Gatekeeper & guide

05 Jul 10 |Campus Review

Where did all the teacher librarians go? Darragh O Keeffe reports.

Miffy Farquharson had a busy day yesterday. The head of the senior years’ library at Mentone Grammar School in Victoria met with several teachers to discuss upcoming assignments and then worked up a list of resources that students would find useful.

She helped the Year 12 students in their study period by finding useful information online and searching through print resources.

Some time spent on professional learning networks proved useful as she found several exciting new resources that will come in handy for the science class.

She took a reading class with a group of Year 8 students and talked about five books she’s read in the past fortnight, which she though they’d enjoy. To do this, she reads about 30 books a month.

And that’s not to mention the hours spent organising the library’s resources or showing groups of students how to navigate catalogues and make value judgements about the information they find.

“Teachers don’t have time to do what we do. They’re too busy creating, delivering and assessing curriculum,” says Farquharson.

Not surprisingly, there is an overwhelming body of international research that has shown the importance of the role teacher librarians play in raising literacy and student outcomes.

And yet, there is a growing chorus of educators, academics and authors who fear these professionals are an endangered species in Australian schools.

It is a bizarre twist, given 2665 new libraries and 372 library refurbishments are taking place under the government’s P21 program.

They are asking, who will staff these new libraries.

Georgia Phillips, an adjunct lecturer at Charles Sturt University, is co-founder of advocacy group, The Hub.

She says, quite simply, teacher librarians are disappearing from schools.

“In Tasmania, only 50 per cent of schools have one. In Victoria and the ACT, at the most it’s 65 per cent, probably much less. In the NT the figure is just 5 per cent – with no teacher librarians in remote schools. In WA, teacher librarians are not mandated in primary schools,” she says.

The Hub started in 2007 out of concern at the falling numbers of teacher librarians in states like Victoria and Tasmania, with no strong action from professional associations and teachers unions.

The most recent audit of the state of Australia’s school libraries and their staff corroborates Phillips’ concerns.

The 2008 ‘A snapshot of Australian school libraries’ report detailed a system housed in cramped, ageing buildings, under-funded and under-resourced. Almost half of Australia’s school libraries operate with an annual budget of less than $10,000.

It found the independent schools sector, particularly Anglican schools, reported much higher levels of professional staff than government schools.

“Over 50 per cent of schools in this survey had either no professional staff or less than one full-time equivalent worker in their school library,” it said.

Similarly, a survey in March by the Children’s Book Council of Australia found the average school library budget equated to $25 per child. In other words, many school libraries today receive budgets below 1975 funding levels.

A third of respondents did not have a large enough budget to buy one book per child per year, let alone fund a subscription to an electronic database, the survey found.

“How did it get to this point? Because it’s been happening for 20 years,” says Sarah Mayor Cox, lecturer in literacy and children’s literature at LaTrobe University.

“Economic rationalisation in education has brought about an incremental demotion of the status of teacher librarians.

“You’d also be surprised how many principals just don’t have their heads around the value of them,” she adds.

At the systemic level, the reduction of school library services within state education departments has also had a devastating affect.

“In the 1970s, every state department of education had a central state school library advisory service. Now, there are just two. They have, within the departments, been demoted, disenfranchised and disappeared,” says Phillips.

Other factors are also at play, such as the degrading of teacher librarianship at the university level.

“Universities started dropping teacher librarianship courses because there was less and less demand. The number of tertiary institutions offering these courses has diminished over the past two decades, from 15 to three – Edith Cowan, Charles Sturt and QUT. They offer a one-year masters course. As well as crippling future supply, this slow death of university courses has meant there are fewer academics in the field who can speak out,” says Phillips.

As worrying as the current situation is, there is a glimmer of hope.

The House of Representative’s Standing Committee on Education and Training is conducting a parliamentary inquiry into school libraries and teacher librarians.

From all over Australia, and the world, submissions have poured in.

The advocates are hopeful the inquiry will bring about change. They are also clear on what that change needs to look like – a teacher librarian in every school.

“As part of this new staffing model, national statistics must be collected, national standards developed and tertiary teacher librarian training positions increased,” says Phillips.

“Teacher librarians tend to be hard-working, middle-aged and female. They’re dedicated; they keep their heads down and don’t make any trouble. But what’s needed now is for them to fire up, make some noise and rebel against the erosion of their special place in our school system,” says Mayor Cox.

For now, all eyes are on the parliamentary inquiry, which is currently holding hearings around Australia.

One submission quotes the renowned US news anchor Walter Cronkite, who said: “Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.”

For certain, Philips, Cox and others involved in the Hub are hoping Australia does not choose for itself the costlier option.

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