It’s Broken; Let’s Fix It: The Traditional Model of School Librarianship

Don’t be pushed by your problems. Be led by your dreams.”
~Anonymous~

CC licensed image http://bit.ly/cqKIP3

The 2009-10 academic year has been a sea-change in many ways for me.  While I have experienced several positive shifts professionally and personally, one of the most profound influences on my thinking has been the Media 21 project, a wonderful learning experience that has allowed me to participate in the ultimate level of librarian, classroom teacher, and student collaboration.    Media 21 has been praxis in action in which theory has informed my practice, and in turn, practice informing how I theorize my work as a librarian.  A few months ago, I would have said this collaborative partnership was a dream come true, but as the school year draws to a close (where did the time go?), I would say my Media 21 partnership is also the beginning of  many new professional dreams and inspiring a vision of the potential of this kind of rich and deep-rooted collaboration.

All this positive energy and optimism I feel most days  is in juxtaposition to the concern and frustration generated by the crisis we face in the library ecosystem:  reduced funding for personnel and purchases for academic, public, and school libraries and our worry about the impact of these cuts on those we serve.  As a school librarian, I am especially troubled by the disturbing number of school districts across the country that are choosing to reduce or eliminate staffing as well as funding for library materials and services at a time when information literacy is increasingly important in today’s cultural and educational landscape.   It is as though representatives of local, state, and yes, even the federal government are oblivious to the fact that our very own president declared information literacy an essential for participation in our society (although the proposed budget doesn’t seem to support this official proclamation); many governmental bodies are seemingly turning a deaf ear to the call from respected groups like the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy to play an integral role in positioning information and new literacy (I would go so far as to say transliteracy) as mainstream and vital literacies (see Recommendation 6 and Recommendation 7).

Librarians in multiple communities have brainstormed and shared a plethora of advocacy efforts and strategies for innovating in these challenging times.    This crisis is exacerbated in school librarianship by our shifting role in the educational landscape and as like many of our colleagues in education, try to do more with less.  However, the cuts suffered by school libraries are particularly devastating because the services impact an entire school population.    Even the most resilient, resourceful, and energetic school librarians are hard pressed to effectively fulfill the five major roles of school librarians set forth in Empowering Learners:  Guidelines for School Library Media Programs.

For some time, I have been troubled by the current model of school librarianship and the flaws I see with the dynamics associated with this model that essentially settles for one or two school librarians and a clerk or paraprofessional (if they are lucky)  to serve 1000 or more students.  Is this model working?   To some extent yes, but only because school librarians, being the determined lot we are, make it work because we have to.  We struggle to establish meaningful collaborative partnerships that impact more than just a few segments of our school; most librarians I know would say collaboration is probably our greatest joy and our greatest challenge.

But is it the best model?  Is it a model that makes sense for today’s culture of learning or for the culture of learning we want to foster in schools?  Not so much.   It strikes me how ridiculous it is to expect that school librarians can excel in all five roles, or even a few of them, when forced to conform to this model of school librarianship.   I am struck by how ridiculous these assumptions are, especially when you consider that in some schools, that number may jump to 2000 or more, or in some places, the school librarian is shared among multiple schools and or may not have an entire day dedicated in one school location.

This current model of school librarianship is simply not scalable in its current incarnation as I have discovered this year through Media 21.  These kinds of intense and ongoing collaborative efforts require a tremendous investment of time during the school day as well as after hours; it is physically impossible for me to replicate a Media 21 type experience beyond one to two additional teachers because there simply isn’t enough of me as a human resource to go around.    While Susan Lester and I are thrilled with the progress and growth we’ve seen in our students, we can’t help but wonder how much more our students could evolve if they could have the kinds of learning experiences we provide them across the curriculum and with the team approach we provide them through our partnership.

After Susan and I discussed this very notion last Friday after school as we mused about possibilities for 2010-11, it suddenly became crystal clear to me that for school libraries to truly represent the qualities we value about 21st century learning, we must be willing to let go of the traditional model of school librarianship and grasp one that is bolder in scope and practice.  The model of the solitary librarian (who might be lucky to have an additional partner) toiling in a piecemeal effort to infuse information literacy skills into the curriculum and to be a true collaborative partner to a disproportionate ration of teachers and students is in direct conflict to the model of 21st century classrooms that values  learning focused on collective intelligence and collaborative knowledge building as a  community of learners.  How much more seamless and authentic would research, content creation, and evaluation of information be if school librarians were embedded in a team of classroom teachers?  This model would help teachers, students,and school librarians engage in conversations about multiple forms of literacy and consequently, position information literacy as an essential and integrated literacy into content area instruction.   Research, information seeking and evaluation, and creation of content would no longer be an isolated activity students engaged in once or twice or year, but instead, a regular learning experience.

I dream of a model of school librarianship that embeds us in the classroom whether it be the classroom of a teacher, our library space, or a learning space outside the traditional school building (such as virtual).   Until we are integrated into our school’s department or interdisciplinary teams, I feel we cannot realize our full potential as sponsors of transliteracy and information specialists who can facilitate and support powerful learning experiences with teachers and students.  What if we envisioned the school library as an academic department that partnered and co-taught with other departments rather than as “support” personnel?  How much more could I do for my school if I was embedded directly into the heart of instruction either with another academic department, or even better, an interdisciplinary team?

With this model, I also see space for a larger library staff to work together to facilitate other areas of the school library program.  Perhaps each librarian might be attached to his/her academic team three to four days a week and then have one to two full days in the library to work on other roles and duties within the overall library program.

Most importantly, this model of school librarianship  would greatly improve our ability to establish and cultivate rich relationships with faculty and students.  I have truly come to see this year that the foundation of successful teacher, student, and librarian collaboration is building meaningful relationships; we cannot ask others to have faith in us, to trust us, to let us become part of their world of teaching and learning without building a relationship that has depth and substance.  How much more effectively could we build our “tribe”and lead through example if we were embedded into an academic department or interdisciplinary team?

I realize this vision sounds radical and perhaps even foolhardy in light of the economic climate and the fact that school districts are cutting, not increasing, library staffing.  However, I feel our profession is at a crossroads;  I don’t believe we can fully express the full potential of our “librarian genes” unless the conditions in which we exist change.  We cannot be content to “settle” and accept the limitations funding cuts impose upon our potential as catalysts in our learning communities.  We cannot be shrinking violets by meekly accepting these cuts that ultimately hurt teachers and students.  We must wave the banner for a new model of school librarianship that ultimately is an investment in our learning communities.

While this vision of a new form of school librarianship will probably need fine tuning and my initial musings here are somewhat rambling , I’m interested in what you think.  I am interested in what my students, my teachers, and my administration think.  For a moment, forget the budget cuts, forget it has never be done (to my knowledge), forget the obstacles we will face in implementing this model.  While it may seem like an impossible and improbable reality, effective and real change cannot begin unless we dare to challenge the status quo and to thoroughly interrogate our practice, our beliefs, and our stance on librarianship on a regular basis.  Dr. Bob Fecho instilled in me the value of reflection and action through the simple question,  “Why are you doing this?”.  When I think about this model of school librarianship, I can’t help but ask, “Why aren’t we doing this?”

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30 comments

  1. Interesting.. and I guess I have thought along the same lines. I am by myself with a part-time aide for 600 elementary students. But I created a co-teach with our tech facilitator for our 4th/5th grade which puts me in the position to work with classroom teachers to create projects and info lit lessons that support their teaching. That being said, most of the time I have is spent with scheduled K-3 classes, about 2/3 of which are preps – this leave me very little time to have the ideal program that I want so much! On the other hand, preps just might be saving my job these days! It’s a fine mess, Ollie! I try every year to figure out a solution, but I haven’t figured it out yet. Your post is on the money, Buffy!

    1. Karen:

      I hear you—for the majority of this year, I have been teaching either every period of the day (we have 7) or the majority of them. Consequently, it is a little more challenging to have time during the day to meet with teachers, work on lesson plans, or tackle any other program management tasks.

      It is a happy dilemma to have, this kind of demand, but like you, I can’t help but wonder if there is not a more effective way of not only handling the demand, but doing so in a more powerful, integrated way.

      Thank you so much for sharing your feedback and reading my post! Buffy

  2. “Research, information seeking and evaluation, and creation of content would no longer be an isolated activity students engaged in once or twice or year, but instead, a regular learning experience.”

    I think this is one of the major keys in the shift that is taking place in education. We as teacher librarians must be collaborative leaders and learning facilitators in our schools. You have made such an impact with your Media 21 project and reading your ideas inspires me often. The task of reinventing our role as librarians is overwhelming, but I agree that it’s something that must be done!

    -LibrarianTiff

    http://libraryramblings.wordpress.com

    1. Tiffany:

      Thank you so much! I totally agree with you—all the effort and energy we invest in these kinds of projects is totally worth it when we see it impact students in a positive way!

      Thank you for reading my post and taking time to share your thoughts!

      Buffy

  3. Buffy,

    Great post. I recall when my principal and English teacher came back from a visit to New Trier High, they marveled at how many librarians they had. I believe at the time they had a staff of 8, for a high school our size. Each librarian teamed with a department, or had a specific role.

    Cherry Creek High School in Colorado used to also have a large staff similar to this(not sure if they still do), for the same sort of embedded approach.

    Thanks for the thoughts.

    1. Good morning Carolyn!

      I think I have heard some high schools in Colorado had larger staffs—like you, I wonder if that is still in the case. I will try and find out!

      Where is New Trier High? Is that close to you?

      I would love to visit a school where this kind of model is happening! If we find one, maybe we should plan a road trip! :-)

      Buffy

  4. Thought-provoking post. One thing that immediately springs to mind for me is assessment. While assessment is sort of the red-headed stepchild required addition to almost any library presentation I attend, I rarely see anyone talk about how if assessment can work FOR us.

    If you can assess Media21 and present the results in a way people less invested in librarians can understand and relate to, then you can make a plug for expanding the program, maybe start by hiring a part-time librarian or using paid interns. Could there be grant money that you could apply for using your past success to show the need to not only continue the program but to build it?

    I have seen rudimentary assessment practices result in more money in a budget for a learning and tutoring center. Of course, that’s a much smaller scale, but the program grew nonetheless.

    Thanks for a great post! It’s got my brain working this morning!

    1. Good morning Andrea!

      Thank you so much for your comments—I agree that assessment is probably the primary area all of us as libraries/librarians need to work on. I have tried to improve my assessment strategies although I will be the first to tell you I have much room for improvement.

      I should be able to provide some feedback from Media 21 in late May in terms of assessment. Now that I have gone through this kind of in-depth project, Ms. Lester and I have a better idea of how to integrate more effective formative and summative assessments with the classes we’ll be working with next year.

      I am currently scouting for grants that might help us in expanding our program, and I may have an intern this fall, so I am hopeful that we can supplement our current resources to keep “growing” our program.

      Thank you for the terrific suggestions and food for thought—you have my brain working, too!

      Buffy

  5. Buffy,
    I wonder what your thoughts on a fixed-flexible schedule for all levels. I’ve always thought that students don’t get enough information literacy instruction and that once they reach the middle and high school levels they may never set foot in the library outside of orientation. We can’t serve students if we don’t see them. If they are to become critically thinking independent learners they need to know how to find information on their own. I think this is especially important in rural and urban areas where students are dealing with adult issues.

    I’m not sure if the current model serves these students effectively.

    1. Hi Shanna:

      I don’t think it is so much fixed or flexible scheduling that may impact the exposure and integration of information literacy instruction as it is the curriculum and mode of teaching. I think for so long the model in education at large has emphasized the individual teacher and classroom; I may be wrong, but I think the shift to a more collaborative model is still a concept that is new to many school environments and educators.

      I totally agree the current model is not meeting the needs of students, especially of those who may be dealing with challenging life situations or lack the resources at home (i.e. participation gap).

      Thank you for taking time to share your thoughts and raise these important questions/points for thought!

      Buffy

  6. Your vision is well-thought and articulated.Although it may seem radical, the ideas are worth exploring. Many times over the past few years have I dreamed of returning to the social studies classroom, because I know with my library background I could make a huge impact in helping children attain deeper knowledge than is typical in the social studies classroom. Still, how could I let go of all the other roles that the media specialist performs?

    My biggest fear for our future is that, given the current crisis of position cuts, there will be no qualified people attracted to our profession. In my district, most of our LMSs are less than 10 years from retirement. Who will assume our jobs?

    Your dream of active co-teaching in an accademic area would greatly enhance both our mission and student learning. So how do we make it a reality?

    1. Suzie:

      I think many school librarians have contemplated a return to the classroom at some point; I even did so after my first year of librarianship, but ultimately, I missed the other roles. As a school librarian right now, I feel I have the best of all worlds!

      Your observation that the cuts that are taking place may eventually impact school library programs’ ability to attract good candidates is definitely one that is probably on the minds of many in the profession. I know here in Georgia we seem to be blessed right now with a tremendous talent pool, and I hope that holds true.

      The 24 million dollar question: how do we make it happen? Right now, I am not sure although perhaps if some schools could get a grant to pilot such a program and thoroughly document the program with both qualitative and quantitative data, then we might be able to convince the powers that be (school boards, state legislators, maybe even federal dollars) to fund this model. What do you think?

      Buffy

  7. Hi Buffy,

    I like your challenging ideas and passion. My question is – have you run this model past any classroom teachers? Do we know that THEY would like from our profession?

    I believe we need to adopt a more “consumer” oriented focus as our profession continues to evolve. It’s lees about us achieving our dreams as it is about us helping other achieve theirs.

    Just my thoughts as I read this excellent post!

    Doug

    1. Good morning Doug!

      Actually, I did throw the idea out to a few teachers on Monday. The ones I spoke to literally swooned over the idea and were very much for such a model, but one did astutely point out that not everyone would buy in immediately. I think that point goes back to the bigger issue of helping people conceptualize these shifts in models of learning without doing so in a threatening or patronizing way.

      Your point about helping students and teachers achieve their dreams is well taken. However, one thing I have observed is that many don’t have the experience or knowledge yet to articulate the possibilities for learning that this kind of collaboration can bring. So perhaps we as librarians can help build on the dreams of those we serve while maybe inspiring new ones? I think there is plenty of room for us to dream our own vision while being open to and facilitating that of our patrons; in many cases, I think the dreams and ideas of our patrons can influence our own.

      As always, you throw out excellent ideas for us to consider as we continue to grow and evolve in our profession!

      Buffy

  8. Buffy,
    Thank you for your think piece. It makes me recall a situation from 20 years ago. I was Donna Baumbach’s graduate assistant and she shared an office with a professor who taught school principals. One day he said to me, “When I taught, I had the best school librarian there was. I never went to the school library. She stopped by my classroom and asked me what I was doing and brought me all kinds of great books.” At first I was shocked – this did not comply to our model of collaboration. But then I started to think of it from his point of view. The school library/librarian fit his needs perfectly! Talk about consumer oriented. Why don’t more school librarians get out of their school libraries? This is key.

    One of my rules to my library school students is to “Always get of the library for your lunch period.” This gives one an opportunity to interact with the other teachers on similar turf. It also makes you one of the crowd. If you stay in your library all the time you get a martyr syndrome. I firmly believe why some school librarians fail is that they have no idea of what school culture is all about – particularly those who come to this later in life. My blood boils when I hear a school librarian say they eat lunch in their library because they are “so busy.” Every teacher contract calls for a duty-free lunch.

    Anyway – it’s just a simple thing. But one that I think would promote a team mentality.

    1. Hello Nancy!

      Thank you so much for your comments and points/ideas you have raised here.

      I agree that going into the classrooms can be a super effective strategy—I have done it before and really enjoyed it! I think, however, most people in my school anyway prefer to meet in here because I have the resources—print and technology wise–that they need and don’t have in their own classrooms. In schools where there may be only one librarian with no help, going out in to the classrooms on a regular basis may be more challenging if there is no one to be around to serve the other classes or students who may be visiting as “drop ins”.

      I love your lunch idea, but for us here, it is just not doable. While I may be on a teacher contract, I do not get a planning or dedicated lunch period. We are so busy through the day that it really is impossible for just 1-2 people to meet everyone’s needs; if one of us were to leave for lunch, service would suffer or I would have to reduce the number of classes I schedule. I personally cannot justify that just so that I can have 50 minutes of planning or a real lunch even though I think both would be beneficial for me personally. There are some days in which I teach 7 straight periods with no break. I am guessing this probably the reality for many librarians? At the same time, I very thankful my administration does not give me morning or afternoon duties!

      Perhaps if we were attached to a team, being integrated into our academic and non-academic faculty would be much easier to do and more authentic. Working side by side with teachers on an extended basis I think would lend itself to establishing a richer relationship than the occasional collaborative project.

      I do love both of your ideas, but I think as library programs see staff cut, we will have to be more creative in finding ways to do those things!

      Best,
      Buffy

      1. Buffy,

        The point I was attempting to make (albeit not clearly) is that not all teachers have the same needs and they probably don’t view collaboration the same way that school librarians view it. Doug’s idea of asking is right on the mark.

        Regarding the lunch thing, I worked in a high school that had 4 lunch periods and also 4 marking periods. In marking period 1 I would take a 1st period lunch, marking period 2, 2nd period and so on. The teachers looked forward to me eating in “their” lunch period. The library was only closed for one period out of 10 a day and we were always open for 45 minutes at the end of the day and 20 minutes in the morning. Anyone who wanted to drop in had an opportunity to do so. Also, our lunch periods were only 30 minutes. I was fortunate. I also had a clerk, but I never allowed him or her to supervise students while I was absent.

        You are a terrific school librarian and do so much! Thanks for all you do to keep us thinking and promoting school libraries.

  9. Buffy,

    I’ve seen university libraries use subject librarians as “embedded” librarians, e.g. a Social Science librarian working with the Social Science department, etc. In corporations, “embedded” librarians are being assigned to teams to focus on projects. So it makes sense to embed librarians with teams in schools, in our case at the grade level perhaps.

    When I worked at a small private school, I tried to get into the classroom as often as possible. Because we were a one-to-one laptop school I felt it was critical to go to the students, since very often the teachers might not see the need to go to the library if they could access resources (even if it was Google) in the classroom. My job was to make sure they accessed the additional resources we had to offer and develop the skills to use these resources.

    Of course, there needs to be a great sea change to shift from the current emphasis on testing to one where student inquiry and problem solving become the models for learning.

    1. Hello Margaret!

      I’ve heard of the embedded librarian at the university level, too! Perhaps we could study that model more and apply it to our own setting? I would also like to learn more about how the corporate world is utilizing embedded librarians, too!

      I totally agree with you that this emphasis on standardized “one size fits all” individual testing has to stop. You are totally right that a larger paradigm shift in school culture is needed to support this kind of professional model for us!

      So much to think about….thank you for taking time to share your thoughts and ideas here!

      Buffy

  10. Hey Unquiet Librarian! You are so awesome and we are so lucky to have you! FYI, New Trier High is in the most affluent area of North Chicago. They have more money than God. Please don’t even THINK about the comparison. As you said, “but only because school librarians, being the determined lot we are, make it work because we have to.” We will do the impossible with what we have. The teachers here LOVE you! Again, we are so blessed to have you! You work too hard (so do I)! When are we going to go have dinner? ;-)

  11. Hi again Nancy!

    I agree that having opportunities to socialize with fellow faculty are important and can help us establish a rapport and open conversation. I would encourage any librarian who is in a position to use a lunch period to do that if they can.

    In Georgia, we legally cannot close the library. In addition, many high schools like mine run 50 minute lunch periods and house anywhere from 1500—4000 students, so leaving the library or even trying to find a sequestered spot really is not feasible as it usually takes the entire library staff to be available to serve the scheduled classes as well as lunch visitors. While some of the lunch visitors are just dropping in, many are there for one on one help; there is rarely a lunch period (we have 3 for now with the possibility of 4 next year) that I, my fellow librarian Roxanne, and our clerk Tammy are not busy helping someone or a class. Given that many high schools in our state are now facing a situation in which they may be the only school librarian (and may or may not have a clerk), you can see why those of us in the high school may feel as I do.

    For me, I think being available as much as I can be through the day goes a long way in exemplifying our commitment to service. I am fortunate that I can network with my faculty through other means, such as small group meetings or after hours events, but I feel the embedded model would go much further in helping me to really be an integrated member of the school faculty. The Media 21 experience really reinforces my belief that this model is the way to go.

    As you and Doug have pointed out, not every teacher may initially see the value in this model. I think the way to go would be to pilot this model with a few “teams” who have buy-in to this concept and to build on those learning experiences we would share with the entire faculty. Perhaps with this team model, librarians could then have a dedicated lunch period and planning period with the team at least a few days a week to engage in collaboration and reflection on the teamwork taking place.

    I very much respect your ideas and leadership you provide our profession. Thank you for taking time to follow up on your initial response!

    Best,
    Buffy

  12. Dear Buffy,

    Thank you for sharing your work and that of your students with Howard Rheingold. Howard put together a really nice blog entry about you, along with a brief video interview of you for our community of educators, researchers, and policymakers at DMLcentral.net. Your students’ work on their veterans project and the many how-to links you provided will be a huge help to many like-minded souls in the educational tech world.
    You have many new fans here at the University of California.
    Thanks for helping to show the way.
    All the Best,
    Jeff

    1. Dear Jeff:

      Wow, thank you so much for your gracious comments! I feel most fortunate to be part of something that I believe is making a difference in the lives of our students. I am extremely grateful for opportunities like these to help facilitate such exciting opportunities for learning and to learn from the teachers and students with whom I work. In addition, I am grateful to my colleagues near and far in my personal learning network who help me learn, grow, and improve my practice so that I may better serve my learning community.

      Again, sincere thanks for your feedback!

      Best,
      Buffy

  13. This article is very timely for me. For the past 9 years I have been one of two media specialists in a high school of 2800 students. It took me 7 years to become part of the school’s 9th grade team, where I truly was “embedded” in the team and could and did integrate information literacy skills to an entire grade. I met with the team periodically and suggested how to teach these skills within the content areas. Great, right? Except my job was just eliminated for next school year and my colleague is going to have a very difficult time continuing this work with all 2800 students next year!

  14. Hi Buffy,
    A colleague of mine found your post for me because I have been looking for an example of someone doing this. I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about a radical shift in my role as an elementary librarian in order to do a better job of supporting information literacy, common core standards and tech integration for our teachers and students. I am wondering where your thoughts are these days with this excellent post — thanks for any updates!

    1. Hi Kelly! I still believe in this model, but unfortunately, unless the current trend of cuts to school library staffing stops, I don’t think it is one that will ever be viable or commonplace in pubic K12 schools. Best, Buffy

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