Several recent trends suggest that a review of the literature on the impact of school libraries on student achievement in an Australian context is urgently needed. The context in which school librarians and teacher librarians operate today has changed significantly over the past couple of decades, with consequent implications for student learning. In particular, there has been an apparent decline in the numbers of qualified teacher librarians employed in school libraries in public schools in Australia; an explosion in information production and the development of information communication technologies (ICTs); changes in educational philosophy and practice, including a greater focus on learning outcomes, inquiry-based learning, evidence-based practice and school accountability; and changes in the nature and role of the teacher librarian as a result of these developments.
Although a substantial body of research since 1990 shows a positive relationship between school libraries and student achievement, many of these studies are based on overseas data. If practitioners in Australia are to mount a strong case for recognising the positive impact of school libraries and school librarians on student learning, however, it is important to know how applicable the existing research is to an Australian context and what kind of additional research might be needed to demonstrate the positive relationship between school libraries and student achievement.
The review focuses on studies conducted since 1990, which show that school libraries can have a positive impact on student achievement-whether such achievement is measured in terms of reading scores, literacy or learning more generally-in the following key ways:
- a strong library program that is adequately staffed, resourced and funded can lead to higher student achievement regardless of the socioeconomic or educational levels of the adults in the community;
- a strong computer network connecting the library's resources to the classroom and laboratories has an impact on student achievement;
- the quality of the collection has an impact on student learning;
- test scores are higher when there is higher usage of the school library;
- collaborative relationships between classroom teachers and school librarians have a significant impact on learning, particularly in relation to the planning of instructional units, resource collection development, and the provision of professional development for teachers;
- a print-rich environment leads to more reading, and free voluntary reading is the best predictor of comprehension, vocabulary growth, spelling and grammatical ability, and writing style;
- integrating information literacy into the curriculum can improve students' mastery of both content and information seeking skills; and that
- libraries can make a positive difference to students' self-esteem, confidence, independence and sense of responsibility in regard to their own learning.
The literature search has also revealed several gaps in the research. A lack of systematically aggregated national data makes it difficult to gain an accurate picture of national trends in Australia in relation to the staffing of school libraries. Much of the research that has been done so far has focused on the primary, rather than the secondary, school setting, and yet there is some evidence to suggest that the impact of the school library diminishes as students move through high school. It would be useful to investigate student usage patterns in relation to school libraries in Australia. Knowing why students come to the library-for example, to what extent they are motivated by a need to find information for a project, a desire for leisure reading material, a desire to use computer games or gain access to the Internet, a desire to gain work-related skills by assisting staff, a need for a sanctuary from the rigours of the schoolyard-could help school library staff to cater better for student needs and, as existing research suggests, potentially make a difference in terms of information skills acquisition, reading literacy skills, computer literacy or improved self-esteem.
In terms of professional expertise, more research is needed to determine the extent to which the success of a school library program is due to the librarian's personal attributes or training and experience. Also missing from the research is evidence about the relative roles of teachers and school librarians and their effectiveness in providing information literacy.
A significant gap in the research is the lack of specific evidence linking the role of school librarians to student acquisition of information literacy skills. A substantial body of literature urges the importance of the librarian's role in this regard, offers information skills models and instructional strategies for the development of information literacy skills, and provides information literacy standards, but the literature search yielded few studies that explicitly look at students' skills before undertaking and on completion of some form of information skills education as part of an integrated curriculum. More evidence is needed to determine precisely how the school librarian contributes to the information skills acquisition of students and the relationship between information literacy and learning.
In terms of evaluating the impact of the school library on broader aspects of learning, it may be that a series of focused, small-scale, qualitative studies are a more useful option in an Australian context than the large-scale, quantitative models adopted by researchers in the United States. Such methodological approaches as action research, survey questionnaires, case studies and interviews would be ideally suited to studies seeking to measure the difference that school libraries and librarians can make in an Australian setting, particularly on more intangible outcomes such as autonomy, confidence and self-esteem, or on particular subgroups, such as non-English-speaking students, indigenous students, low-achieving students or those at risk. Longitudinal studies that track changes over time need not be large scale and could also prove a useful source of information.
In general, the literature confirms the need for local, evidence-based practice if the roles of the school library and teacher librarian in student learning are to be valued in the way that the research suggests they should be valued. Such research is an important strategic tool for raising the profile and prestige of library professionals and for reinforcing in the minds of policy-makers and school communities the crucial contribution that school libraries can make to student achievement.