Teacher Librarians: Mavens in a Digital Age

A school district leverages its librarians in new ways to address teachers’ capacity and students’ future readiness

By Steven T. Webb and Mark C. Ray/School Administrator, May 2015

“To be a maven is to be a teacher. But it is also, even more emphatically, to be a student. Mavens are really information brokers, sharing and trading what they know.”
— Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point 

Steve Webb, superintendent in Vancouver, Wash., sees teacher librarians applying a unique 21st-century skill set to their schools’ instructional programs. (Photo courtesy of Vancouver, Wash., Public Schools)

With the advent of pervasive digital learning content, increased access to handheld devices and the evolution of blended learning, new technology is posing new challenges and opportunities to our profession. As analog processes give way to new digital paradigms, educators from the classroom to the administrative offices are changing their approach to serving and supporting students.

    Teacher librarians have felt the need to change as acutely as anyone. The digital shift, combined with perennial budget shortfalls, has led many school districts to cut library programs.

    Thankfully, we’ve written a different narrative in Vancouver, Wash., Public Schools, where the district supports librarians by giving them reimagined roles. Whether you call them digital mavens or teacher librarians, their role has expanded significantly beyond the librarians we knew as students. They are leading, teaching and advancing the strategic work of the school district in new, exciting ways.

Strategic Vision

In 2008, Vancouver Public Schools launched Design II, an ambitious strategic plan that built upon the accomplishments of the school district’s first long-range plan. Our second-generation strategic planning process engaged hundreds of staff and community members in shaping the future of Vancouver schools and developing a shared vision for the future.

    Personalized learning, instructional quality and digital resource integration emerged as goals among our strategic priorities. The pace, nature and complexity of creating durable change that delivers improved outcomes for all students required new ways of thinking about education and doing our work.

    As part of this shared vision, Vancouver’s 33 teacher librarians seized the opportunity and began to evolve their roles to help lead the digital transformation taking place in our schools. This leadership recently was recognized in a Digital Promise case study. (See Additional Resources below.)

Creating Coherency

One key challenge when effecting systemic change was finding and leveraging leadership, especially with limited resources and staffing. In 2008, the school district sought to deploy Safari Montage, an educational on-demand video service, to provide teachers with increased access to instructional video and digital content. However, the district lacked the staff to train, support and sustain this initiative. We mobilized a plan for teacher librarians to train teachers on Safari Montage.

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Following this successful implementation came additional technology training, with the belief that teacher librarians could expand their traditional roles to deliver instructional technology support.

    As the recession worsened, school districts around the Pacific Northwest began cutting teacher librarians. By contrast, Vancouver teacher librarians were equipped with the knowledge and skills to meet the increased needs of our students and teachers. To their credit, both the teacher librarians and district leaders saw past traditional perceptions and stereotypes of library staff to find opportunities in the digital shift.

    Recent central-office reorganization also has helped to create coherency, integration and alignment. At the district level, teacher librarians have been aligned with key programs and departments. Teacher librarians work closely with curriculum and instructional technology teams. A director of instructional technology and library services position was created, not only to expand district technology initiatives but also to continue engaging teacher librarians with strategic work in schools throughout the district. Our interest is to align and connect supportive resources through cross-functional teams that empower those at the closest point of impact to lead and learn together.

Mark Ray, director of instructional technology and library services in Vancouver, Wash., oversees teacher librarians in promoting safe student use of digital tools. (Photo courtesy of Vancouver Public Schools)
Multiple Badges

Teacher librarians bring to their roles a unique 21st-century skill set that includes overseeing digital content, educational technology, collaborative instruction, digital citizenship and materials management.

    In virtually all Vancouver schools, a teacher librarian is part of the teaching staff. Most have a state library media endorsement, and all are certificated teachers. While supervised by school principals, teacher librarians also participate regularly in district-level meetings to stay current on content adoptions, technology training and other initiatives. In addition to maintaining the school library, teacher librarians deliver instruction in the library and classroom, manage instructional materials, and provide technology support.

    Our leading teacher librarians apply their attributes broadly as they evolve to new roles and respond to larger instructional and technological shifts. Much like a micro-credential badge, these new functions supplement rather than replace the work that library professionals always have done. And because of the rapid transformation within our district, each teacher librarian is in a different place. Many wear multiple badges. Others still are working on their first. Nevertheless, several new roles are emerging in this professional group.

EdTech Friends

For decades, great teacher librarians have been known as creative collaborators with teachers and trusted resources for information and answers. As technology leaders, teacher librarians in Vancouver Public Schools have supported the deployment of systemic digital content and a districtwide deployment of interactive whiteboards and projection systems.

    Now, as students receive one-to-one devices thanks to a community-supported technology levy, teacher librarians again are supporting both students and teachers in the use of educational technology. In Vancouver, teacher librarians work alongside paraprofessional tech assistants.     At one-to-one schools, they also collaborate with classroom teacher technology leaders and district instructional technology facilitators. Their support may include serving as an iPad troubleshooting genius for students, providing instruction on use of digital resources, or working with teachers to integrate technology into their instruction.

    Because strong librarians have positive working relationships with staff members, and students trust them, they are logical best friends for school technology leadership and support.

Digital Mentors

For the last several years, teacher librarians have led digital citizenship instruction for students. Classroom teachers in one-to-one schools offer digital citizenship boot camps when students receive devices. But teacher librarians are among the few educators systematically promoting the safe, effective and responsible use of digital tools and resources.

    In the 12 schools with one-to-one technology, this training is an explicit part of the deployment plan. In other schools, it supports students’ personal use of technology at home or at school through existing bring your own device programs. Teacher librarians also work with the district instructional technology team to develop parent resources to extend digital citizenship and learning into the home.

    With digital citizenship now embedded in our strategic plan, their role as the digital citizenship vanguard only will expand.

Content Curators

As in many school districts, librarians in Vancouver pioneered the use of digital content as an extension of their traditional curation duties. Even before the Internet, school libraries featured CD-ROM resources including encyclopedias, periodical databases and interactive computer programs and educational games.

    With the emergence of the Internet, school libraries were among the first places where students and teachers could access the World Wide Web. School libraries’ websites also were among the first school websites in which digital resources were compiled in one place for students and teachers.

    The key shift for teacher librarians is to see digital content as a core curricular resource. At the district level, teacher librarians serve as curators and gatekeepers for authored digital content to be added to the school district’s content management systems. They have worked with the curriculum department to identify and organize digital content to support a range of courses, including world studies and contemporary world problems. They also have worked with the curriculum department as it created e-texts.

    Teacher librarians also are among the first to acquire resources to support digital research projects in history and other fields. In addition, they locate free and subscription-based resources to support various student and teacher needs. As the district expands its use of digital content, teacher librarians are connected with projects ranging from curriculum adoptions to the management of e-textbooks.

Future Readiness

The U.S. Department of Education’s Future Ready initiative, launched in 2014, seeks to “maximize digital learning opportunities and help school districts move quickly toward preparing students for success in college, a career and citizenship.” In Vancouver, teacher librarians are ensuring we can meet some of the defined goals of the Future Ready pledge. They are working collaboratively to transform teaching and learning through the power of technology; protecting student privacy; teaching students to become responsible, engaged and contributing digital citizens; and consistently improving digital materials and applications used in the support of learning.

    Vancouver is fortunate to be able to retain and empower its teacher librarians by expanding the scope of their roles, and we strongly believe other districts can benefit from this model. Teacher librarians are ideally suited to lead, teach and support students and teachers in 21st-century schools.

    In the same way that teachers must reimagine their roles in technology-rich and instructionally modern classrooms, teacher librarians can pivot to serve the emerging needs of students, teachers and administrators with their combination of social adeptness, organizational dexterity and professional adaptability.

    Ultimately, a successful digital transformation requires ubiquitous leadership by creating a culture in which everyone can act with focus and coherency around a shared vision. We must leverage leadership by creating the context and conditions for teams to take enlightened risks.

    In Vancouver, we are taking those risks, and they are paying off. Our teacher librarians are helping to ensure the success of our one-to-one technology initiatives; teaching our students to be safe, productive and responsible digital citizens; and helping to identify and use digital tools as educational resources. Thanks to the Digital Promise case study and sharing of ideas among colleagues, other districts are recognizing this opportunity, too. In the last several months, regional and national inquiries have come to us from districts rethinking how teacher librarians might support student learning and teacher innovation.

    Teacher librarians are an essential part of our digital transformation leadership and professional development ecosystem. In a variety of ways, they are helping Vancouver to be future ready.


Steven Webb is the superintendent of Vancouver Public Schools in Vancouver, Wash. E-mail: Steven.Webb@vansd.org. Twitter: @SuptVPS. Mark Ray is the district’s director of instructional technology and library services.


Additional Resources

A few information resources used by the Vancouver Public Schools in creating the role of the teacher librarian.