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63rd IFLA General Conference - Conference Programme and Proceedings - August 31- September 5, 1997

Principal Support: Research from Canada

Dianne Oberg
Associate Professor
School of Library and Information Studies
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada


The research from Canada on the role of the principal in supporting the implementation of school library programs shows that teacher librarians generally view principal support as critical to the success of the library program and that effective school library programs are implemented in schools where the principal takes a leadership role in creating the collaborative environment necessary for cooperative integrated school library programs. The research from Canada related to the role of the principal can be categorized into two themes: how principals and other educators think about the role of the teacher-librarian and how principals work with teacher-librarians and other educators to implement school library programs.


This review of research on principal support for school libraries needs to be read with an awareness of the context of school education and of research in Canada. Canada is a large country geographically but its population is small, and the school library community is also small. Because education comes under provincial and territorial jurisdiction, there is no central coordinating body for school education such as a national office of education. School libraries in Canada are generally under the supervision of the principal, with the responsibility for the operation of the library and the development of instructional programs delegated to the library staff.

Principals in Canadian schools have a key role in determining schools' organizational culture and in determining the fate of innovations, such as the cooperative integrated school library program, that are introduced into schools. School libraries began to be organized in Canadian secondary schools in the 1940s and in elementary schools in the 1960s (Oberg & Wright, 1991) but the concept of the cooperative integrated school library program model did not receive wide attention until the 1970s and that model remains far from universal implementation in schools in Canada. Policies supporting school library programs vary from region to region and specialist training for teacher-librarians is recommended but not required for employment in most school districts.

Programs for school library education began in faculties of education in the 1960s in Canada, and research related to school libraries soon began to appear. In Canada, educational research is usually an activity sponsored by government bodies or by academic institutions. There is not a tradition in Canada of research being supported by privately funded foundations. The programs for education in teacher-librarianship are small, few, and scattered across the country. Only three universities (two English and one French) offer doctoral programs in library and information studies. The number of professors in faculties of education with the expertise and credentials necessary for supervising graduate work in teacher-librarianship in also very small. All this means that there is not a large amount of research in teacher-librarianship carried out in Canada, and that much of the research that is carried out is conducted by students in their Master's programs and much of it is not disseminated to the profession.

The Research Committee of the Canadian School Library Association (CSLA), a Division of the Canadian Library Association, has begun the process of gathering and analyzing the research done in Canada in teacher-librarianship on a region by region by basis across the country. At last year's conference in Halifax, Dr. Ken Haycock, University of British Columbia, reported on the British Columbia research and I reported on the Alberta research. This year in June several more regions will be heard from, and their findings will be added to the CLSA Website.

Drawing upon my work in school library program implementation and evaluation, I will review the Canadian research that I have found on the role of the principal in that endeavour. It is important to to remember that many of the studies that I am reporting are master's theses or projects, often graduate students' first experience of research and, although conducted under supervision, not always subject to the kind of rigorous review and critique that is generally provided for doctoral-level studies. It is also important to remember that there are probably more studies that have been done that I have not yet uncovered in my investigations. However, despite these limitations and disclaimers, the Canadian research on the role of the principal is consistent with research done in the United States and elsewhere. It suggests that teacher librarians generally view principal support as critical to the success of the library program and that effective school library programs are implemented in schools where the principal takes a leadership role in creating the collaborative environment necessary for cooperative integrated school library programs.

The research conducted in Canada related to the role of the principal in supporting school libraries can be categorized into two themes: how principals and other educators think about the role of the library and the teacher-librarian and how principals work with teacher-librarians and other educators to implement school library programs. For consistency, the term “teacher-librarian” has been used throughout this paper. Some of the early studies reported here used the terms “school librarian” and “librarian.”

Theme 1: The Role of the Library and the Teacher-Librarian

The first theme looks at how principals and teachers (and teacher-librarians themselves) think about the role of the library and the teacher-librarian in Canadian schools. This area of research helps us to understand principals' attitudes and knowledge, two factors which are related to the quantity and quality of support that principals give to the school library program. This relationship has often been pointed out in the professional literature of teacher-librarianship (for Canadian examples, see Haycock, 1981; Hamilton, 1983).

Most of the studies grouped under Theme 1 are perception studies that look at "what is" -- how do educators conceptualize the work of the teacher-librarian; one study in this group looks at how teacher-librarians develop their conceptualization of their role, that is, "how they learn to be teacher-librarians." There have been a number of "perception" studies done in Canada. In these studies, the tasks of a teacher-librarian, actual and ideal, are rated in importance by teachers, principals, and teacher-librarians. In general, these studies have revealed that all of these groups have felt disappointment or uncertainty about the actual role of the teacher-librarian and, in relation to the ideal role of the teacher-librarian, that principals held higher expectations for the teacher-librarian's role while teachers held lower expectations.

In one of the first of the perception studies in Canada, Reid (1971) surveyed teacher-librarians, principals and teachers, randomly selected from Alberta schools where full-time teacher-librarians were employed. Participants completed a questionnaire consisting of fifty-five possible teacher-librarian's tasks, indicating the degree of obligation which they felt to be associated with each task and the degree to which each task was actually performed. Participants from all three groups expressed considerable disapproval of actual teacher-librarian performance. In relation to ideal teacher-librarian performance, teacher-librarians, principals and teachers generally desired more emphasis to be placed on educational and administrative tasks. When ideal tasks were compared between pairs of groups, greatest disagreement was found to exist between teacher-librarians and teachers, particularly in the area of educational tasks, to which teacher-librarians attached more importance than did teachers, and also in the area of non-professional tasks, to which teacher-librarians attached less importance than did teachers. Both teacher-librarians and principals advocated that more of the teacher-librarian's attention be devoted to professional tasks.

In a similar study, conducted in over 80 Ontario elementary schools about a decade later, Hambleton (1980) found there was no consensus between and among principals, teachers, and teacher-librarians on the role of the teacher-librarian. As part of the study, participants completed a role inventory questionnaire of 60 items. Principals were more consistent in their perceptions than either the teachers or the teacher-librarians, and principals had a more professional view of the teacher-librarians’ role. Teachers agreed that teacher-librarians should teach individual classes but they did not support the teacher-librarians’ role as a materials specialist or as a participant in curriculum development. The teacher-librarians in this study were not performing any instructional roles to an appreciable extent. They were in agreement on less than half of the 60 items on the role inventory, suggesting that teacher-librarians themselves were not prepared to communicate a definite role to teachers and principals.

Johnson (1983), using a mail survey, asked teachers, teacher-librarians and principals in one Alberta school district to list the tasks that should be be given priority by teacher-librarians. As a group, librarians placed a high priority on instructional tasks, closely followed by media selection tasks. Teachers placed a high priority on technical tasks for which a qualified teacher-librarian was not necessary. Principals placed their priority on tasks that would require librarians to have teaching experience, a knowledge of curriculum planning, and expertise in media selection. Johnson suggested that the 'new' instructional role for the teacher-librarian, advocated in the literature of the 1970s, had not taken place in the school district, due to lack of leadership from administrators in promoting this role and to lack of consensus among librarians themselves.

In another study, Hauck and Schieman (1985) surveyed a random sample of principals and teacher-librarians in Alberta about the importance of five major roles, at that time and for the future: selection, professional development, curriculum and instruction, utilization and promotion, and information services. They found that teacher-librarians were developing a consensus about their major roles but that principals were less certain about the role of the teacher-librarian. Rural principals placed less importance on the future role of the teacher-librarian in curriculum and instruction.

Dekker (1989) surveyed principals and teacher-librarians in elementary schools in Ontario about roles and attitudes related to school libraries and to the role of the teacher-librarian. Both principals and teacher-librarians ranked teacher-librarians below classroom teachers in terms of public image and many indicated lack of support for such school library program basics as flexible scheduling and cooperative teaching. Principals and teacher-librarians differed significantly in their rating of the importance of various roles for the teacher-librarian. Principals placed a higher priority on long range planning, reporting, and policy making while teacher-librarians placed a higher priority on controlling library budgets and personnel and on time for planning, teaching, and evaluating with teachers. Fewer than half of the teacher-librarians in the study reported that their principal actively supported the school library program model advocated by the provincial ministry of education and fewer than half the principals reported that their school district supported the program through policies or guidelines.

Oberg and LaRocque (1992) explored the role of the teacher-librarian from quite a different perspective that the studies cited above. In order to understand how teacher-librarians develop their cpnceptualization of their role, they examined the experiences of two new teacher librarians as they struggled to establish a library program in a school where the program was new to them as well as to the teachers and the principals of their schools. The teacher librarians were interviewed jointly three times in their first year of practice. Five themes were identified related to learning to be a teacher librarian: academic preparation; previous teaching experience; personal experiences; consulting the experts; and first year experience as a teacher librarian. The first and last themes have particular relevance to the role of the principal in the school library program. Their academic preparation had given the novices a clear image of the work of the teacher-librarian--managing the library and working collaboratively with teachers--but it had not given them specific concrete strategies for implementing the instructional part of their role by, for example, working with the principal. Their first-year experience as teacher-librarians helped them to understand the complexity of implementing a new schoolwide program. They began to see the importance of long range planning and the need to explain their role to teachers. They began to realize that the critical role the principal played in supporting the school library program went beyond adequate budgets and flexible scheduling; the principal was the key person in setting expectations for teacher involvement in the school library program and in helping teachers understand how the school library program could be integrated with curriculum programs and how this contributed to the achievement of school goals.

These studies from Canada have examined the role of the library and the teacher-librarian in educational programs from the point of view of principals, teachers, and teacher-librarians. The studies suggest that, in general, principals have a clearer understanding of the school library program and a more positive vision for the school library program than do classroom teachers. Principals' views of the school library programs are closer to that of teacher-librarians. However, several studies showed that teacher-librarians had not reached a strong consensus about their role. Although that consensus was reflected in the professional literature of teacher-librarianship and although the later studies suggest that a consensus was growing among practicing teacher-librarians, this uncertainty has made it difficult for teacher-librarians to gain support from principals and other educators. More current studies of the perceptions of principals, teachers, and teacher-librarian in Canada about the role of the library and the teacher-librarian are needed but the observation of practice and of commentary in journals and listservs within the profession suggests no major changes in the past decade.

Theme 2: How Principals Support School Library Programs

Theme two explores how how principals work with teacher-librarians and other educators to implement school library programs. Implementing school library programs involves challenges similar to the implementation of any educational innovation about which the participants have limited knowledge. The studies in this group include several studies of effective school library programs and one study of professional development to support school library progam implementation. Joint training of principals and teacher-librarians often has been recommended in discussions of the implementation of collaborative school library programs. One study in Alberta, conducted by Anderson in 1981, examined the relationship between training of participants and the adoption of an innovation, in this case, consultation in the school library program (cooperative planning and teaching). The study participants, 26 principals and teacher-librarians, received training in consultation skills. Questionnaires and focused interviews were used to determine extent of the adoption of the innovation. Participants expressed positive attitudes toward the training experience, in particular the role play strategies that were used. The training did not appear to result in the participants providing any mutual support during their efforts to implement the innovation but it did appear to allow individuals to further conceptualize the requirements of the innovation. Participants varied in their success with cooperative planning and teaching. Their concerns tended to cluster around concern for more information and concern regarding role requirements of the innovations. The study results supported the use of training strategies that encourage high involvement and indicated that both individual and group assistance are needed during the adoption process and that there needed to be a recognition of appropriate time frames for the implementation of change. The results of this study suggest that training alone, even when it is high quality training and shared by the principal and the teacher-librarian, is insufficient to enable principals and teacher-librarians to work in partnership in implementing aspects of the school library program.

More recent studies have identified exemplary school library programs and have used qualitative methodologies to attempt to understand how principals and teacher-librarians work to establish effective programs.

Rauf (1989) used a case study approach to describe one school library program in an Alberta city with a reputation for excellence in order to: (1) identify positive outcomes of a resource-based school library program for the students, teachers, and parents involved, and (2) identify factors contributing to the successful implementation of this program. Data were collected through interviews and through observation of a library-based unit from planning to evaluation. With regard to the second purpose of this project, factors contributing to the successful implementation of this resource-based school library program included staff involvement in program planning and implementation, a strong teacher-librarian with a clear purpose for her program, administrative support, central office support, parental support, and an enthusiastic staff with a clear idea of the objectives of a resource-based school library program.

Nasedkin (1989) described and analyzed the operation of an effective school library program to investigate three broad questions: (1) How does the teacher-librarian conceptualize the role? (2) How does the teacher-librarian's interaction with others contribute to the effectiveness of a school library program? (3) What is the nature of the school context in which an effective library program operates? The study was conducted in one elementary school in a large urban district in Alberta that had been identified as operating an effective school library program. Data were collected primarily through semi-structured interviews and were triangulated through observation and document analysis. The teacher-librarian had a definite vision for the direction of the school library program. This vision was clearly communicated to and shared by the staff. The partnership among the principal, teacher-librarian, and staff members allowed the program to function effectively. This staff collaboration was an important focus for the entire school. The supportive, collaborative context in which the program was operated was also an important element in its effectiveness. Three major conclusions were drawn from this study: (a) the principal played a key role in determining the effectiveness of the school library program, (b) the social structure of the school which allowed the teacher-librarian to occupy a position of informal leadership contributed to the effectiveness of the program, and (c) the overall school philosophy was a significant element in the program's effectiveness. All three conclusions point to the importance of the principal in creating the collaborative environment in which a school library program can flourish.

La Rocque and Oberg (1991) examined the principal's role as one element of school culture that facilitated the successful establishment of school library programs. In a small urban school district in Alberta, called Prairie Rose in the study, a district which was reputed to have exemplary school library programs, the researchers interviewed twelve individuals at the district level, the superintendent and school library consultant, and at the school level, the teacher librarian and the principal or vice principal from five of the districts' schools. The interviews, about an hour each in length, were audiotaped and transcribed. Five themes were identified relating to the role of the principal in supporting school library programs: believing in the school library program; recognizing the importance of the teacher librarian; ensuring cooperative planning time; providing appropriate staff development; and monitoring implementation of the school library program. The principals believed that cooperative planning and teaching resulted in benefits for students, for teachers, and for the staff as a whole. Students learned more and learned how to learn; teachers developed a deeper understanding of curriculum and instruction; and the whole staff learned to value teamwork which, in turn, encouraged innovativeness and risktaking. The principals were actively involved in the selection of their teacher-librarians and then supported them by meeting with them regularly, ensuring that they served on major school committees, and encouraging teachers to work with them. The principals ensured that teacher-librarians were free to work with teachers through flexible scheduling, through provision of clerical staff, and through the hiring of substitute teachers to release teachers for major planning efforts. The principals provided staff development through time at regular staff meetings, through the staff orientation session at the beginning of the school year, and through school-based inservice sessions. They also utilized brief but frequent casual encounters in the hallway or staffroom to alert teachers to the possibilities of the school library program. The principals ensured that teachers were involved in the school library program through the supervision and evaluation process. They checked to see if teachers had worked with the teacher-librarian, they talked informally with teachers about their cooperatively planned units, and they encouraged teachers to work with the teacher-librarian if they had not done so. The principals modelled the commitment they expected of teachers and they integrated the school library program into the general program of the school.

A followup study of principal support was carried out by the author of this paper (Oberg, 1996) by "re searching" the data collected for two earlier studies (the Prairie Rose study and the Learning to be a Teacher-librarian study). The notion of principal support had emerged frequently as a major focus in the first study and as a frequent sub text in the second study. All of the original transcripts of interviews of the seven teacher librarians, five interviews from the first study and seven interviews from the second, a total of about 175 pages of transcript data, were reviewed to locate references to principal support and to construct from these references an understanding of what teacher librarians meant by principal support and of how teacher librarians acted to obtain principal support. Because the two studies involved teacher librarians from two different stages in their professional lives, it was possible also to compare their understandings and actions in relation to principal support. The five teacher librarians in the first study, who are termed in this paper experienced teacher librarians all had worked as teacher librarians for more than 10 years; the two teacher librarians in the second study were just beginning their professional careers, novices in their first few years of practice.

The concept of principal support was understood by both novice and experienced teacher librarians in terms of support for the school library program and support for the teacher librarian. The teacher librarians indicated that the principal showed support for the program in three ways: by working directly with teachers to develop their understanding of the program; by clearly demonstrating personal commitment to the program; and by using the management role of the school leader to enable the program. In working with teachers, the principal made it clear that teachers were expected to be involved in the school library program. This was done by requiring evidence of that involvement in teacher planning documents and in evaluations of teacher performance. The principal also encouraged teachers' professional development in relation to the school library program by providing the time and resources for in-school inservice and by providing time for the program in staff meetings. The teacher librarians stated that the principal demonstrated active personal commitment for the school library program by making explicit statements about the value of the program, by being visible in library, and by being a model for teachers by using program in his or her teaching. The principal interpreted the role of the school library program to students and parents and to district level personnel and other principals. The principal, in his or her management and administrative role in the school, supported the school library program by ensuring the provision of adequate program budgeting for materials and for clerical help and by arranging for the flexible scheduling that allowed cooperative planning time. The principal also ensured that the school library program was integrated into the planning and evaluating structures of the school. The principal showed support for the teacher librarian in providing the teacher librarian with an element of visibility and importance. The principal made time for meetings with the teacher librarian. The principal trusted the professional knowledge and expertise of the teacher librarian and gave consideration to his or her ideas and suggestions. The principal encouraged the personal and professional development of the teacher librarian.

The novice and experienced teacher librarians demonstrated similar understandings of the concept of principal support for the school library program and for the teacher librarian; they differed, however, in their understandings of how they might engender that support. They also differed in the actions they took to ensure that they had that support. The experienced teacher librarians as a group were much more direct in their communication with their principals and more active in gaining the support of their principals. There was also an awareness that support from other administrators, such as vice principals and district level administrators, was also important. The novice teacher librarians, like the experienced teacher librarians, understood the need for communication with their principals in order to gain support for the school library programs and for their role as teacher librarians. However, in their first year of practice, the novices did not have success in communicating with their principal. The experienced teacher librarians were assertive in asking for communication with their principals and they were not hesitant about educating their principals, when it seemed to be needed, about the program and role of the teacher librarian. They were clearer than the novices about their professional needs and about the goals of the school library program; they were more perceptive of and accepting of their principals' views; and they were more patient and accepting of the evolution of the program.

The studies reported in Theme 2 contribute to our understanding of how how principals work with teacher-librarians and other educators to implement school library programs. The studies suggest that implementation is more likely in settings where principals work to create collaborative school cultures, where principals understand the nature and benefits of the school library program, and where principals provide specific and concrete support for the school library program and for role of the teacher-librarian. Implementation is enhanced, but not ensured, by professional development that is shared by principals and teacher-librarians. Although many principals have a vision of the potential of the school library program, their ongoing support of the program and of the teacher-librarian does not always flow from that vision. Teacher-librarians need to be prepared to work with the principal in developing that vision and to ask for principal support for implementing that vision.

Principal Support: Underlying Patterns

Principals’ Knowledge and Vision of the School Library Program

Several Canadian studies suggest that principals have a clearer understanding of the school library program and a more positive vision for the school library program than do classroom teachers. Generally, this has not been developed through their formal education as teachers or administrators. Sometimes, this may have been developed through the experience of working with a teacher-librarian. Sometimes, this may have been the result of working in a district where the school library program and the role of the teacher librarian were well institutionalized, from the superintendent and board of school trustees down to the school level. However, teacher-librarians often have low expectations of principal support (see, for example, American studies such as Lewis, 1991 and Campbell, 1991), and they need to consider that their principals may be more willing to give support than they realize.

Teacher-Librarian’ Actions to Gain Principal Support

Many teacher librarians seem to have a clear understanding of the concept of principal support and of how important this support is. However, teacher-librarians may have a limited understanding of how to gain that support. An American study (Edwards, 1989) found that teacher-librarian rarely engaged in the kind of activities that would increase their principals' understanding and support. Developing principal support for the school library program and for the role of the teacher librarian is an important task for all teacher librarians but it is one that must be learned. Gaining principal support can be a difficult task and may take several years of effort, based on a planned approach as well as utilizing the opportunities that occur. With each new school assignment, teacher librarians have to begin anew the work of communicating with the principal and the teachers about their role and about the school library program. For teacher librarians, in contexts where school library programs are not yet well established at school and district levels, this can be very difficult for them to do.

Influence of Professional, School and District Cultures

Developing principal support for the school library program and for the role of the teacher-librarian is facilitated where library use and collaborative work were encouraged by the principal. This is enhanced where library use and collaborative work is reinforced by district policyand administrative structures. Dekker (1989) found that school district administrators were important in enabling principals to support library programs in their schools. The task of gaining principal support also appears to be much less difficult where teacher librarians have access to a strong and active teacher librarian network which is committed to ongoing professional education and mentoring as well as to advocacy and policy development.


Teacher librarians appear to havea clear understanding of what principal support entails and of the need to gain this critical support. They appear to have, particularly when they enter into professional practice, less knowledge of the strategies that they might employ to gain principal support and less assertiveness in using the strategies of which they are aware. They also may underestimate the potential for principal support.

Educators of teacher librarians need to consider how they might integrate into their programs of instruction more exploration of professional practice in the area of gaining principal support. Novices need to be aware of the difficulty of gaining principal support in schools and districts where school library programs are not well established. They also need to be helped to be aware of and to utilize professional networks early in their professional lives.

In Canada, the concern for principal support of school library programs and of teacher-librarians is more pressing than ever. As educational decision making is being decentralized and as more control of staffing and budgeting is being given over to schools, the principal has an increasing role in determining the nature of educational programs in each school. Other countries may be developing and implementing school library programs in quite different contexts than the Canadian conext. Those who wish to apply the findings of the research reviewed in this paper must do so with an awareness of the unique contexts in which this research was carried out and keeping in mind the similarities and differences between their contexts and the contexts of these studies.


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