Thoughts on School Librarianship

Green screening
St. John’s Silkwood by franlhughes (CC-BY)

What Drew Me There

The idea of librarian-as-teacher first came to me in Michael Stephens’ course, The Hyperlinked Library (INFO 287). For the most part, this course was about public librarianship and the role of librarian as facilitator vs. gatekeeper. Of course, there were earlier classes, and the books we read in them, that helped set the stage- in particular, the works of Clay Shirky and Peter Morville, that helped grow my awareness of participatory culture. By the time we jumped in deep to the Hyperlinked Library course, I understood that things will never be the same again in libraryland: that regular people are no longer simply consumers of information, but also producers of it. This has huge ramifications for traditional authority structures, particularly education. The new vision of a teacher as the ‘guide on the side” instead of the ‘sage on the stage’ helped me imagine where I might fit in; I could see that I could add value as a guide- helping connect the dots, ensuring access, facilitating learning. Creative, rewarding, ethical work that lives at the intersection of people, ideas and technology.

reflecting guide
reflecting guide by Khuroshvili Ilya (CC BY-NC-ND)

Of course, ‘teachers’ are everywhere. They exist in all professional fields, at every level, from upper management to front-line workers, and in every every social strata. One need not work in a classroom or a library to be a teacher. But! If one did work as a librarian in a school, one would be afforded the opportunity to work with children, while also collaborating with adults- teachers, parents, administrators and fellow librarians. School librarians are in the unique position of serving all the students and teachers in the school, at each grade level. Their purview is broad- encompassing everything from literacy and technology, to advocacy and trendspotting- but their ideals are grounded in the longstanding values of intellectual freedom, diversity, open access, lifelong learning and service. The idea of collectively working towards lighting students’ fires is tremendously motivating. To do this from the the library environment is appealing because the library can be a place of both personal and academic safety…a helping place, that ideally works as a third space- neither home nor the classroom, but hopefully somewhere in between.

The public library is also a great venue for lighting fires and is increasingly being recognized as a third space that communities have come to rely upon. The real pull towards school librarianship for me is more personal. I like the idea of getting to know the kids; the continuity of the school community, and the flow of the school year, which coincides with my school-aged daughter’s schedule. The real clincher, however, has been the network of teachers and teacher-librarians that I have been exposed to in the last few months as part of my coursework and while volunteering in my daughter’s school library. I have been so impressed and inspired by my fellow classmates, professors, and teachers and staff at my daughter’s school- not to mention the thought leadership coming out of the school library blogs, class readings, and twitter feeds. Smart, creative, dedicated people. Simply put, they have shown me that there is interesting, worthwhile work to be done. I want to be a part of that.

What I Hope the Profession Will Be

mind the gap
mind the gap by Pawel Loj (CC – BY)

Well, I hope it is as I’ve described above. Like anything, there’s always a gap between what something could be and what it actually is. Closing the gap is a process; one probably never actually gets there, for another gap is always opening up. Still, we move forward, toward those things that inspire us, and in so doing, we begin to close the gap. I hope that…

  • …we can make the library a hub of openness to all kinds of learning, having earned the trust of the school community- the key component to being able to make a direct and meaningful impact on student achievement.
  • …the school librarian workforce becomes increasingly diverse. Some of our allied fields, such as publishing, are also paying attention to this gap, but it’s slow going.  
  • …school librarianship is increasingly attractive to creative, savvy,value-centered workers who get a kick out of kids.
  • …the library becomes the model for collaboration within the school- between librarians and teachers, between the teachers themselves, between librarians and the administration and the wider community, and between students from different grades and programs- leading to a third space within the school. This is certainly the way public libraries are headed, and given that school libraries are nestled within a school that is nestled within a district, that is in turn embedded into the wants and needs of the local community, it is both appropriate and necessary that school librarians collaborate with their broader stakeholders.

Concerns About the Profession

I remember as a sociology undergrad thinking that every. single. social. problem could be traced back to the evils of capitalism. If only it was that simple; that black and white. Of course, there is a constellation of causes and effects, misguided policies, and human foibles at work. Likewise, there are a number of concerns within the the library profession and the field of education that could be alternatively characterized as hiccups, obstacles, or outright wicked problems for school librarians (The Horizon Report always offers a great analysis).

To keep it simple here, and to focus on solutions, rather than problems, I would say, I hope the profession gets better at advocacy.  At a recent CSLA conference, I attended a session about library marketing by Brigeen Radoicich-Houghton, Library Coordinator for the Fresno Office of Education. She had us do an exercise that really brought home the point: We were to rate, from 1-5, which of our five constituents (community, parents, administrators, teachers, students) we impacted the most; then rate which we spend the most time with; and finally who pulls the most weight in terms of decision-making. You can guess where this is going. Major discrepancies exist between who we spend the most time with (students) and who makes the decisions (administration andadvocacy tweets feb 2016_cropped community). This is not to say we shouldn’t be spending so much time with students, but that we really need to be developing relationships with the administration and the community (including parents and teachers) in order to learn their pain points and tailor our services around solutions to those problems. When that happens, we have a broad base of support for our library program and we are fully integrated into the broader goals of student achievement. In this way, we are able to articulate the success of the library in a way that is understandable, meaningful, and actionable for our decision-making constituents. Librarians need to step away from telling their administrators what the library needs, and instead show them what the library has achieved. (Hint: circulation statistics alone won’t cut it). Disruptive technologies, budget cuts, and a widespread misunderstanding of the librarian’s role threaten the sustainability of our school libraries, and targeted advocacy may be one of our most powerful weapons.

Dispositions of the School Librarian: My Areas of Strength

Based on the dispositions outlined by Professor Harlan, I would point to communication and advocacy as being my top strengths. To the extent that dispositions are understood as attitudes and/or habits of mind, we can point to the ways we tend to respond to problems and the ways we tend to approach tasks and set goals as our dispositions. Our observable behaviors are ‘proof’ of what dispositions we actually hold. Here are some of the behaviors you would observe if you spent time with me:

I blog. I tweet. I ask. I seek. I write. I naturally seek out opportunities to ask questions and talk about what I’ve learned; you will see me telling everyone I know about libraries. If you were around the school where I volunteer, you would see me introducing myself to the superintendent when he is on site, and thanking him for supporting our Model School Library programs. You would also see me tweeting to him when the right opportunity arises. I realize that he doesn’t really know who I am, but I know that a simple ‘thank you’ from a parent and a reminder that I am volunteering my time in his library is advocacy in action. Similarly, you would witness me inviting different parents to come visit the library and jumping at the chance to tell them why I volunteer there. You would see me communicating with teachers about the future of libraries. Here’s an excerpt from a recent email I wrote:

future of lib_email_croppedFrom the very beginning of library school, I felt the pull toward advocacy. In fact, for my first paper, of my first class (LIBR 200) I chose to write about demonstrating the value of the public library. The paper was eventually published in the iSchool’s Student Research Journal and reflects my continuing passion to advocate on behalf of libraries. I am also interested in assessment, which ultimately, harks back to my disposition towards advocacy, since performance assessment gives us the means to demonstrate our value. If you were at the recent CSLA conference session about using centers in the library, you would have seen me asking about assessment- ‘how do you know if [the centers program] met the learning objectives…how did you assess if it was all worth it?’ If you were a fly on the wall at my daughter’s school where I am collaborating with a first grade teacher, you would see me writing the assessment piece into the lesson plan- it’s one of the first things I thought about when we began our collaborations. Indeed, even my blogging is rooted in assessment and advocacy, using it as a reflective practice, which is really a self-assessment strategy as I progress through library school.  

In my future professional life, my disposition for assessment will allow me to see problems and address them effectively. My communication skills and disposition for advocacy will in turn help me broadcast the right information to the right people at the right time, resulting in a funnel of support for my role, my library program, my school, and my students.  Likewise, my penchant for communication will enable me to share with and learn from members of the profession, further positioning me as a leader.

As a communicator, I enjoy sharing information with people who might find it useful, forwarding news articles or links with a quick note of why I think they should take a look. Likewise, I like to keep people in the loop. When a teacher recently sent me two students who needed some assistance in the library, I wrote her a note outlining what we did so that she would be on the same page. This wasn’t expected, but it’s natural for me to try to keep the lines of communication open. This has helped us build trust and is laying the groundwork for future collaboration.

Related to my inclination to communicate is my natural disposition toward participating in learning communities. I use Twitter for this and attend free webinars that are of particular interest. Although I am still a student, yet to work in a library, I actively participate in these channels, asking questions and sharing news, my own blog posts and papers. Both of these avenues have given me access to professionals I never would have been able to engage with otherwise. I recently paid my own way to a professional conference where I was able to soak up new ideas, observe how the profession interacts with each other, and make new contacts. In a similar vein, I carved out a volunteer position for myself at my daughter’s school library, knowing it would be a fantastic learning opportunity.

Indeed, the volunteer work has proven to be a rich source of learning. It has also given me the invaluable opportunity to ‘try on’ the profession. Sure, a lot of my time there is spent shelving books, but this gives me the perfect location from which to observe, ask questions, and get to know the students and staff. I made it clear to the media specialist that I was open to helping in a variety of ways, which led to me writing and delivering an instructional unit on Destiny and giving a digital citizenship lesson to 4th and 5th graders.

The more I learn in library school, the more I try to practice it in my volunteer position. It is natural for me to want to collaborate; it is something I have done in previous work outside librarianship and is something I enjoy. Despite having no teaching credential and little instructional experience with children, I have reached out to a few of the teachers to explore some potential collaboration. To my surprise, I have an offer to jointly develop an inquiry-based project for high-reading-level first graders! I think there are a number of factors as to why I got this opportunity, but the foundation for it comes from my communication skills and my ability to successfully advocate for what libraries can do for students.

Dispositions of the School Librarian: Areas for Improvement

Among the areas for improvement, the need to develop a variety of instructional strategies at my fingertips will be crucial to my success as a school librarian. I have theoretical knowledge of various pedagogical approaches and have done instructional design coursework, but do not have a working familiarity with teaching. I will either need to obtain a teaching credential, or look towards work with private/independent schools while getting as much informal teaching experience as possible, and continuing to be active in learning communities. Either way, teaching will be at the forefront of my practice. Whether it is in a public school with a teaching credential, or in an independent school without one, remains to be seen.

Finally, I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say that I will need to work continuously on developing resiliency. I have a hunch that if I traded in the desire for perfection in favor of persistence, I might get further faster. Perfect is the enemy of good, right? I suspect this is a tough one for many school librarians who have to do so much with so little; who tend to be under-appreciated and whose work is often misunderstood by the very people they are serving. I think that if we were to pull from our professional ethic of intellectual freedom, in the sense of always being open to new ideas, we might find a sense of possibility opening up. To this end, I also think that reading outside the field of education and librarianship is beneficial. Brian Mathews offers a good example of this kind of thinking, wherein he applies commercial/business concepts to his academic library practice, recognizing a number of ways that ‘thinking like a start-up’ can help build great library programs and build culture of problem-solving resilience.

room for improvement.jpg
Improvement by Celestine Chua (CC- BY)




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