Proof of the Power:
Quality Library Media Programs Affect Academic Achievement
by Keith Curry LanceDirector, Library Research ServiceColorado State Library and University of Denver
MultiMedia Schools • September 2001
T he evidence is mounting! By early 2000, researchers affiliated with the Library Research Service of the Colorado State Library and the University of Denver—myself included—had completed four statewide studies on the impact of school library media programs on the academic achievement of U.S. public school students: Philosophically, these studies are rooted in the "Information Power" model espoused by the American Association of School Librarians and the findings from 6 decades of research related to the impact of school library media programs on academic achievement.

The latest edition of Information Power: Building Partnerships for Learning (1998) identifies three roles for school library media specialists. In a learning and teaching role, library media specialists advance the instructional goals of the school. As providers of information access and delivery, they develop collections and services and facilitate their use. And, as program administrators, they serve as library media center managers as well as school-wide advocates and trainers for information literacy.

Over the past half-century, there have been about 75 studies on the impact of school library media programs on academic achievement. For the three state studies we've chosen to highlight in this article—Alaska, Pennsylvania, and Colorado—each report contains an exhaustive review of this literature. For that reason, we'll only provide a thumbnail summary of that review here.

The Learning Teaching Role
Many early studies of this topic demonstrated the value of the mere presence of a professionally trained and credentialed library media specialist. Such correlations, however, beg the question of what the library media specialists are doing that makes a difference. In more recent studies, their contributions as creators of and collaborators in a learning community have been the focus. These studies indicate that students perform better academically where the library media specialist:

The Information Access and Delivery Role
One of the most consistent strands of research on this topic is evidenced by studies that demonstrate the value of: The Program Administration Role
A key role of the library media specialist, but one that has only been the subject of research for a decade, is program administration. In today's schools, library media specialists are not only managers of the library media center, but also advocates for information literacy with the principal, at faculty meetings, and in standards and curriculum committee meetings. In addition to being advocates, they are trainers who provide in-service programs for teachers on resource-based learning, integrating information literacy into the curriculum, and getting the most out of technology, as well as teaching students.

To be a successful advocate for information literacy, research shows that library media specialists must:

In each state study, we surveyed school library media programs at the building level on a variety of topics. The topics common to all three state studies were staffing levels, staff activities, collection size, usage statistics, and available technology.

Respondents for participating libraries reported library media staffing levels, including numbers of individuals and numbers of hours worked per typical week for different types of staff. Ultimately, the distinction between professionally trained and credentialed library media specialists and all other types of staff became critical.

To respond to the concern that the original Colorado study did not define what was meant by "an instructional role," the recent surveys asked for a distribution of staff hours per typical week among various activities related to exercising leadership in the school, collaborating with classroom teachers, and creating and maintaining a strong relationship between the library media program and school technology.

Like most surveys of library media programs, these asked for counts of the number of items in the library media center's collection by format (e.g., books, periodicals, audio, video) and usage statistics (e.g., numbers of individual and group visits to the library media center).

To assess the level of integration between the school's library media and technology programs, the surveys also requested counts of computers both in the library media center and elsewhere in the school—provided the computers were networked to library resources. In addition to a general count, numbers of computers capable of particular functions were requested (e.g., providing access to the library catalog, licensed databases, and the World Wide Web).

In addition to survey data on school libraries, the studies required substantial amounts of available data: test scores for schools; other school data, including the teacher-pupil ratio, per-pupil expenditures, and teacher characteristics such as the percentage with advanced degrees, average years of experience, and average salary; and community data, including the racial/
ethnic distribution of students, the percentage of students eligible for the National School Lunch Program (i.e., poverty), and the percentage of the community's adults who graduated from high school.

The test instruments varied by state. Alaska utilized the California Achievement Tests (CAT), but both Pennsylvania and Colorado utilized their own state-designed, standards-based tests: the Pennsylvania System for Student Assessment (PSSA) and the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP), respectively. On the basis of an analysis done as part of the original Colorado Study, reading scores were utilized in all three states. The earlier study found that reading scores correlate so highly with other types of test scores that the other types of scores are statistically redundant.


Successful Types of Library Media Predictors
While the results of the three studies varied somewhat, on the whole, the findings concerning what aspects of school library media programs are important were remarkably consistent.

Library Media Program Development: In all three states, the level of development of the library media program was a predictor of student performance, and data on staffing levels correlated with test scores. In both Pennsylvania and Colorado, additional data on collections and expenditures were predictive of reading scores. Where library media programs are better staffed, better stocked, and better funded, academic achievement tends to be higher.

Staff Activities: Levels of student performance were also related, in all three states, to the extent to which library media staff engaged in particular activities related to the teaching of information literacy and to the exercise of leadership, collaboration, and technology.

Library Media Center Usage: In both Alaska and Colorado, individual student visits to the library media center correlated with test scores. Notably, group library media center visits did not demonstrate such a correlation.

Technology: In Alaska, the availability of Internet-capable computers in the library media center was tied to test scores. In Pennsylvania and Colorado, where similar questions were asked about technology, achievement levels increased with the availability of networked computers, both in the library media center and elsewhere in the school, that provided access to catalogs, licensed databases, and the Internet.

Common Findings
All of the recent studies of the impact of school library media programs on academic achievement provide evidence to support several common findings:

Table 1
Percent of Test Score Variation Explained 
by Library Media Variables Alone
by School Level and State, 1998/99

Percent of test score variation explained

Level by library media variables alone
  Pennsylvania Colorado Oregon
Elementary 4 percent * 8 percent 4 percent
Middle 5 percent * 2 percent 3 percent
High 6 percent * n/a 5 percent **
* In Pennsylvania, these percentages represent the average variation
explained by library media specialist staffing based on a series of partial
correlation analyses.

** At high school level in Oregon, the effects of community variables
are included in unexplained variation.

Controlling for School and Community Differences
Controlling for school and community differences is the distinguishing feature of the research model employed in the original Colorado study as well as in the subsequent studies in Alaska, Pennsylvania, and Colorado (as well as in our recent Oregon study). Claims by earlier studies to have established cause-and-effect relationships between characteristics of library media programs and academic achievement did not do this. Consequently, these study results were readily called into question.

For example, when it was found that higher library media expenditures correlated with higher test scores, it was easy to explain away this relationship by attributing the test scores to higher school expenditures generally. The cause of higher achievement was not spending on the library media program in particular, but rather being a prosperous school that could afford to spend more on everything.

To preclude this and similar criticisms and to establish a stronger claim that reported correlations reflect cause-and-effect, these studies encompassed data on schools (i.e., per-pupil spending, teacher-pupil ratio, various teacher characteristics) and their communities (i.e., poverty levels, racial/ethnic demography, adult educational attainment). These additional variables address most, if not all, of the stronger arguments that could otherwise be made to discount the consistent findings of this line of research.

In all three states, analyses were conducted to measure the impact on test scores of each library media, school, and community characteristic while controlling for the others. Table 1 summarizes the percentages of variation in test scores that were explained by library media programs at each grade level in the Pennsylvania and Colorado studies, as well as for the Oregon study. (Such analyses could not be conducted successfully in Alaska due to data and other circumstantial limitations.)

After accounting for the considerable impact on academic achievement of community socio-economic conditions—from one-third to three-quarters, depending on the state and the school level—library media predictors almost always outperformed other school characteristics, such as teacher-pupil ratio and per-pupil expenditures.


Recommended Actions by School Officials
The practical implications of these research findings are a clear and straightforward call to action:

Lance, Keith Curry; Hamilton-Pennell, Christine; Rodney, Marcia J. "Information Empowered: The School Librarian as an Agent of Academic Achievement in Alaska Schools." Revised edition. Juneau, Alaska: Alaska State Library, 2000.

Lance, Keith Curry; Rodney, Marcia J.; Hamilton-Pennell, Christine. "Measuring Up to Standards: The Impact of School Library Programs and Information Literacy in Pennsylvania Schools." Greensburg, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania Citizens for Better Libraries, 2000.

Lance, Keith Curry; Rodney, Marcia J.; Hamilton-Pennell, Christine. "How School Librarians Help Kids Achieve Standards: The Second Colorado Study." San Jose, California: Hi Willow Research and Publishing, 2000.

Lance, Keith Curry; Loertscher, David V. "Powering Achievement: School Library Media Programs Make a Difference: The Evidence." San Jose, California: Hi Willow Research and Publishing, 2001.

Lance, Keith Curry; Welborn, Lynda; Hamilton-Pennell, Christine. The Impact of School Library Media Centers on Academic Achievement." Castle Rock, Colorado: Hi Willow Research and Publishing, 1993.

Communications to the author may be addressed to Keith Curry Lance, Library Research Service, Colorado Department of Education, 201 E. Colfax Ave., Suite 309, Denver, CO 80203-1799; phone: 303/866-6737; fax: 303/866-6940; e-mail:

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