The Principal's Perceptions of School Libraries and Teacher-Librarians

By Hartzell, Gary | School Libraries Worldwide, January 2002 | Go to article overview
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The Principal's Perceptions of School Libraries and Teacher-Librarians

Hartzell, Gary, School Libraries Worldwide

There is no question that principal support is vital to the establishment and maintenance of a quality library media program. The problem is that support flows from trust, and trust flows from understanding. Many principals do not understand what teacher-librarians really do, nor do they appreciate the potential the library media program has for contributing to student and faculty achievement. Principals' perceptions of school libraries and teacher-librarians have been shaped by four interactive forces. The first is their own experiences in school libraries as children, in which they perceived the library as peripheral to the classroom. The second is the effect of their professional training, in which the library's role in curriculum and instruction was conspicuously absent. The third is the nature of the teacher-librarian's work, which is to enable and empower others. The fourth is the low profile teacher-librarians and school libraries have in the professional literature read by teachers and administrators, which prevents them from updating their sense of what the library really is and can do. The cumulative result is that administrators have only a limited and inaccurate understanding of libraries and teacher-librarians. The only way to change principal perceptions is to assault them directly, repeatedly, and from a multiplicity of directions. Reshaping perceptions takes time and effort and commitment. In the meantime, these erroneous perceptions will continue to guide most principals' relationships with school library media specialists.


Administrators face difficult challenges in their work and in their workplace relationships. Although we all value trust, letting others represent the school to the community, letting them take the lead in curriculum revision, allowing them to structure and administer budgets, hire or fire, alter procedures and timelines, or actually decide policy carries a potential for personal professional damage or loss than is greater than any gain to be made. It is little wonder that many principals appear distrustful of their staffs.

To trust another person at work requires that we perceive him or her as competent, committed, and trustworthy (Gabarro, 1978,1990). To do this, we really need to understand the other person, his or her job, and what he or she does to contribute to the organization's good. Only when we are armed with this knowledge can we accurately determine our role in relation to that other person and how our role interacts with his or hers. Acquiring this understanding of school library media specialists can be difficult for a school principal.

We rarely see ourselves as others see us. From the librarian's perspective, media centers and media specialists are inarguably valuable to students, teachers, and administrators, clearly essential to student achievement, and central to the school's mission. To many principals, however, their value is less obvious and less certain. The purpose of this article is to describe how the typical principal perceives school library media specialists and their role in the school.

The Principal's Perceptions

Research tells us that many principals, perhaps most, have a limited understanding of how school library programs function and how they can and do contribute to school quality (Dorrell & Lawson, 1995; Hambleton & Wilkinson, 2001; Pennock, 1988; Taylor & Bryant, 1996; Veltze, 1992; Wilson & Blake, 1993). With their perceptions rooted in stereotypical images, many principals still see media centers as libraries and libraries as warehouses of materials to be managed and checked out to students (Buchanan, 1982; Dorrell & Lawson, 1995; Swanson, 1988). They see the people who run libraries as librarians and librarians as stereotypically fussy, difficult to get along with, more interested in things than in people, and isolated from the staff (Cavill, 1987; Herrin, Pointon, & Russell, 1988; Land, 1988; Silver, 1988).

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