The Natural Leadership Role of the School Librarian

With a growing emphasis being placed on leadership and what constitutes a good leader, it is important for individuals to understand where their current roles and contributions fit in the leadership paradigm. Furthermore, with research indicating leadership to be the single most important aspect in shaping a school’s overall performance (Leithwood and Louis 2012; Marzano 2003; Marzano et al. 2005), it is worthwhile to discuss those individuals within the educational setting who, knowingly or not, are leaders within their schools.    

As a former elementary school principal, I was afforded the opportunity to help many teachers, students, and parents within the school community develop and grow as leaders. Within my former school, as in many schools, the role of librarian was one that naturally lent itself to the leadership role. As such, I believe a much missed opportunity exists to create an awareness of the value of this position in order to help school principals and administrators capitalize on this naturally occurring leadership (Senge et al. 2012). Through identifying and understanding this leadership role, principals will be able to utilize the school librarian and library programs to help their schools flourish and be successful. As will be evident, the librarian role mimics, and in many instances overlaps, that of a principal.  

Four Changing Roles

According to the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), school librarian job characteristics have been defined by the following four changing roles: Instructional Partner, Information Specialist, Teacher, and Program Administrator, with the fifth role of Leader embedded into each of those four roles. Digging deeper into each of these, and extending the connection between these and the leadership responsibilities of the principal, exposes the connections that exist.

Instructional Partner

As reported by the AASL, librarians ranked instructional partner as their number one responsibility. The librarians’ role as instructional partner includes: collaboration with school organizational members to develop policies, practices, and curriculum; guiding instructional design by assisting classroom teachers in the creation of assignment and assessment strategies to meet rigorous academic standard objectives; and development of an awareness for social and cultural competencies through informational literacy skills.

Information Specialist

Ranked number two by librarians in importance of responsibility, information specialist plays a crucial role in supporting all members of the school community (AASL 2009; Mansfield 2016). Responsibilities that characterize this role include: assist in creation of engaging learning tasks; connect the school with the larger global community; communicate emerging models and technologies for locating, assessing, and supplementing available school resources; analyze data of school library media usage; and facilitate practical applications and use of information technology to aid in learning.


Teaching continues to be a valued part of the librarian’s core responsibilities within their school communities (Purcell 2010). As described by the AASL, “As teacher, the school librarian empowers students to become critical thinkers, enthusiastic readers, skillful researchers, and ethical users of information.” The value in these skills directly contributes to students’ success throughout their careers and, as such, should be an ever-growing objective for teachers and one that should be taken seriously (McLaren 2015; Sticht, Hofstetter, and Hofstetter 1997).    

Program Administrator

Although ranked fourth among the roles outlined by the AASL, program administrator is what I consider to be the lynchpin linking leadership responsibilities between librarians and principals. Descriptors and responsibilities used to define this role include: ensuring teachers and students have access to resources to meet the diversity of needs and interests; collaborative development with organizational members and outside partners to develop a mission, vision, strategic plan, and polices that ensure effective management of library media program staff, budget, and space (both physical and virtual); formation of partnerships with community, global, and organizational stakeholders; and the ability to address educational issues with personnel in their buildings, at the district level, and within professional associations.              

Connections of Leadership Role Responsibilities

Figure 1 demonstrates that the role responsibilities of the instructional partner, information specialist, and teacher easily link to that of the principal.

Figure 1: Role Responsibility Leadership Connections

 PrincipalSchool Librarian
Instructional Partner

—Collaboration with School Based Decision Making Council, organizational members, and community members

—Monitor instructional design and assessment development

—Develop and facilitate programs to enhance awareness of school social and cultural needs

—Collaboration with organizational members to develop policies, practices, and curriculum

—Guide instructional design by assisting teachers in creation of assignment and assessment strategies

—Develop awareness related to social and cultural competencies through informational literacy skills

Information Specialist

—Communicate current and emerging programs, goals, and opportunities to organizational stakeholders.

—Data analysis of assessment(s), instruction, program effectiveness, and school budget

—Provide support, information, and networking to teachers, parents, and students

—Assist in creation of engaging learning tasks

—Connect the school to the larger global community

—Communicate emerging technologies/models for assessing, locating, and supplementing school resources

—Data analysis of school library media usage

—Facilitation of information technology to aid in learning


—Teacher of other teachers

—Teacher of students

—Teacher of parents/partners

—Teacher of students

—Teacher of other teachers

The librarian’s role of program administrator is not included due to its many descriptors that individually act as the lynchpin connecting the leadership roles of the school librarian and principal. Figure 2 depicts these roles and how they are similar but connect to a different focus depending on the principal’s or librarian’s role.

Figure 2: Program Administrator Leadership Connections

 PrincipalSchool Librarian
Program AdministratorProvides Access to Resources

—School budgeting allows the principal to offer teachers financial support for resources and materials

—Professional development related to relevant and updated instructional practices

—Resources and materials within the library

—Resources available to teachers and families within the community

Collaboration in Effective


—Works with school council, teachers, parents, and community members to meet the needs of students

—Professional Learning Communities to guide instructional planning, preparation, and execution (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Many 2010)

—Develops and facilitates library advisory councils to strengthen the school library program

—Meets with teacher teams to help plan and design opportunities for student engagement with library facility resources

Formation of Outside Partnerships

—Partners with community businesses, government agencies, and post-secondary institutions

—Location and application of state/federal grants and other funding sources

—Partners with local public libraries

—Searches out grants and other local funding partners

Addressing of Educational Issues with Personnel

—Observations and evaluations of teachers and staff throughout the school

—Design and implementation of professional learning opportunities

—Updated understanding of local, state, and national policy

—Facilitates the work of support personnel as well as adult and student volunteers

—Organization of professional learning for teachers and staff through various means

—Updates and maintains access to viable and relevant resources and materials


When looking at the connections between the two roles of librarian and principal, it is apparent that librarians very much act as the "principal" of their library domains. However, I urge current school leaders and library practitioners to take a further look into the meaning of these leadership practices.

Utilizing the School Librarian as School Leader

The role of school administrator continues to grow in its challenges and demands, with most principals struggling to complete all requirements the job entails (Thiers 2016). Since those requirements are virtually impossible for one individual to fulfill, principals need to utilize those individuals whose leadership responsibilities present natural overlap. Others need to undertake the instructional leadership role to ensure students receive the highest quality instruction on a daily basis (Lambert 2002; Center for Educational Leadership 2012). When examining the overlap that exists in the librarian’s role as program administrator, several direct connections occur with the four dimensions of instructional leadership outlined by the Center for Educational Leadership. Figure 3 depicts how each responsibility within the role of program administrator influences the dimensions within the instructional leadership framework (Center for Educational Leadership 2012).

There are strong connections between all four role responsibilities of the librarian as program administrator and two of the four instructional leadership dimensions, with Allocation of Resources yielding the greatest amount of connections. Due to the value of this connection, principals utilizing the instructional leadership concept should work closely with the librarian to help access and provide resources across the school. Through their formation of outside partnerships and understanding of teacher needs versus resources available within the school, the librarian plays a vital role in helping lead the school, and those the school serves, to success.

Within the dimension of Improvement of Instructional Practices, the librarian works to support and improve the quality of instruction students receive on a daily basis. Through intentionally meeting with grade level and content teacher teams to help plan and design opportunities for student engagement with library resources and the forging of partnerships with community stakeholders, librarians work to ensure teachers have the appropriate materials and resources to strengthen their instructional practices. Through optimization and empowerment of the librarian and other staff, factors such as school culture will be positively impacted thus elevating the level of collective teacher efficacy (Marzano et al. 2005; Lee 2015).

Although these connections are only minor examples displaying the value of the librarian as school leader, I want to reiterate the importance the librarian’s leadership role holds in the school. When making community and global connections, offering instructional support, shifting instructional practices, and providing access to resources, principals should not hesitate to call upon their librarians for support. Good principals know when to hand over leadership responsibilities; great principals know how to hand these responsibilities to individuals who have already developed an expertise around them. It is time to shift our view of school librarians from only the leaders of libraries to leaders throughout their schools.            


Works Cited:

AASL. Empowering Learners: Guidelines for School Library Media Programs. 2009.

Center for Educational Leadership. “4 Dimensions of Instructional Leadership: Instructional Leadership Framework Version 1.0.” University of Washington. (accessed December 14, 2016).

DuFour, Richard, Rebecca DuFour, Robert Eaker, and Thomas Many. Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work, 2nd ed. Solution Tree, 2010.

Lambert, Linda. “A Framework for Shared Leadership” Educational Leadership 58, no. 8 (May 2002): 37-40.

Lee, Kyle. “The Influence of Collective Instructional Leadership on Teacher Efficacy” EdD diss., University of Kentucky, 2015..

Leithwood, Kenneth, and Karen Seashore-Louis. Linking Leadership to Student Learning. Jossey-Bass, 2012.

Mansfield, Kathy. “James Allen Believes in Sharing His Passion for School Libraries.” Kentucky Teacher, January 16, 2016.

Marzano, Robert. What Works in Schools: Translating Research into Action. Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development, 2003.

Marzano, Robert, Timothy Waters, and Brian McNulty. School Leadership that Works: From Research to Results. Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development, 2005.

McLaren, Peter. Life in Schools: An Introduction to Critical Pedagogy in the Foundations of Education 6th ed. Routledge, 2015.   

Purcell, Melissa. “All Librarians Do Is Check Out Books, Right? A Look at the Roles of a School Library Media Specialist.” Library Media Connection 29, no. 3 (November/December 2010): 30-33.

Sticht, Thomas, Richard Hofstetter, and Carolyn Hofstetter. Knowledge, Literacy, and Power. San Diego Consortium for Workforce Education & Lifelong Learning, 1997.

Senge, Peter, Nelda Cambron-McCabe, Timothy Lucas, Bryan Smith, Janis Dutton, and Art Kleiner. Schools that Learn: A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares about Education. Crown Business, 2012.

Thiers, Naomi. “Educators Deserve Better: A Conversation with Richard DuFour.” Educational Leadership 73, no. 8 (May 2016): 10-16.

About the Author

Kyle A. Lee, EdD, currently serves as a coordinator in the Division of Program Standards-Office of Teaching and Learning at the Kentucky Department of Education. He earned his doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Kentucky, Rank I Superintendent certification from the University of Kentucky, and master’s in educational administration-principalship from University of the Cumberlands. Dr. Lee’s research interests include educational leadership, school administration and principalship, individual and collective teacher efficacy, organizational and teacher leadership, and teacher retention. He regularly contributes his thoughts and reflections on leadership and education at his website Leadership with Lee (

MLA Citation Lee, Kyle A. "The Natural Leadership Role of the School Librarian." School Library Connection, March 2017,

View all citation styles

Entry ID: 2064065

Back to Top