Effective School Libraries: Evidence of Impact on Student Achievement

By Barrett, Lynn | School Librarian, Autumn 2010 | Go to article overview

Effective School Libraries: Evidence of Impact on Student Achievement


Barrett, Lynn, School Librarian


There must be very few school librarians today who are not aware of the considerable number of studies, particularly in the USA, that show a positive correlation between an effective school library and academic achievement. However, in our very busy days, it is not always easy to track down the research and analyse what it means in terms of our own practice. Over the past several months I have had the opportunity to do just that and, although none of what I shall summarise here is new, hopefully it will be useful to have it pulled together in one place.

Before delving into facts and figures, it is important to define why we need empirical evidence of the effectiveness of school libraries. Most discussions about them start from the position that they are a good thing, therefore they must be supported. However, for any argument to hold water, the starting point must instead be the needs of today's students in today's educational landscape. From there it is necessary to unpick how the school library contributes to the fulfilment of those needs and then to underpin the resulting conclusions with research evidence.

The characteristics of 21st century education have been articulated by many and continue to evolve. However, in order to achieve within this developing context and beyond, it is accepted that students need:

* Reading literacy

* Information literacy

* Technological literacy

* Skills for personal knowledge building

* Oral literacy and numeracy

Research evidence from the USA, Canada and Australia shows that where school libraries are resourced effectively and managed by a qualified librarian with educational expertise, all of the above are fostered and student academic achievement on standardised tests is higher than in schools where these conditions do not exist. Studies over the last 50 years have supported this conclusion, but increasing numbers of investigations and improved methodology over the past decade have brought new credence and immediacy to this positive relationship. While Australia and Canada have each conducted one substantial impact study and several smaller ones, since 2000 nineteen major studies have been completed across the United States. They are largely based on a quantitative research model developed by Keith Curry Lance, originally conducted in Colorado in 1993 and again in 2000. An important alternative approach was taken by Dr. Ross Todd in Ohio in 2004 where qualitative information was gathered from students and faculty. All of this research is summarised in School Libraries Work!, (1) and the information below from the USA, unless otherwise stated, is taken from that document. It is important to note that the research methodology in all of these studies allowed for socio-economic issues and the results are not explained away by:

* Parents' lack of education

* Poverty

* Minority status

* Teacher-pupil ratio

* Per-pupil expenditure.

In identifying effective school library programmes, all of the studies assumed the presence of a qualified school librarian. In the USA, school librarians are generally known as school library media specialists and are granted credentials in individual states to fill the role of school librarians. Many states require a dual qualification in teaching and librarianship, and those that do not require instead a master's degree in librarianship with a specialisation in education. In Canada and Australia, teacher-librarians are dually qualified. In the UK, librarians qualify with a bachelor's degree and there is no specialist route for school librarians. An expertise in education must be acquired on the job and through CPD. Regardless of route, all school librarians need to:

* Be highly qualified professionals

* Be learning specialists

* Work collaboratively with teachers

* Be information mediators

* Teach the skills of information literacy within the context of the curriculum

* Be reading experts

* Inspire, encourage, create, and model high quality learning experiences

* Be leaders in schools, regarded on a par with teaching colleagues. …

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