Courtesy: Lisa Cheby
Verdugo Hills High School Library

As society works to curb the spread of misinformation, we need to be clear that this is an information literacy crisis. While holding social media companies accountable for disseminating misinformation is valid and important, it’s equally critical to examine why Californians have divested from school library programs, the key resource for literacy instruction for young people.

In 2010 the California Department of Education deemed navigating the rapidly changing world of information so important they adopted the Model School Library Standards. The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing recognizes teacher librarians, who are required to hold a library and media services credential in addition to a prerequisite teaching credential, as the experts trained to teach these standards.

The Model School Library Standards include skills such as distinguishing source types, identifying bias, tracing claims to original sources, and using critical thinking to determine if and how a source should be used to meet an information need. Unless explicitly taught, students do not naturally know the difference between types of sources or how to discern bias.

This is further complicated when everything is accessed through a browser. Gone are the physical clues — the glossy and affordable price of a magazine versus the austerely formatted and pricey academic journal versus the smudgy ink of a daily newspaper — that cue us on what kind of source we are reading and how we should adjust our reading strategies to fit what we know about that source.

Teacher librarians empower students with tools to be discerning users and creators of information. Teacher librarians provide access to diverse and relevant collections (print and digital) and support self-selected reading, an essential element in increasing literacy. Students with access to library instruction understand that facts (which are constant) may be used to support opposing agendas depending on the bias of the author or publication, learn to investigate claims and biases to verify claims, and use a variety of sources to draw their own conclusions. In short, teacher librarians reduce people’s vulnerability to misinformation.

Despite evidence linking the presence of a teacher librarian to student success, during the rise of social media as an information source, funding and staffing for school libraries in California declined. In 2009 the move from block grants to a categorical funding model eliminated designated funds for school libraries. In California, the number of full-time teacher librarians consistently fell between 2010 and 2019.

As accessibility of information online grew, the idea that libraries were no longer relevant spread like misinformation. The myth that students would no longer want to read print books went hand in hand with the myth that digital natives did not need digital or information literacy instruction.

In 2011 Los Angeles Unified School District cut teacher librarian positions and put teacher librarians on trial to defend their competency as teachers. According to the district’s logic, since teacher librarians are not assigned rosters there is no evidence of their actual teaching. In actuality, teacher librarians do not have rosters because they must be available to provide library instruction to all classes through library visits. In the end, libraries were shuttered, and their inventories were left unused and unmaintained, resulting in the self-fulling prophesy of libraries filled with outdated and irrelevant books and a generation of students denied access to information and instruction from credentialed teacher librarians.

As a teacher librarian I witnessed students, after library research instruction, opt to use subscription databases because they crave reliable, accurate information. Library instruction units consistently yielded increases of 5 to 15 percentage points in class median scores on information literacy assessments. Students’ use of evidence and ability to cite sources in their writing improved after library instruction. After graduating, one student returned to thank his teacher for scheduling library lessons as he was the only one in his college class who knew how to use the library to find the articles required for an assignment.

Strong school libraries are necessary for a well-functioning democracy.

We will never fully eliminate fake news, misinformation or propaganda, just as we will never eliminate workplace gossip, but we can better prepare our citizens to navigate the vast amount of information available by providing adequate instruction through strong school library programs. Ask your elected officials, from the school board to the state Legislature, to support reviving strong school library programs. Ask your neighborhood schools if there is a credentialed teacher librarian in the library. Ask your Congress members to support the Right to Read Act.

It is here, in school libraries, where we can build a defense against fake news.

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Lisa Cheby is the Dr. Karin J. Duran and Richard Nupoll Education Librarian at California State University, a National Board certified teacher librarian, and the vice president of government relations for the California School Library Association.

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  1. Jim 2 months ago2 months ago

    How is utilization of school libraries measured? My kids rarely visit the school library anymore and I suspect that decline in usage is widespread.