Buffy Gets Real


Uphill Battle_LG
Sphere by Tyler Merbler (CC-BY 2.0)

Ever since I came across this article (p. 56), I have been trying to ignore it. I’m a big fan of the unquiet librarian, and always pay attention to what Buffy Hamilton has to say. But it bummed me out a little bit (okay, a lot) in that it validated everything I was thinking as I worked through yet another exhausting assignment for my school libraries course: It’s impossible for someone to be all things to all people…how can the school librarian simultaneously be: 1) instructor for students (information and digital literacy) both in the library and in the classroom via co-teaching and collaborating with teachers, as well as instructor to teachers for edTech and other professional development units;  2) collection developer and manager; 3) facilities manager; 4) instructional technology specialist and website developer; 5) advocate; 6) program developer/manager? And all of this in the face of widespread misunderstanding (or outright cluelessness) about the role and value of the school librarian. This wearer-of-many-hats idea is a lofty, noble, heroic vision of the school librarian, for sure. But realistic? Maybe not so much.

In this article that had me questioning the treacherous path that is school librarianship, Buffy Hamilton, High School librarian and influential blogger, and Kristin Fontichiaro, author and professor at the University of Michigan School of Information, assess where the profession stands nearly 20 years after the release of Information Power (the American Library Association’s 1998 vision for school librarians) and urges us to discuss the unspeakable: is this really working?

Among the more painful excerpts about the 20-year old vision that has yet to unfold:

  • Despite being professionally recognized for superior transparency, innovation, pedagogy, and program advocacy- the “best” librarians still lost staff. [I needn’t go too deep into the widespread loss of school librarians, but this 2010 map drives home the point by mapping out the number of school districts within the U.S. that have eliminated their certified school librarian positions, despite evidence of the link between certified school librarians and the academic achievement of students.]
  • Teaching and learning are not necessarily the centerpiece of a school librarian’s professional practice. In some states, a teaching certificate is required, in others it’s not. Across the country, meaningful collaboration with teachers is the exception, not the rule; many teachers don’t think there’s room for inquiry-based work with their students anyway, given the ever-present threat of standardized testing, and even if they do, tend to marginalize the librarian’s role to a short, 1-shot tack-on to a brief library visit.
  • Thinking about the wearer-of-many-hats idea: “Are we accidentally setting up unreasonable expectations for the overall profession? What might the cost be of flying the profession’s flags so high that no one can reach them?” What, in fact, does it mean to be a “great” school librarian? Sometimes, it just means that you had less obstacles (a more supportive district, a larger school site funding base, more cooperative teachers, etc.) How does local context allow for meaningful performance metrics across the discipline?
  • And this one that I’ve been struggling with since my school libraries coursework began: “What do librarians do that classroom teachers cannot?” Of course, the answer has to do with our combination of being information specialists (heavy on inquiry and research skills), curriculum generalists, and saavy with technology- yet this unique combination of skills somehow remains invisible to the larger school community. Open educational resources (OER), classroom libraries, and 1:1 programs now muddle up this skill set and make it appear that everything is available online anyway.

I’ll leave you with the last searing question of the article: “[can] the dreams that began with Information Power still be achieved? Is our job to face reality and adapt, subjugate, or thwart it? Or to continue to push a boulder up a steep, resistant hill, strong in our convictions but exhausting ourselves with the Sisyphean effort?”

This article was published in the print version of Knowledge Quest (Sept/Oct 2014), so I don’t know what kind of conversations ensued. What’s your take?



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