School Librarians as Researchers: A Practical Approach

School librarians face a range of challenges in their libraries. Some are minor problems, easily fixable through trial and error. However, some challenges are bigger, more deeply seated and complex, and can have more impact. Solutions to these problems require an in-depth, well-planned research-based approach that requires specific data. AASL's strategic plan (AASL 2019) indicates that school librarians can and should conduct research to advance practice, but less clear is how to identify researchable problems and systematically collect the necessary evidence to envision and implement solutions. In our book, Research Methods for Librarians and Educators: Practical Applications in Formal and Informal Learning Environments ( Libraries Unlimited 2018), we compiled perspectives of many leading researchers in applying various research methods to real world problems. Here's an example:

Identifying the Problem

Katie is the school librarian at, a public middle school located in a small Midwestern city. Katie has been working at the school for five years and is widely admired for her diverse teaching methods and creative school library research and literacy programs, including collaborating with the art and music teachers to produce an annual school play and offering a range of after-school programs open to the community. Katie, who maintains the library's website, is also active in the school's PTO and in several local organizations. She prides herself on understanding the whole school community.

Recently, Katie realized that there were a number of students who rarely or never came to the school library, other than when required to for their classes. After talking to their teachers, Katie found that many of these students have been identified as having some type of disability, typically learning or neuro-diverse, such as dyslexia, ADHD, or autism. The school has a full-time special educator who works with administrators and classroom teachers on implementing universal design and universal design for learning principles.

Katie heard that these students did not feel welcome in the school library but not why they felt this way. Katie was dismayed that she is failing to serve these students' needs and wondered how to solve the problem. She decided to do something about it, but was not sure how to proceed.

What can Katie do to determine the extent and causes of the problem and identify ways to fix it?

Understanding the Problem

The thought of conducting a research study can be frightening and intimidating to some. Fortunately, for most problems faced by teachers, librarians, and other educators, there are a number of practice-oriented research approaches, such as action research and evidence-based research, that are relatively intuitive, inexpensive, and allow easy data collection on-the-job. In action research, for example, the researcher begins with a problem, collects data to determine underlying reasons for the problem, devises and implements a plan of action, evaluates the outcomes of that plan, and modifies the plan to fine tune a solution (Farmer 2018). This evidence-based research focuses on documenting, measuring the value and impact of school library practices, and disseminating research outcomes to demonstrate quality (Todd 2018).

The librarian/researcher has a choice of using quantitative research methods like surveys, which require numerical responses, and statistical analyses, which can be as simple as calculating frequencies, means and/or percentages, OR qualitative research methods like focus groups, which require analyzing text or image-based data OR a combination of both, called mixed methods research. (Waugh and Subramaniam 2018). These choices should be guided by the problem and the research questions.

Once Katie confirms a substantial lack of participation and engagement in the school library by students with disabilities, she frames research questions related to the problem that would lead to solutions. For example, Katie wonders, "Why don't students with disabilities voluntarily visit the school library or use school library resources?" and "What accommodations or modifications to my current school library policies and practices can I make that will motivate students with disabilities to participate and engage in school library programs and activities?"

Before beginning any research effort, particularly with students and/or when using recording devices, always discuss your research plan with your principal to make sure appropriate informed consent is secured and student privacy is protected. Your school district may have specific policies addressing research involving students.

Katie also must determine whether to collaborate on this effort. The AASL Standards' Shared Foundation of Collaborate suggests that a key school librarian competency is to work with others to solve problems by soliciting and responding to feedback. Katie gives thought to partnering with one or more of the classroom teachers, with the special educator, or even with her principal, as each of these collaborators would provide different perspectives on the problem, the data to collect, from whom to collect it, and how to interpret the data, all of which could inform possible solutions. Katie decides to partner with Tom, the special educator in her school, because he is familiar with all of the students with disabilities in the school and has the broadest understanding of their needs.

Katie and Tom discuss the problem and the research questions and how best to gather data to answer those questions. They decide to first survey all students in the school about the library's programs, services and resources. This would give them a broader landscape of student feedback, identifying problems that hinder participation and engagement in library programs and activities that affect more than just students with disabilities. They consult with administrators, classroom and support teachers, and some students, on additional survey questions to include and on readability. They test their draft survey with a small number of students to make sure the questions are appropriate, readable, and understandable. After slight revisions, they administer the final survey to all of the school's students and report the results using simple frequencies, means, and percentages.

While understanding that the survey gives them the "big picture," Katie and Tom also realize they need more specific and in-depth information on issues related to accessibility and inclusion. They decide to conduct a series of focus groups, with each group consisting of students representing all grade levels, with and without disabilities. The cull their focus group questions from survey findings and include some potential follow-up questions. They test their focus group questions with a small group of students and learn that they need to revise some of their questions. They also find they need to audio-record the participants to make sure they capture all that is said.

When using recording equipment, it is very important to ask your participant(s) and to get their assent on the recording. If you believe that recording may make a child feel uncomfortable or be untruthful about their opinions, feel free to ask an assistant to join and take notes. It will be difficult for an interviewer to take notes and conduct the interview at the same time.

Katie and Tom use the final set of questions in the five focus groups they conduct. They discuss and interpret the results through a content analysis. Their data reveals that several students with neuro-diverse disabilities and visual disabilities reported that the library's lighting makes it uncomfortable and hard to concentrate. Some also mention that the signage is awkwardly placed and hard to read. Students with physical disabilities state that library furniture is difficult to use (e.g., tables too low, bookshelves too high). Some students with learning and neuro-diverse disabilities disclose that, whenever they come to the library, there is never enough time for them to complete activities or find books they want to read.

Solving the Problem

Armed with these findings, Katie makes an appointment with her principal and makes a presentation to the PTO, sharing the results of her research and some of the challenges it presents, such as the need for funding to replace some furniture. A local community group volunteers to help Katie make some changes. She also thinks about ways in which she could provide more time and guidance for completing school library tasks. Katie and Tom decide they will repeat their study next year to see if their changes had made a positive difference.

Guided by the AASL Standards' emphasis on reflective practice and extensive list of the accomplishment evidence and the AASL strategic plan's charge to conduct systematic research, school librarians are increasingly thinking and talking about engaging in practical and thoughtful problem solving. We hope that this article has sparked your interest in using research to address the problems and challenges you face by collecting authentic evidence from and about the people who are most affected and using that evidence to promote the quality of your library programs and services to your school and community.

Works Cited

AASL. National School Library Standards American Library Association, 2018.

AASL. Strategic Plan, June 22, 2019.

Farmer, Leslie. "Action Research." In Research Methods for Librarians and Educators, edited by Ruth Small and Marcia Mardis. Libraries Unlimited, 2018: 50-60.

Todd, R.J. "Through the Lens of Evidence-Based Practice." In Research Methods for Librarians and Educators, edited by Ruth Small and Marcia Mardis. Libraries Unlimited, 2018:130-144.

Waugh, A. and Subramaniam, M. "Interview and Focus Group Research." In Research Methods for Librarians and Educators, edited by Ruth Small and Marcia Mardis. Libraries Unlimited, 2018: 37-49.

Our book, Research Methods for Librarians and Educators: Practical Applications in Formal and Informal Learning Environments targets librarians with little or no research experience. The book is divided into clusters of chapters preceded by a scenario, similar to the one we present in this article. Chapter authors detail a research method and relate that method to the scenario. Our aims are to help you learn more about how to conduct well-planned research studies, give you information to get you started, and provide references when more in-depth research knowledge is needed.

Learn more about the book from Libraries Unlimited.

About the Authors

Marcia A. Mardis, EdD, is professor and associate dean for research, coordinator for educational informatics, and associate director of the iDigBio at the School of Information, Florida State University. Her research intersects learning resources, high speed networking, and digital libraries with particular emphases in K-12 education informatics, curation, STEM learning, education data mining, and learning analytics.

Ruth V. Small, Ph.D. is Laura J. & L. Douglas Meredith Professor Emerita and Research Professor in the School of Information Studies (iSchool) at Syracuse University. Her award-winning research focuses on the motivational underpinnings of human behavior in a variety of information contexts, currently focused on youth as inventors.

MLA Citation Small, Ruth V. and Marcia A. Mardis. "School Librarians as Researchers: A Practical Approach." School Library Connection, March 2020,

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Entry ID: 2209715

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