis, as the case may be.

Although 21st century learners are diverse, they, like many other generations, love popular culture and the media. Americans watch roughly four hours of television per day (Nielsen Company, 2006b). Four of the top ten grossing movies of 2006 in the United States were animated films geared toward children and two others featured superheroes (Nielsen Company, 2006a). The United States is not alone in these trends. Children's television channels span much of the globe. A scan of recent top movies in many countries will likely include several that are appropriate for or made specifically for children. Beyond television and film, students engage with popular culture through music, video games, websites, and many other outlets. Whether they enjoy Asterix, Hannah Montana, Sonic the Hedgehog, Pokémon, or any of the numerous other global and local icons, today's learners are avid fans of popular culture. In the past, popular culture has often been left outside the American classroom in favor of more traditional modes and topics of study. As teacher librarians renew the vision for our profession in a new century, the question arises: Should characters from popular culture be included in our collections?

For the purposes of this discussion, I will define popular culture characters narrowly, including those characters that either started out or gained much of their popularity in the world outside of traditional print literature, through such media as television, video games, movies, toys and comics, often entering the world of books later as a franchise of their fame. In addition to the examples mentioned above, SpongeBob SquarePants, Barbie, and the range of Disney characters are some notable figures in this category, as are many superheroes and other comic characters. These characters are featured on everything from bed linen and breakfast cereal boxes to action figures and office supplies. Books are also commonplace in the merchandising of characters. …