The Medium is the Message

Important MessageOne of my students working as a provisionally licensed elementary school librarian recently complained that his principal had criticized him for allowing students to free read or read independently the last 10-15 minutes of one particular library class time. The principal apparently wanted every minute of the fixed library time for instruction and obviously saw no instructional value in students being allowed to read freely. At first blush I was vexed with the obvious ignorance of the principal. Hadn’t Krashen’s research been telling us for years that students needed opportunities to self-select and time to read freely? Wasn’t this just another sad example of an uninformed principal trying to bully a wayward, inexperienced school librarian? Perhaps. Or rather, as I thought about it more, perhaps it was really a case of a school librarian sending the wrong message.

In the 1960s, media guru Marshall McLuhan asserted famously that “the medium is the message” meaning that a message is perceived by its medium or by how it is conveyed.  Consider, in the case of my student, what the principal might have seen when she happened by the library at the inopportune time when this class of students was “just” reading.  She possibly saw students sitting at tables reading or flipping pages, or maybe sharing something from a book with a friend and probably the librarian taking the opportunity to check some books in or out or do some shelving or check email. I understand what was happening in this particular situation and realize the intentions of the librarian. Still, if we take McLuhan’s words to heart, what message did the principal receive from the medium of this library class and the actions of the school librarian that caused her concern?

We have been hearing more often in the news lately about entire school districts and individual principals choosing not to fill vacant school library positions with a professional school librarian opting instead to hire clerks to run the library. What message is being conveyed by the medium of the school library that compels these decision-makers to resort to such drastic measures? When they walk by their school libraries are they drawn in by lively conversations of students engaged in learning? Can they see evidence of student learning posted on the library walls? Is the teacher librarian directing students in a close reading activity or instructing students to assess appropriate resources for a project? Is vocabulary posted on charts or walls to scaffold student comprehension? Is the teacher librarian co-teaching with a classroom teacher or working the room of students stopping to conference with individuals about their work? Is the teacher librarian reading aloud to a group of students stopping periodically to help them respond to the text or organize their thoughts through a graphic organizer? Are student accomplishments charted on a data wall? Or, from the medium of a school library where students sit reading or listening to someone read to them, where there is no evidence of instruction, teaching, or assessment clearly visible around the library, is the unintended message that school libraries can function just fine without a professional school librarian at the helm?

So, does it mean that we should no longer allow students to peruse the shelves, select books, and read independently? Not at all. Current reading research and the Common Core both say students should be allowed time to read independently in school from a variety of texts interacting with teachers who actively scaffold, conference, and instruct students during independent reading time. Students also need time to talk about what they have read (Moss, 2016).

In my student’s case, the principal did not see the relevance or instructional value of elementary students being allowed to read independently in the library. What my student believed was an appropriate, evidence-based instructional strategy was evidently not conveyed to the principal through the medium of the school library. To address this in the future, my student should through every means imaginable–through lesson plans, professional development sessions for the staff, conferences with the principal, information shared in parent newsletters and posted on library walls, etc.–ensure that the medium of his school library is correctly and visibly conveying his message.

As school librarians we must be cognizant of our medium which is also our message. We must clearly articulate our instructional focus. Physically and virtually, we must vividly define our instructional roles in student success and undeniably communicate that our practices are evidence-based.

Photo Credit: “Important Message” (CC BY 2.0) by  Patrick Denker 


Moss, B. (2016, Feb.). Making independent reading work. Literacy Daily [Web log post]. Retrieved from


Author: Anne Akers

Clinical assistant professor in the Department of Library and Information Studies at the University of NC at Greensboro working with school library candidates. Former elementary, middle, and high school librarian in Virginia, Mississippi, and North Carolina.

Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Blog Topics, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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