For many years, there has been a narrative that school librarians are out of date and out of place in an increasingly digital education landscape. But there is a different storyline in which librarians are leading, teaching and supporting innovation and digital transformation in schools. This has been my professional story and is becoming a national narrative among education leaders. In my TEDx Talk, I challenged both librarians and educational leaders to change the conversation about libraries. Based on my experience as an educator, a district leader and now national advocate, school librarians are logical leaders as schools seek to support future readiness in students. In my talk, I pose the question: “We are very good at associating librarians with the past. Do you see them as part of the future?” Increasingly, educational leaders are saying “Heck yeah!”

Days of Future Libraries Past

In the 20 years I was a teacher librarian in Vancouver Public Schools, I always associated my work and profession with the future, not the past. I embraced digital tools and ways of working, incorporating them both into my instruction and providing leadership to my peers. In my first elementary school in 1992, I wired the building’s first AppleTalk network to allow shared printing. As part of a professional-development class I taught in 1994, I huddled teachers around three DEC terminals in a 65-year-old middle school to get on a green command line-driven Internet well before the World Wide Web. “Behold, the future of information … Gopher!” In 1995, my library was part of a space called the Toolbox, which included a computer lab, science area and fabrication room to support project-based learning. Today it would be called a makerspace. In later years, the first instructional CD-ROMs and online information databases were found in libraries, well before their use in classrooms. I worked with fellow high school librarians in 2000 to develop a shared website design to ensure better access for students and teachers. One of the first areas to support district Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies was in my high school library. Many of these technologies are now historical, common or even quaint, but at the time, they were innovations that began with a librarian or from the library. And my experience is not as exceptional as it might appear.

For decades, librarians and libraries were the central access point for information and technology. Access to the latest information, computer labs, networked printers and the Internet was often unique to libraries. Needless to say, that has changed. Increased access to the web, digital content and devices means that the library is no longer the sole source for these tools and resources. What has not changed is the need for specialized expertise, leadership and programs to help students and teachers navigate a digital world far more complex than it was in 1994. In Vancouver and in other districts around the U.S., educational leaders are acknowledging this challenge and seeking to define what librarians and libraries of the future will look like.

Moving Toward the Future

In 2012, I was asked to participate in Project Connect. Follett pulled together educational leaders from around the U.S. — including Dr. Mark Edwards, then Superintendent in Mooresville, North Carolina and Dr. Steve Joel, Superintendent in Lincoln, Nebraska — to talk about the future of school librarians and libraries in 21st century schools. The group also featured leaders from the American Association of School Librarians, tech directors and curriculum directors. There were honest discussions about the changes facing schools, libraries and education with a specific focus on the challenges of effectively implementing digital tools and content. In addition to validating the need for libraries to support literacy and reading, there was agreement that librarians could also lead as part of the digital transformation of schools.

Project Connect continued the conversation in 2015 by pulling together a group of national library leaders at ISTE in Philadelphia. The goal was to operationalize the initial Project Connect conversations by defining the specific ways in which librarians could support 21st-century schools. Reflecting on both local and national priorities, the library leaders crafted a working set of targets that included topics such as digital citizenship, technology integration and information literacy.

After its White House launch as part of ConnectED in 2014, Future Ready with the Alliance for Excellent Education was garnering attention and support of districts with superintendents across the U.S. signing the Future Ready Pledge. With many of the Project Connect districts signed on as Future Ready, the idea of Future Ready Libraries emerged as a way to link innovative librarians and library programs to the strategic work of districts.

Future Ready Librarians is now a formal strand of Future Ready at the Alliance for Excellent Education. As the Future Ready Librarians lead, I am working with the Alliance, the U.S. Department of Education and other partners to engage both librarians and district leaders to change the conversation about librarians. In the last year, continued work with education and library leaders has led to the development of the Future Ready Librarians Framework. Correlating directly to the seven Future Ready components, this tool identifies specific ways in which librarians can support schools and districts as they seek to improve instruction and learning. The framework provides both librarians and leaders with clear and discrete “next steps” to guide professional learning and practices.

Futuring Up Librarians

Well before the advent of Future Ready Librarians, Vancouver Public Schools was committed to developing the capacity and leadership of librarians. We have embraced the idea of the teacher librarian, who combines strong instructional skills with those of an information professional. One of the keys to the success of our program has been to connect teacher librarians to the strategic work of the district, recognizing the role they can play to support broader educational goals. We have also sought to help librarians lead beyond the library both in their schools and at the district level.

One of our first alignments was around digital citizenship. As part of the district strategic plan, teacher librarians were asked to assess the current state of digital citizenship instruction in the district, conduct a gap analysis and provide recommendations for enhanced services and instruction. A team of teacher librarians worked over several months to advise district leaders about both their current state as well as recommended next steps. Those next steps included the development of a scope and sequence for library-based digital citizenship instruction and considerations for the integration of digital citizenship into other subject areas. Due in part to this work, a teacher librarian from our district is participating in a state workgroup developing model policy and practices to all districts in Washington State. Also, teacher librarians from around the state helped contribute to and advocate for passage of legislation in support of K12 digital citizenship.

Another area where teacher librarians have been essential is in our transition to a successful 1:1 device program. First, we invested in significant technology training for librarians and put iPads in their hands before students received the devices. This allowed teacher librarians to effectively facilitate and lead the building deployments, playing an active role in their schools’ team-based support plan. Working alongside instructional technology facilitators and paraprofessional technology assistants, teacher librarians help ensure that both students and teachers are successful in their use of digital tools and content.

An emerging area of librarian leadership is in making and coding. Thanks to largely grassroots interest, our teacher librarians are on the forefront of district explorations in these areas. Teacher librarians are creating makerspaces in their libraries, teaching coding and will likely serve as “maker test kitchens” for innovative tools and practices that may be replicated elsewhere in the district. Our WeMake VPS initiative will include librarians as part of a district-wide expansion of high-engagement learning tools and techniques.

Enabling Future Ready Librarians

As schools seek to improve and innovate, there will be a need for expertise and leadership beyond principals and district personnel. Speaking from experience as a district administrator, the digital shift is too vast and fast for district leaders to effectively identify and curate innovative tools and practices for their schools. Districts with librarians are well positioned to re imagine roles, responsibilities and functions to help with this complex work. Districts without librarians or which have understaffed their libraries will face the same questions and challenges we have, but without the expertise, skill sets and distributed leadership to lead and support innovation.

As a Chief Digital Officer, I know firsthand the complexity of 1:1 deployments, digital content integration, professional development and enabling instructional shifts. Thanks to my experience as a librarian, I have been able to approach and solve these challenges differently. My continued work with librarians allows me to also understand how important they are to the success of our strategic goals and work.

Due to Future Ready Librarians, there is now a simple framework to help districts and librarians change the conversation and to begin connecting the dots. If you are a Future Ready district, the components of the framework align to the work you may already be doing. If you are not a Future Ready district, the research-based “gears” are likely familiar areas of strategic focus for your district. Speaking from experience, this process will take time, commitment and an investment in your librarians. That said, the investments we have made to ensure our librarians are future ready continue to pay dividends.

On the Future Ready Librarians webpage, there is a quote: “Why not unleash the educational leadership of librarians to foster Future Ready Schools?” We have. It’s worked for us!

Mark Ray is currently Chief Digital Officer in Vancouver (Washington) Public Schools. He recently began working with the Alliance for Excellent Education as Future Ready Librarians Lead, connecting librarians with the national Future Ready initiative launched in 2014. Mark has been central to Vancouver’s weLearn 1:1 digital initiative, professional development of teachers, promotion of digital content and services, and a renaissance of librarians and libraries in support of district strategic work. While he’s currently in charge of Vancouver’s IT department, he was a teacher librarian for 20 years and the 2012 Washington State Teacher of the Year.

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