Expanding the use of Open Educational Resources (OER)—which includes openly licensed textbooks and courses, as well as learning resources such as videos, interactives, and primary source material—is helping to build student engagement by making learning materials more local, relevant, up-to-date, and alive.

Librarians play a crucial leadership role in identifying relevant OER and training teachers to implement OER in the classroom. But curating OER materials and helping educators take advantage of them remains a challenge, because in many places school libraries are closing, and collaborative opportunities and time to curate—as well as support from school-level administrators—remain rare.

Despite a growing body of research that shows a link between high-quality library programs and student achievement—including improved reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)[1]—the number of librarians in U.S. public schools has dropped precipitously even as student enrollment has increased. According to an analysis of federal data by Education Week Research Center, public school districts have lost 20 percent of their school librarians and media specialists, from about 54,000 in the year 2000 to just under 44,000 in 2015, and districts serving students of color have been hit the hardest.[2]  In Los Angeles, for example, the district has lost half its librarians in the last decade. Across the state of Michigan, 85 percent of schools have no librarian.

States, districts, and schools that do not support a library or librarian may have a harder time supporting equitable access to learning.

Even if students have access to computers and the internet at home, we cannot expect them to use these resources effectively and responsibly without the media literacy skills and knowledge that librarians teach them.

Meanwhile, in schools that do have them, librarians are often underused resources. Librarians spend inordinate amounts of time supervising classes of students in the library to give teachers free time to plan future lessons. But librarians have a significant role to play in helping students and educators navigate the myriad resources that are available online. By working as partners with educators, librarians can lead efforts to identify materials that are aligned with standards and licensed for use, collaboratively assess materials for validity and educational value, and help educators adapt these materials for use in their classrooms and assignments.

Librarians’ expertise and leadership is also essential to efforts to jumpstart OER adoption. From our work and study of more than 50 districts in five states (FL, MI, CA, WA, and NH), we found that school systems where school librarians were able to do OER work:

  • Identify OER curation as a formal part of the school librarian role
  • Establish a collaborative culture and climate to enable school librarian partnerships around curriculum development
  • Provide access to professional learning opportunities on OER
  • In some cases, have revised their intellectual property guidelines to include open licensing

Additional interviews with librarians and district leaders who have successfully introduced OER also indicated that these districts display certain characteristics, overall.

  • Investment in OER for training and development. Though OER materials are freely available, OER implementation is not free. There is a cost to providing time for educators to curate materials and to providing professional development to help educators get comfortable with using OER. Some districts have recouped these costs from cost savings on textbook purchases or have used these savings to purchase additional supplemental materials that amplify the benefits of OER materials.
  • Support for implementation from the top and create buy-in at all levels. Because OER adoption involves changes in both curriculum and culture, successful efforts need buy-in from the central office (superintendent, subject area and curriculum directors, staff development, and finance teams), as well as at the school level (principals and especially teachers). Some of the most successful efforts focus on establishing learning communities and coalitions of engaged teachers who have an interest in enhancing their practice with new tools. These teachers are the early adopters who demonstrate what the work is and what success looks like and who can encourage their peers.
  • Pilot-test of materials to ensure that content is connected to standards and accessible to all. Most districts have found that it is easier to start with specific courses and with pilot groups of teachers who can test how well the learning material is tied to the district’s learning, accessibility, and diversity standards.
  • Continuous expansion of curation to new subject areas. Rather than revamp the entire curriculum at once, districts have been more successful by starting with specific subject areas and expanding to more subjects over time.
  • Use of OER as a means to make learning materials more relevant to an increasingly diverse student population. As with all curriculum-development efforts, OER curation must involve close attention to racial and cultural bias, but the adaptability of OER means that broadening the representation of underserved students in the curriculum can be intentionally built into the curriculum-building process from the start.

To help schools and districts address the challenges and opportunities OER brings, the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education developed a unique framework that puts school librarians—and school libraries—at the center of effort to increase relevance and equity in learning. The resource, The Role of School Librarians in OER Curation: A Framework to Guide Practice, was developed in partnership with the Florida State University’s School of Information and was supported by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences. It is a first-of-its-kind guide that provides the missing roadmap to the OER curation and implementation processes. It also provides resources to help librarians and others upgrade their skills as curators and as leaders of collaborative networks that identify, rate, adapt, localize, and share OER across learning communities.

The guide can help you create communities of practice in your district to advance the work of curation, and, in that effort, rejuvenate the role of school libraries and librarians. In today’s schools, school librarians can be key catalysts who help teachers and curriculum specialists create the resources that will best engage students and increase learning.


[1] https://www.kappanonline.org/lance-kachel-school-librarians-matter-years-research/

[2] https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2018/05/16/schools-see-steep-drop-in-librarians-new.html

Amee Evans Godwin, M.A.
Amee Evans Godwin, M.A. is vice-president for research and development for the Silicon Valley- based nonprofit, the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education. The Institute works with states, districts, and federal agencies to expand the use of open education resourcesand manages OER Commons, the OER public digital library of record for educators and learners in K-12 and higher education.  
Cynthia Jimes, Ph.D.
Cynthia Jimes, Ph.D. is director of research and learning for the Silicon Valley-based nonprofit, the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education. The Institute works with states, districts, and federal agencies to expand the use of open education resources and manages OER Commons, the OER public digital library of record for educators and learners in K-12 and higher education.