Truth, Lies, and the Internet: Where are the Librarians?

Once again, Joyce Valenza has beaten me to the punch (damn, she’s good), but I want to address the recent report by Demos outlining UK students’ online information-seeking behaviour and abilities. School librarians may not be too shocked by the findings; the researchers point out many of the issues that we have been discussing for years. What is more surprising (or maybe not?), however, is the fact that school librarians are not mentioned in the report. Did school librarians drop the ball on this, or is the role of school librarians still that misunderstood in the UK? Something is clearly very wrong if a report that focuses on the skills that librarians consider their core duties does not even mention school librarians.

The report echoes many of the findings that I discovered when conducting my own informal evaluations of pupils’ information literacy abilities at my former school. Last year, I created a webquest for all first year pupils in which they were asked to identify the author of the website, identify the currency of a website, identify bias, identify a hoax website, and find the most appropriate sources for their needs from a selection of websites.

I did not intend the lesson to be a formal evaluation of the pupils’ skills, but after realising that many of the pupils were struggling with the same issues, I decided to write this report for my line manager and other interested teachers. Admittedly, my observations were not objective, my sample size was small, and my report was dashed off quickly and intended only for an internal audience,  but I am struck by how similar my findings were to those of the Demos researchers. Like the researchers, I found that pupils are not in the habit of judging the reliability of information on the internet, identifying hoaxes (or even understanding what a hoax is, for that matter), or selecting relevant sources. I’d venture that just about all school librarians have recognised this, which is why we have been partnering with teachers to help pupils improve these skills.

The Demos report discusses many of the issues that are frequently discussed by school librarians on blogs and at conferences, yet there is no mention of librarians in the report. Dr. Valenza seems surprised and genuinely confused by this glaring omission, but I am not entirely surprised, especially as I am all too familiar with the misunderstandings regarding the nature of the school librarian’s role in the UK. It is important to note that the report included data only from England and Wales, where school library provision is even patchier than it is in Scotland.

Perhaps due to my experiences in the UK and interest in the increasing privatization of the comprehensive school system, I had a very cynical reaction to the report’s recommendation that “the Department of Education partner with the private sector and the third sector to create a set of teaching resources” (p. 8). The report even went on to suggest that companies such as Google could provide teaching assistance.

This is a country that is in the process of decimating its public library system. School librarian positions have been eliminated, some librarians have seen their hours drastically reduced, and others have been replaced by clerical assistants (who are still frequently referred to as “librarians,” thus adding to further confusion over the librarian’s role). Some school librarians are now responsible for multiple sites, which means that even though a school may still officially employ a librarian, he or she is unlikely to have much time to partner with teachers to develop information literacy. Yet, instead of recognising the role that is played by school librarians, this report is suggesting that schools partner with the private sector and that teachers rely on assistance from third party providers who are unlikely to have knowledge of individual schools’ ethos or needs. Either the researchers have unintentionally strengthened the case for education libraries by performing shallow research that neglected the entire body of literature on school librarians and information literacy, or they have deliberately ignored school librarians in order to further the privatization agenda.

I am very interested in hearing what CILIP and SLA have to say about this issue and wonder whether they will submit a formal response. On the one hand, it is great that others outside of librarianship are recognising the importance of information literacy and online information handling skills, but I cannot help being disappointed and skeptical about the omission of school librarians.

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About thegreatnorthernlibrarian

I am a newly qualified librarian and law student currently living in Scotland. The name of this blog was inspired by my extreme northern location at the time of the blog's creation. Savvy readers will recognise that it is also a Twin Peaks reference. I do not necessarily categorise myself as "great."
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