Picture the typical librarian: someone standing behind a counter checking out books and helping people find research material via the Dewey Decimal System.
Now, imagine the 21st-century librarian.
Mira Johnson, head librarian at Southold High School, represents a new generation of library professionals whose goal is to help students integrate technology into their research projects and become more engaged in learning.
“I think it’s really, really changed,” Ms. Johnson said of her work, noting that a large part of the job now is collaborating with teachers to instruct students in properly locating scholarly articles, making presentations and developing project ideas.
Ms. Johnson meets with teachers in all grades and subject fields within the high school, most frequently humanities-based subjects, and discusses material to teach the students. She said teachers sometimes approach her with topic ideas and other times she’ll seek out teachers with hers. Then, Ms. Johnson creates a lesson to teach the students.
Last Friday Ms. Johnson taught seniors the difference between a periodical and a scholarly journal that can be cited in academic work, such as research papers. During the first half of the class she showed examples of each, pointing out that periodicals contained many pictures and advertisements as compared to scholarly journals, which had virtually none.
For the rest of the period, students used computers to find sources online while Ms. Johnson circulated, offering advice when needed.
“Knowing how to search is a whole new literacy,” Ms. Johnson said. “There is so much information, but it’s only useful if you know how to access it, use it and engage with it.”
Ms. Johnson, who has a master’s degree in library science from the University of Iowa and a certificate in school library media studies from Syracuse University, said she always “knew she needed to be surrounded by books.” While pursuing her master’s she was also a graduate instructor of rhetoric.
“A big lightbulb went off for me because I was learning library science but I was also teaching undergrads how to think critically, research and how to write,” she said. “So those things have always been connected for me.”
The goal of the Southold program, said high school principal William Galati, is to start students off with the kind of library classes Ms. Johnson runs while they’re in elementary school and continue to expand on their research knowledge as they enter the middle and high school.
Ms. Johnson asks middle school students to expand their independent reading assignments by learning about the authors’ lives and how that affects their storytelling.
As students enter high school, what they learn in the library progresses to research papers and citations.
“From the beginning [Ms. Johnson] taught us the simplest way to start a citations page, which is through Easybib,” senior Ethan Sisson said. “And then as the years went on we learned new tools other than Easybib. The most recent was an analyze button to show you how well you’re doing with your bibliography … So really, she’s been showing us what’s there and how we can use it, so it’s pretty helpful.”
Mr. Galati explained the importance of having librarians instill these lessons in students and build upon them from a young age.
“What we’re doing is instilling the college readiness component,” Mr. Galati said. “So at least, upon graduating from high school here, they have their set goals and objectives and really have a true understanding of how to conduct accurate research and cite appropriately.”
Rarely can Ms. Johnson use exactly the same lesson each year, she said, since technology is constantly changing.
Years ago, for example, she used to just ask students to create PowerPoint presentations as projects. Now students can use any number of other programs, such as Prezi or Google Slides, to do that.
Ms. Johnson, who has worked at Southold for about five years, recently returned to the district after spending 18 months in Germany. She became familiar with that country’s public library system, which she said is like “America’s system 25 years ago,” focused more on helping students locate books and rarely incorporating technology.
She said the “old model” tells students one standard way to do everything, whereas what she’s teaching at Southold now allows students to interpret things, ask questions and become more engaged with their learning.
Southold senior Walter Sutton said he was talking recently with his sister, who’s a freshman at Ohio State, about the things they were doing in school.
“She said that will really help us prepare for what she’s in right now,” he said. “It’s wrapping up to help propel us in the future.”
Top Caption: Southold High School librarian Mira Johnson helps senior Michael Dolan search for scholarly articles. (Credit: Nicole Smith)