Education’s Silver Bullet? School Libraries

Enokson. “Thought-Provoking Reads for Junior High Students.” CC-BY 2.0

A Panacea That’s Not Snake Oil

I’ve heard school librarians called the super-heroes of education, since they have so many skills to draw on and serve their entire school populace. School libraries are often called the Swiss army knives of education, since they can fill so many roles. So perhaps we should call school librarians and their spaces what they are: education’s silver bullet. 

A “silver bullet” is something that offers a seemingly magical cure to a difficult problem. While not literally magical, school libraries offer their communities magic. And they definitely offer solutions to many of education’s most difficult problems. 

Enokson. “The More You Read, The More You Know.” CC-BY 2.0

Keeping It Real

I believe the single most important quality schools should instill in students is an enjoyment of learning. In modern education, the school library may be the best (and possibly final) place within schools where students are able to learn just for the love of learning. 

I don’t make that claim lightly. Both experience and education have led me to conclude that school libraries have become one of the last bastions for “real” education.

Washington State Library. “Ft. Vancouver High School Library Media Center 17.” CC-BY NC 2.0

A Veteran Weighs In

In 1996, I earned my teaching license. I got my first full time teaching job in 1998, and I’ve been in the classroom ever since. ln 2006, I completed a Master’s degree in Educational Administration and Supervision. Then I continued that program, finishing my Doctorate at the start of 2014. Over those years, I realized that education was shifting. Those courses helped me see the new direction of the educational system, and it wasn’t pretty.

By 2016, I’d come to realize just how much education, and particularly the student learning experience, had changed. I try not to take myself too seriously, but I take learning very seriously. I started my Masters of Information degree in late 2016 because I’d realized that classrooms were less and less a place for students to love learning. 

Washington State Library. “Ft. Vancouver High School Library Media Center 20.” CC-BY NC 2.0

Assessment Anxiety

Since the No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2001, the course of American school systems has curved ever further into standardized testing. The desire to have data on which to base decisions (and accountability) provides a scientific veneer to the educational process. But as one of the first principals I worked for liked to say, “Weighing a pig doesn’t make it fatter.” 

Kids, parents, and teachers are now constantly bombarded with and seeking more data about student performance. But that data seems not to produce learning, just anxiety. If that data provides any motivation, it’s extrinsic–it’s about raising scores, not about what is being learned. 

Enokson. “Reading Helps Your Mind Bloom.” CC-BY 2.0

Libraries Are Intrinsically about Learning (Intrinsically) 

Learning happens in the most deep and meaningful ways when students engage with new material on their own terms. It’s most effective when the learners are intrinsically motivated. That’s why school libraries are vital to today’s schools.

I chose to seek my school librarian certification because I saw that the school library was the last place in schools where “true” learning was happening. On the whole, school libraries don’t rank or rate kids. They generally don’t have assessments or averages. There is not (yet) a standardized test for library skills. 

In other words, there are very few ways for a school library to make a student feel bad about themselves for not measuring up to some false ideal as determined by assessments that have little relation to actual intelligence and few real-world applications. 

Washington State Library. “Ft. Vancouver High School Library Media Center 18.” CC-BY NC 2.0

School Libraries = Space to Learn

School libraries provide students with the materials and the space–both physically and mentally–to learn about their interests, in the way that works for them. Rather than force-feeding students, school libraries entice students to explore and discover. They are palaces of self-directed education and inquiry learning. 

Even in some of their most stripped-down, basic forms, school libraries are practically the Platonic ideal of learning and intrinsic motivation. School librarians have to go out of their way to give students an extrinsic motivation for learning in the library. 

Washington State Library. “Ft. Vancouver High School Library Media Center 09.” CC-BY NC 2.0

Cost Effective–And Just Plain Effective!

A well-provisioned school library staffed by at least one certified school librarian (and hopefully an aide or two) is quite possibly the current pinnacle of “real” education. As literally dozens of studies have shown, school libraries improve student outcomes across multiple measures. School librarians offer help to every student in the school. They also help teachers find materials, plan and execute lessons, and support curricula. That makes school librarians the most cost-effective learning professionals in a school.

Even if one puts aside economics, school librarians are still a necessary element if schools hope for their students to engage with learning. Whether it’s through book displays, makerspaces, technical tools and assistance, research instruction, information literacy, or one of the other myriad “value-adds” they bring, school librarians provide students with agency in their education. And that is a benefit beyond measure.


Author: Steve Tetreault

After 24 years as a classroom English Language Arts teacher, Steve became a school librarian in January 2022. He has earned an M.Ed. (2006) and an Ed.D. (2014) in Educational Administration and Supervision, and completed an M.I. degree in Library and Information Science (2019). He is certified as a teacher, school library media specialist, supervisor, and administrator. He is an old dog constantly learning new tricks!

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