An Interview with Anita Brooks Kirkland

Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed, Anita.  I appreciate it and I know that a lot of the readers of this blog will be interested in your insights into today’s Learning Commons.



Doug:  I always start with this question – do you remember when we first met?


Anita: I think it must have been at an ECOO conference, likely twelve or thirteen years ago. Your reputation preceded you. Our friend Ron Millar promoted the resources in your database that you generously shared beyond the GECDSB, and I had met a dynamic group of teacher-librarians from Greater Essex who had sung your praises.


Doug:  I’ll bet that I could name many of those teacher-librarians.  They share your passion for the library and all that it can bring to a school.  Obviously, I didn’t know you from your previous life before being assigned to the board office.  Can you share some of your teaching experience?


Anita: My pre-service teacher training was in instrumental music and school librarianship, believe it or not. It was the last year that you could do librarianship as a teachable. I had intended to teach at the secondary level, but when I started many boards were extending instrumental music into Grades 7 and 8. I started teaching instrumental music and a variety of core subjects in Durham Region. After five years I moved to Waterloo (where my new husband lived and worked) and taught in a senior elementary school. I had a lot more music classes, but continued to teach core as well. After a few years I moved into the school library. When the board cut elementary teacher-librarian positions, I spent one year as an itinerant teacher-librarian for three schools, and the next year I became the library consultant for K-12 libraries. I supported the school-based secondary teacher-librarians, the small group of centrally-assigned elementary teacher-librarians, and the library clerks who had come to staff the elementary libraries.


Doug:  Provincially, there has been huge discussion and controversy around school libraries recently.  Can you give us the “big picture” from your perspective?


Anita: Firstly, I’m gratified that there is a discussion. Over the past few years, since the publication of Together for Learning, there’s been quite a bit of excitement about new possibilities for the school library program, and we are seeing some great work in many school districts. There’s a lot of innovation taking place and it’s never been a more exciting time to be a librarian, I think. Having said that, school library programs in many places are still reeling from the massive cuts of the early 2000s. Without repeating my entire blog post on the topic (Ontario Needs Teacher-Librarians), my hope is that the Ministry of Education will decide to be more strategic in its thinking about leveraging the substantial investment it already makes in libraries. Unlike most other provinces, there is nobody at the Ministry with direct responsibility for school libraries, and although the Ministry funded Together for Learning, the last time it actually published a program guideline itself was in 1982 (Partners in Action,which was a great document, and brought international attention to Ontario). It is my strong belief that effective school library learning commons programs can help Ontario realize its goals in education. It’s going to take leadership from the Ministry to fully realize that potential.


Doug:  In many cases, there has been a rebranding of “library” to “learning commons”.  What does this really mean?


Anita: I’ll start by saying that I am one of the early adopters of the philosophy of the learning commons, and have dedicated a considerable amount of my professional life facilitating understanding about the idea. The moniker learning commons should not replace the word library. Libraries are and always have been about empowering learning through equitable access to information and reading, and a strong ethic of intellectual freedom. That is a proud history. When people drop the name library, I think they are trying to break a perceived stereotype rather than leveraging everything that the library stands for.

The collaborative, inquiry-based and technology-enabled learning construct described in our own Ontario guideline, Together for Learning: School Libraries and the Emergence of the Learning Commons places the emphasis on learning how to learn, and describes how the school library program can enable this approach. Keeping school library in the name connects these ideas.


I’m spending quite a bit of time these days working with teacher-librarians, teachers and principals on our new national standards document, published by the Canadian Library Association. Leading Learning: Standards of Practice for School Library Learning Commons in Canada describes the place of the school library learning commons. “A learning commons is a whole school approach to building a participatory learning community. The library learning commons is the physical and virtual collaborative learning hub of the school. It is designed to engineer and drive future-oriented learning and teaching throughout the entire school.”


Doug:  Some libraries have had that name changed in name only.  What do they truly have to do to make it a “learning commons”?


Anita: Well that’s it, isn’t it! Transforming the physical space of the library is definitely part of the plan – making the space open and flexible to facilitate collaboration and innovative learning practices. And making these changes to the physical environment is very tangible. But if that is all that the school does, then they have not created a learning commons.


What do they truly have to do? To start with, the transformation has to be a whole school approach. A learning commons can help schools implement the inquiry approach that has become ubiquitous in the Ontario Curriculum. The Ministry of Education is clearly interested in developing competencies for 21st century learners (they have a whole unit working on this!) and are promoting the SAMR model for technology integration. The school library learning commons model can be a powerful enabler for all of these ideas. Once that connection has been made, then the deeper possibilities can be realized.


Doug:  There have been a number of Learning Commons that have incorporated Maker Spaces as their latest area of innovation.  What does that look like and how can that enrich a school?


Anita: Maker spaces are another expression of inquiry learning, and isn’t that what we do in the library? Wonder, and explore. Many libraries in all sectors are setting up maker spaces. I think this is a great arrangement. When kids are “learning through tinkering” in the maker space as John Seely Brown would describe it, what better place to explore the deeper questions that arise than in the information and technology-rich library space. At the Ontario Library Association Super Conference 2015, John Seely Brown talked about the library as “a new kind of design studio where content and context come to play. Where folks of any age can imagine, create, learn and innovate and a social space scaffolding all of the above.” I love the notion of the library as a creative space, knowing that creativity and inquiry are complementary facets of learning.


Doug:  One of the things that always amazed me was how you were aligned with the ICT side of the house in WRDSB.  I recall the day when both you and our buddy Ron recommended that we engage Doug Johnson to keynote the Western RCAC Symposium.  What made his presentation so successful and how can he and his work be used as a model for all teacher-librarians?


Anita: I’m a BIG Doug Johnson fan. He is so clear and so articulate, and he really cuts to the chase. He blends his deep and extensive knowledge of librarianship with his deep and extensive knowledge of technology for learning. He understands both the constraints and the possibilities of working in education systems from the point of view of a teacher and of an administrator. He demands best practice with no excuses at the same time as energizing us with the possibilities of rigorous thinking. And he’s funny. His Blue Skunk Blog is a must read. Teachers at the RCAC symposium understood him as a technology guru. The teacher-librarians in the crowd also knew him as a library guru. To me, it’s all part and parcel of the same thing. Learning with technology is a cornerstone of the school library program.


Doug:  The OSLA has long been a source of advocacy for Ontario Teacher-Librarians.  I recall fondly working through the “Together for Learning” document with my favourite teacher-librarian who explained many things to me.  What document would you recommend for a first read if someone was dipping into the OSLA repository?


Anita: Together for Learning is still a go-to read, and very relevant in today’s context. We’ve got a whole website ( where we are gathering and sharing ideas for implementing T4L’s philosophy. One of my upcoming spring and summer projects with Carol Koechlin (@infosmarts)  is a review and update to the website to keep it as the living document we always envisioned. I’ve mentioned Leading Learning (, and this is a must read. This is a standards document that is about growth and learning, and it can help schools in their journey to a learning commons in very tangible ways. Another project worth looking at is TALCO’s new digital citizenship resource (, which takes a different but complementary approach to OSAPAC’s new digital citizenship project. And if you’re interested in the Ontario Library Association’s advocacy for all libraries, I’d be thrilled for you to read a column I wrote for our online magazine during my year as president (2014), Value, Influence, Positioning: Advocacy by a New Name.


Doug:  If you were in charge of placing a person in the Learning Commons as Teacher-Librarian, what attributes would you look for?


Anita: Well I seem to remember someone saying that you put the best teacher in the school in the library. And that’s a great way of thinking about it! A good teacher-librarian has to be a masterful teacher above all else. Learning in the library is cross-curricular and process-oriented. If you want to teach in the library you need to be driven by the learning process and be able to see the big picture and make connections. I would look for someone who is very good at sharing and coaching, and collaborating at all levels. I would look for someone who understands that the library is for everyone, and understands the library as a hub in the learning community. I would look for someone who is open-minded and non-judgemental. I would look for someone who is focused on learning over management – who always assesses the efficacy of library processes by the impact they have on learning. I would look for drive and enthusiasm that is directed at realizing the full potential of the library learning commons.


Doug:  Where does and can the Librarian Technician fit?


Anita: Library technicians have professional qualifications and have been through a two-year college program focused on all aspects of library management and services. Many school districts staff their secondary libraries with a teacher-librarian and a library technician, which is ideal. The library technician has expertise in running the library efficiently, managing collections, and providing good customer service. In those schools lucky enough to have both, the teacher-librarian can focus on their strengths – collaborative teaching of information literacy, research skills, etc., and rely on the library technician to take leadership in management tasks. Teacher-librarians do not have as much training in library collection management and cataloguing, and need the support of library technicians at the school and/or district level.


The reality in many districts (and this happens far more in elementary than in secondary) is that library technicians (or clerks, who have no formal qualifications) are being hired in the place of teacher-librarians. These are dedicated people who believe strongly in the role of the library. But they are not teachers, and cannot be expected to do the same things as teacher-librarians. The school system may have a good library service, but they don’t have an integrated learning program. And unfortunately, when the program devolves then understanding of the place of the library in learning devolves with it.


Doug:  10 years from now, what role do you see these Learning Commons areas playing in a school?


Anita: Wow! I’ll go back to John Seely Brown, who talks about the dispositions of entrepreneurial learning – curiosity, questing and connecting. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a school system that is really focused on cultivating these dispositions and  learning how to learn. As for the library learning commons, I think the model has great capacity for helping to realize this dream and will still be very relevant. I can’t pin down what I think the library will look like, because a true learning commons is in constant beta, as colleague Carol Koechlin describes it. It’s about facilitating new ways to learn, and being responsive to the needs of the community. The sky’s the limit!


Doug:  Is it any different for secondary schools?


Anita: Teacher-librarianship in elementary and secondary is more similar than different. Elementary schools have been much harder hit by funding cuts and changes in staffing models than secondary schools have. I think it’s a tremendous shame, and devalues the needs of our youngest learners. It does put more onus on secondary teacher-librarians to take leadership in the profession.


Doug: I know that your interests go far beyond libraries.  Are you still a musician playing in an orchestra?

Anita: Yes, I am. I studied music very seriously, and as I mentioned, I taught instrumental music for many years. I can’t imagine my life without music-making. I play the clarinet in the Wellington Winds, which is a symphonic band. (we are in the process of changing our name to the Wellington Wind Symphony, which better describes what we are.) The Wellington Winds is one of the best ensembles of its type in the country, and I am very lucky to be playing with the group. I use my librarian competencies with this group too, managing all aspects of our web presence: the website and blog, Facebook page and Twitter feed, and our YouTube channel, where you can see us in performance.



Doug:  Does music have a place in today’s Learning Commons?


Anita: Absolutely! They are bound by creativity, and I would argue that musicianship is the ultimate in inquiry learning. I will take this opportunity to break the news about a new inquiry-based learning resource that the Wellington Winds is just now releasing. I worked on this project with two other Winds members, and I’m very proud of the results. It’s called Music in a Lifetime, and it is dedicated to helping students realize the role that music can play in their lives beyond high school. The resource is completely web-based, and integrates videos from our YouTube channel. Please check it out!

Doug:  Thank you so much for the interview, Anita.  These days, we don’t cross paths as much as we used to but it’s always a pleasure to connect, even if it’s online.


Anita: I’m hoping to see you at Bring IT Together next November. Thank you so much for this opportunity, Doug. I can’t say how much I appreciate the mission that you have to connect Ontario’s educators and facilitate our ongoing collegial learning. You are one of my role models for a post-retirement career!


You can follow Anita on Twitter with the ID @AnitaBK and she blogs at:

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