How do the IFLA Guidelines apply to us?, by Darryl Toerien

If history is, as Jacques Ellul (1989) claims, the consequence of ideas, then the idea of the school library as vital to education, and by extension to schools, has lost its power to produce a history of school libraries in which this turns out to actually be the case. There are many reasons for this, which will need to be confronted unflinchingly, but the pressing questions before us now are whether or not it is too late to reimbue this idea with enough power to change history, and whether or not we are willing to make the sacrifice for those who are to come?

In case you think me alarmist, consider the warning that Keith Curry Lance (of Colorado fame) issued in his contribution to the recent Louisville Symposium of the Greats: Wisdom from the Past & A Glimpse into the Future of School Libraries (2019), and this is well before the first ripples of the global COVID-19 pandemic became the first wave: “First and foremost, it is time to realize the extent to which school librarians are truly an endangered species—at least, the kind of school librarians which so many seem to advocate for.”

Now you could argue that Lance is not addressing us directly, given that he was speaking to colleagues in the US, but as the global COVID-19 pandemic makes painfully clear, we are actually all in this together, whether we recognise and/ or like it or not. And, our colleagues in the US are adapting to what Lance called their “overwhelmingly dystopian environment” from a stronger position than we are – they, as professionally qualified school librarians, are recognised as specialist teachers, whereas we, even as professionally qualified school librarians, are lucky if school libraries even got a mention in our studies.

So how do we go about reimbuing the idea of the school library with enough power to be vital to education, assuming that it is not too late and that we are willing to make the sacrifice?

Having now spent almost a year on the Section Standing Committee for School Libraries of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), I more convinced than I have ever been that we have taken the first crucial step towards doing so by endorsing the IFLA School Library Guidelines. The 2nd revised edition of the Guidelines was published in 2015, and was written by IFLA Section Standing Committee for School Libraries with contributions from the International Association of School Librarianship (IASL) Executive Board. Furthermore, the Guidelines are rooted in and nourished by the IFLA/UNESCO School Library Manifesto 1999, which, following extensive international consultation, is due be updated in 2020. There is also a set of workshop materials that was developed to support implementing the Guidelines, and that can be used freely and adapted to meet local needs.

Endorsing the Guidelines allows us to think globally, but act locally. This is important, because a debilitating feature of our “overwhelmingly dystopian environment” is that our idea of the school library is an amalgam of what we individually are willing and/ or able to do in practice, rather than what it is, or ought to be, by definition, and therefore lacks unifying and vitalising force.

The school library is, then, by definition “a school’s physical and digital learning space where reading, inquiry, research, thinking, imagination, and creativity are central to students’ information-to-knowledge journey and to their personal, social, and cultural growth” (p. 16).

There are three elements to this definition:

  1. The school library is a physical and digital learning space in which …
  2. … reading, inquiry, research, thinking, imagination, and creativity are central to …
  3. … the information-to-knowledge journey and personal, social, and cultural growth of our students

Our response to this definition, and the Guidelines it is drawn from, will determine our legacy – either it is accusatory and condemnatory, an impossibly heavy burden that wears us down, or, in the spirit of the Guidelines, it is inspirational and aspirational, an energising compromise between what we aspire to achieve and what we can reasonably expect to achieve. Should we choose to view this definition as inspirational and aspirational, then we are in fine company, that of a global community of colleagues who are striving to translate this idea into local reality, some from even weaker starting positions than us.

Our first challenge then, assuming that we have chosen this path, is to take stock of our situation from the perspective of the Guidelines. Broadly, this perspective includes the following (drawn from the Contents of the Guidelines and the corresponding workshop materials):

  1. Mission and Purposes of a School Library (Chapter 1 | Module 1)
  2. Legal and Financial Framework for a School Library (Chapter 2 | Module 2)
  3. Human Resources for a School Library (Chapter 3 | Module 3)
  4. Physical and Digital Resources of a School Library (Chapter 4 | Modules 4a, 4b and 4c)
  5. Programs and Activities of a School Library (Chapter 5 | Module 5)
  1. Literacy and reading promotion (reading for pleasure and reading for learning)
  2. Media and Information Literacy (MIL) instruction
  3. Inquiry-based learning (which can include MIL instruction)
  4. Technology integration
  5. Professional development for teachers
  6. School Library Evaluation and Public Relations (Chapter 6 | Module 6)

Given that this is the kind of ground that ought to be covered in a CILIP accredited academic programme with a school library specialisation, of which there are none, our next challenge will be how to begin effectively equipping colleagues in this country with the body of knowledge that the Guidelines represent, especially Chapter 5. This is likely to be our most daunting challenge and one that must be resolutely met, for our success hinges on it – as Lance and Kachel (2018) remind us, while “the mere presence of a [full-time, qualified] librarian is associated with better student outcomes,” what they do matters, and “since 1992, a growing body of research known as the school library impact studies has consistently shown positive correlations between high-quality library programs and student achievement” (emphasis added).

The final challenge, which is really the first of the next series of challenges, is summed up by Lance (2019):

And finally, what is the future of school librarianship going to look like? Can we ascertain enough about how it is changing for LIS programs, state library and education agencies, and school library advocates to re-tool themselves and re-focus their efforts sufficiently to equip the next generation of school librarians or whatever their successors may be called?

One sows and another reaps.

We hope.

If you are interested in exploring this further, then you may be interested in our upcoming seminar on the 29th July – The Value Added School Librarian , details and booking here


Ellul, J. (1989). The Presence of the Kingdom. Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard.

Lance, K. C. (2019). “Last Lecture” Remarks about the Current Status and Future of School Librarianship and School Library Research. In D. V. Loertscher, & B. Woolls (Eds.), Symposium of the Greats: Wisdom from the Past & A Glimpse into the Future of School Libraries (pp. 50-56). Salt Lake City: Learning Commons Press.

Lance, K. C., & Kachel, D. E. (2018, March 26). Why school librarians matter: What years of research tell us. Retrieved from Phi Delta Kappan: The professional journal for educators:

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