Dear FCC and ALA: Do You Really Not Get It?

So I get up this morning to find this story in my inbox courtesy of Bobbi Newman, a fellow member of the ALA/OITP Digital Task Force.  My initial reaction to the content of the article isn’t fit to print here, but I have a few thoughts I’d like to share:

  • This is the year 2012.  Digital literacy should be an essential literacy integrated into inquiry and content area study in grades K-12 by school librarians as well as classroom teachers. School librarians do more than check out books; we do our very best to collaborate with classroom teachers and students.  At a time in which school librarians are being cut from public schools, does it not make more sense to use the funding to  increase and grow a digital literacy corps of school librarians to meet children at their point of need where they already are?
  • The economic crisis of public schools combined with existing misperceptions of what contemporary school librarians should be doing to contribute to their learning communities has resulted in unprecedented erosion of the profession of school librarianship.  For ALA to not advocate with FCC to utilize and grow our ranks as people who already have this expertise is incomprehensible.
  • The concerns raised by school librarians was never about thinking our jobs were being “usurped.” Instead, we questioned why the FCC would not utilize an existing corps (school librarians) and expand it at a time in which we are being hacked down left and right as public schools grapple with budget cuts.   Why should children be asked to stay after school to learn an essential literacy in isolation?
  • Our public librarians are also an existing corp of digital literacy experts.  Again, why not provide funding to grow their staff and services to build upon their existing efforts to work with learners of ALL ages?  Or to help public and school libraries develop partnerships to do community outreach to parents?
  • It’s insulting for the FCC to say that they don’t need the services of librarians, but they’d love to hire someone else to utilize our learning spaces for this endeavor.  Do you think we only check out books?  That we’re not already teaching digital literacy?  That librarians aren’t qualified to be your digital literacy corps?   Why not use this funding to elevate and grow libraries and schools as partners in cultivating digital literacy for their communities?
  • Digital literacy is more than computer literacy—see Project New Media Literacies.
  • While these are dated from 2009, perhaps the FCC and ALA should reread Recommendation 6 and Recommendation 7 from the Knight Foundation.
  • Josh Gottheimer, FCC’s senior counselor to the chairman, is quoted in the article as saying the effort is to close the participation gap and that ““It’s their choice [schools], if they so desire, to be part of this process.”  Do you not get the public school system can be the conduit of closing all kinds of participation gaps for many kinds of literacy?  Isn’t the public school system supposed to be a cornerstone of democracy and point of access for everyone?  At a time in which public school funding is being cut and districts are in budget crisis nationwide, it seems it would be more prudent to fully fund public schools rather than forcing schools to spend money on unfunded mandates and to waste millions of dollars on standardized testing.

I rarely write blog posts in the heat of emotion, but the blatant disconnect in the statements in this article absolutely astonish and infuriate me.  Not only is this disconnect between what the FCC perceives as a need and solution and what public schools and public libraries can offer a disturbing red flag, but I’m also deeply troubled by these statements in the article:

School librarians reacted so strongly to the story that representatives of the American Library Association (ALA) reached out to some bloggers to help clarify the role the ALA has had with the FCC over the proposal to help quell concerns.

I read these words and wonder if  my service on the ALA/OITP Digital Literacy Task Force has been in vain and why I’m paying hundreds of dollars of years to belong to an organization, ALA, that felt compelled to “quell” concerns.  Clearly, ALA does not see that the arguments we’ve outlined as ones to take up with the FCC or to understand digital literacy is a component of libraries’ (school and public) to provide lifelong learning for our communities at their points of need.  And what exactly WAS ALA’s role with the proposal if it wasn’t to encourage the FCC to do more than merely use libraries as physical space to provide training? Did ALA not speak up for its members and tout our expertise and the work we’re already doing that could be expanded with this funding?

The thousands of librarians who are the frontline at ground zero of efforts to provide services and instruction in many kinds of literacies to our communities are acutely aware of what the needs are in our communities and the possibilities for meeting those needs if given appropriate staffing to expand and exceed a vision for learning.   To read these kinds of statements is to feel that yet another government agency, the FCC, fails to understand what we do in spite of our efforts to share our work.  In spite of the spin to put a positive bent to this issue, I feel cannibalized and betrayed by our very own flagship professional organization, ALA ; I am rethinking if I want to continue to pay to belong to an organization that doesn’t seem to really understand the work we do or the intensity and complexity of issues those of us in the trenches of librarianship deal with on a daily basis and that are undermining the potential and promise of the profession.

39 comments

  1. Thank you for addressing this, Buffy. I would add that in school districts, as in life, people who are capable, competent and PASSIONATE are frequently ignored in favor of paid outside “experts.” If any of our professional colleagues feel unable to effectively integrate digital literacy skills into their practice, they should either take immediate steps to rectify the situation or get out of librarianship. Period.

    1. I’d add that in public education, building and district level administrators need to expect more of librarians and hold them accountable with qualitative data. Stop enabling people who are stagnant and who don’t make at least make a decent effort to contribute to their learning communities. Too many are making decisions based strictly on student enrollment rather than the quality of the librarian and program and thinking about how those cuts would impact students and their learning.

  2. ACRL released visual literacy standards for higher ed (2012), http://acrlvislitstandards.wordpress.com/ which contain guidelines specifically for digital media and literacy. Of course, what students learn (or don’t!) through their K-12 experience impacts their higher ed learning and experience! I agree this is a hugely important issue and you are right – there seems to be a fundamental lack of understanding of what the role of school librarians should be. I do commend our nation for recognizing that digital literacy is a HUGE issue, but the process should be a multi-pronged approach – school media centers and librarians need to be supported (including training, for librarians who may need technology skill refresher courses). The school media librarian should be the one who is driving digital literacy within their school and have the resources they need to ensure that happens successfully. Among those resources could then include a corps of digital literacy volunteers which are coordinated by the school media librarian — but it really does need to start with the school librarian.

    1. It is definitely a team effort–among agencies, educators, institutions–and maybe that is where the breakdown has occurred? That a lot of agencies and groups are trying to get to the same place, but we’re all rowing in different boats and directions and not really pooling our ideas, crowdsourcing our resources, and truly forming effective partnerships? Why is that so hard? While the FCC’s efforts may be well-intended, they seem to overlook some common sense decision making.

  3. Buffy, thanks for posting this. Since this initiative was first announced, I’ve been shocked at the ways it ignored what our public librarians could and should be doing, if they were adequately staffed. I was relieved when I found out that ALA was going to be involved –oh good, they’ll make sure everyone understands that the digital literacy corps already exists, although it’s in danger, and it’s what libraries are for.

    I’m shocked that this is not the case.

    What can we do about it? How can I help?

    1. Rudy, you pose some really great questions. I don’t know the answers at this point, but perhaps this could be the beginning of that conversation across all areas of our profession. I’ve attempted to be an involved member and serve on committees to the best of my abilities (which is hard when virtual meetings are during the school day and I can’t participate or the f2f meetings at Annual/Midwinter conflict with other committee meetings), but at times, you feel your concerns that you’ve shared are not really being heard and then wonder how DO you better vocalize your thoughts and opinions? I’d love to hear what “outside the box” ideas or thoughts our colleagues have to share!

  4. heh, heh “Or to help pubic and school libraries develop partnerships to do community outreach to parents?” Pubic libraries….

  5. Hi Buffy,
    I serve on Molly Raphael’s School Library Task Force. Last week, the task force had a discussion about this issue. Lynne Bradley, director of the Office of Government Relations at ALA Washington, assured the Task Force that the office has been working on this issue for several years. She also explained that the tactics that some bloggers seem to be advocating might be damaging and unravel years of ALA’s advocacy work. In this situation I think it is wise to trust the staff at ALA Washington. (This is my opinion and I am not speaking on behalf of ALA or the Task Force)

      1. I agree that everyone would probably appreciate open and honest conversations that provide more specifics rather than general summaries. As librarians, we ought to be healthy skeptics.

    1. Ann, I appreciate your taking time to share your thoughts. When I see how school library programs are being decimated nationwide—particularly quality programs—and the role of librarians further marginalized, I would argue that we can’t afford to sit around and continue the same practices for advocacy that are clearly no longer effective in today’s budget strapped economy. I agree we all need to exercise civil and professional discourse, but given that the profession of school librarianship is gasping what may be our final breaths (and I think there is a lot of denial about that), I don’t think we can afford to sit around any longer and blindly trust those who, in spite of positive intentions, have frankly come up short by trying the same methods of advocacy that simply are no longer effective. In this day and age, “assurances” are fragile at best.

    2. If a couple of bloggers can damage or unravel years worth of advocacy efforts, then:

      (1) it wasn’t that great to begin with if it can be brought down so easily;
      (2) it is not what the membership wants which is why there is such a freakout;
      (3) there is a lack of communication between the organization (“Hey guys, we’re doing this!”) and the membership (“Ok, cool, keep it up!” or “Wait, what?”) to keep everyone informed and on message;
      (4) the image of a school librarians being cut while digital literacy volunteers come in to use school libraries to teach adults about the latest is NOT a good one.

      Unless this is some sort of teachable moment about radical trust, it’s just another instance of organizational transparency (or lack thereof) on a massive scale.

      I look forward to the usual excuses.

      1. Andy, as always, you have a talent for getting to the heart of that matter. I concur with every point you’ve made. What.you.said. Thank you for taking time to add to this conversation!

  6. I worry about the state of our chosen career path. The people that use libraries seem to have no voice while the people with voices are often academics or bureaucrats working on theories and statistics.

    This digital education issue is equal to public libraries underutilized as unemployment centers and voter education. In a nation seeing increases in the number of unemployed and decreases in voter turnout, library budgets are shrinking every year. Now school librarians basically being told what they do is not important as their jobs are segregated and given away to (possibly) less qualified people.

    Unfortunately, ALA seems to have no power in this issue, or many issues as of late as their product (libraries and librarians) are undervalued.

    Maybe we should contact Oprah, at least her book club generates somebody money. They listen to money.

    1. I think this issue speaks to a larger one that traditional advocacy efforts have quite frankly failed and ignored the fact that perhaps strategies that were once effective don’t have a lot of stickiness in the face of unprecedented shifts in our economy and the ongoing budget crises. While I certainly don’t have the answers, I’m interested in an honest conversation about these challenges and how we might best disrupt the culture of decision making that seems to be driven purely by dollars and political interests. Best, Buffy

  7. Buffy, Thank you. I feel betrayed by ALA and wonder why we need a new program when existing organizations are already doing the job and could do it better with the money our FCC is so willing to spend.

    1. Wendy, it occurs to me that this is also an accountability issue with our federal agencies–in a time of economic crisis, why are we not tapping into existing talents pools and elevating institutions that have been trying to lead change rather than throwing money at something that would attempt to replicate what librarians and educators at all levels (K12, public, academic)have been trying to do for some time now?

  8. Regarding your closing sentiment:
    “I feel cannibalized and betrayed by our very own flagship professional organization, ALA ; I am rethinking if I want to continue to pay to belong to an organization that doesn’t seem to really understand the work we do or the intensity and complexity of issues those of us in the trenches of librarianship deal with on a daily basis and that are undermining the potential and promise of the profession.”

    This is *exactly* why you should renew (and you to get involved at as many levels of the association as possible). Selfishly, perhaps, I (and may others) will be happy to connect you where I have (even slight) connections to people working on the issues you find of great importance.

    The heat of the moment is exactly when ALA needs its members’ informed voices, passion, and ideas. Without pissed off (and engaged) members, many things might never come to pass that ought to happen. I hope you remain a fellow member of ALA and work from the inside to fix what you see as broken… I’ve been working at this for a decade and have seen good, if targeted and small, successful results.

    1. Aaron–thank you for taking time to share your reflections. I have attempted to participate through division memberships (AASL, ACRL) and for the last two years, committee service, including the Digital Literacy Task Force. The pace of change within the organization is painstakingly slow; we are in a time in which we I feel slow, incremental change is not really an option for the survival of the profession. And like many school librarians, there have been times I have felt that our voices and opinions are not valued as much as those of our peers in other areas of librarianship within the larger infrastructure of ALA in spite of efforts to be a thoughtful professional and someone who actively tries to contribute to the larger profession. I also am not sure there is an organizational culture that is always open to people offering and sharing positions or viewpoints that are not in line with the “party line.”

      I feel very fortunate to be connected and respected by many of colleagues across all areas of librarianship who may or may not be ALA members (and seeing friends and the social networking aspect of the conferences are my favorite aspects of conferences). I have attempted to practice my belief that you should be part of the change you’d like to see; in the past, I’ve actively encouraged my colleagues to join ALA and to try to participate as members. However, when my pay continues to be cut through increased furlough days, and it becomes increasingly difficult to get professional leave (even though I pay expenses out of pocket) to come to the meetings to participate or find that committee meetings conflict because they are scheduled at the same time), I have to question if I’m getting the return on my investment of time, money, and energy by trying to be an engaged member of ALA when I see something as major as this issue literally blowing up in our faces even when you’ve previously shared concerns about the issue.

      Perhaps this issue hits especially close to home for me because school librarianship is on the ropes—I fear we are in our final days as a profession and that there are those within ALA who really don’t understand the state of peril and how powerful the economic and political circumstances are that are rapidly wiping us out from public education. I don’t think people signing petitions or other traditional routes of advocacy are going to help us either; this is where we need the collective membership of the profession and innovative leadership to craft new approaches of advocacy because the ones that worked in the past sure aren’t effective now.

  9. It seems like the ALA and the FCC never spoke to each other. Referring to the digital literacy corps, the NY Times article stated, “This group of hundreds, even thousands, of trainers would fan out to schools and libraries to teach productive uses of computers for parents, students and job seekers.” Yet the assistant director of ALA’s Office of Information Technology Policy is quoted in the Digital Shift article, “This is not for a corps of people to go out and do training, but for schools and libraries to help frame classes for the general public and they’re not for children.” It is important for children to become digitally literate and during school is the best time to teach them, not in a stand-alone class but embedded in the curriculum. The best people to do this are our librarians!

    1. Hi Lisa! ALA OITP has been in communication with the FCC (see http://www.districtdispatch.org/2012/05/ala-wastes-no-time-our-work-on-digital-literacy/), but I think the conversations never really spoke aggressively to the FCC utilizing librarians as the digital literacy corps rather than the the groups/model proposed by the FCC. However, the language of section 9.3 is definitely of concern to me here: http://www.broadband.gov/plan/9-adoption-and-utilization/#s9-3. Any way you slice it, the whole effort doesn’t seem to embrace an approach that makes more sense to librarians and teachers.

  10. I think we need to slow down here and wait for more information. I agree that librarians should be healthy skeptics, and of course a member-driven organization should listen to its members. I also see a lot of people going straight to the top rung of the ladder of inference on this blog and on other blogs. And I also believe that the OITP and the OGR have pretty significant strategic plans that are dealing with this very issue and have been for multiple years.

    I’d like to share a bit from the District Dispatch: “The NBP made a number of recommendations related to improving broadband adoption, taking into consideration identified barriers of cost, availability, relevancy, and digital literacy. One of the recommendations was to create a digital literacy corps after the AmeriCorps model. To date, this has not been pursued.” (emphasis mine). http://www.districtdispatch.org/tag/national-broadband-plan/

    The commenting period happened in late 2010, and I remember that ALA encouraged each member to submit comments. I am pretty sure that the ALA and its Washington Office affirms the role of the school librarian at every possible opportunity.

    I would also like to point out that the information causing such a kerfuffle are two secondary sources: The New York Times, and SLJ’s Digital Shift. Perhaps we should examine the primary sources as well.

    I am definitely valuing this discussion and I think that it is an important one to have. It is also interesting to me as a researcher because I study the act of school library advocacy, and this is one heck of a case study!

    (This is my opinion and I am not speaking on behalf of ALA or the Task Force)

    1. 1. The fact the recommendation is even on the table and has been so widely publicized in the last year means we most certainly should be concerned a model is being shopped that seeks to utilize a workforce that doesn’t include as professionals and most likely would utilize workers who could be employed at a lower cost.

      2. I see no language about librarians or school libraries here: http://www.districtdispatch.org/2012/04/ala-supports-fcc-proposal-to-fund-digital-literacy-training-through-public-libraries/.

      3. If there are specific pieces of misinformation in the NY Times or SLJ Digital Shift article that ALA is aware of, I’d love to see them identified with supporting documentation to point us to the correct information.

      4. If these efforts have been ongoing for years, I have to wonder why as a profession, particularly school librarianship, isn’t in better shape. We have nothing more to show than where we are for years of effort?

      Respectfully, Buffy

  11. I appreciate your passion and agree with your position. That said, a line like “we are being hacked down left and right as public schools grapples with budget cuts,” begs for a reminder about subject-verb agreement.

    1. Thank you for taking time to comment and for your words of support for my stance. Given the large body of published work I’ve done in print and online that reflects thoughtful (and grammatically correct) writing, I do hope you’ll allow me some room for the occasional error, particularly for a post that was written rather quickly. Best, Buffy

  12. Given the issue at hand, is the pointing out grammatical errors the best use of this forum? It’s challenging enough to convince people how needed and necessary librarians and library staff are in the digital age. While I love language, the message is far more important than mechanics in my humble opinion.

  13. @Victoria, Whether an MLIS is a “good” degree depends entirely on your goals and values. I’ve been in this field for over 35 years, done everything from children’s librarian, storyteller, branch manager, automation specialist, interlibrary loan, standards committees, circulation, reference, plus worked for automation and rfid vendors. I have loved the work, the people and the continuing opportunities to learn and grow. Have I made a ton of money? No, but I’ve felt productive and I know I’ve made a difference to patrons and customers. To me, that’s what really counts. Forbes and its readers may think differently.

    Regarding this discussion about the FCC, school librarians and public librarians, I think one reason we’re overlooked and not valued as technology and digital info specialists is that we don’t advertise our capabilities. Even in communities where libraries are a vital institution, most people still think of libraries as books and librarians as people who stamp books and read them. OCLC’s surveys keep reinforcing the extent of that misperception. I’d like to see ALA get out and really shake things up. We create cool posters featuring celebrities reading, we sponsor banned books week and a few other events but what do we do that tells the world about our expertise in the digital arena?

  14. I really appreciate this post. This has been a trend that I’ve been watching for almost two years now, and have felt helpless to change…mostly because I just couldn’t figure out what the issue was, which meant that I couldn’t verbalize it to anyone. During this time, I’ve also watched my own job start to crumble due to lack of leadership and advocacy by my director. Anything I said seemed to fall on deaf ears. One day, I stumbled across this post (http://librariancarina.blogspot.com/2011/03/why-are-there-school-librarians.html) that succinctly and precisely hit my discomfort, frustration, and dissatisfaction on the head. I shared a bit of this information with my boss, but again, it fell on deaf ears…until the school created a new position…a technology educator position…filled by a non-librarian. I was furious and asked my director why she wasn’t upset by this. Her response was that the position was for the faculty and our positions are for the students…our positions are to support student learning…not chase after teachers. I was flabbergasted and speechless. I still have no idea what to say to that. Then I went to ALA last week, and really saw a massive divide…bigger than anything I’ve seen previously. There is such a huge difference between those librarians who see themselves as information center liasons and those who see themselves as guards of book repositories, that I am struggling to find common ground or language between the two because the starting premise of philosophy is so divergent. There is so much dissension within ourselves as a profession right now, that I understand why people outside are getting confusing and mixed messages as to who we are and what we have to offer. Unfortunately, until this divide is addressed, I don’t see that advocacy will have a large-scale effect. And, in the meantime, I’m watching my own job unravel…

  15. Well said. I’ve been saying it since day #1 of the Federal E-Rate program, where money is given to schools and libraries to fund telecommunications, Internet access and related equipment. Most money goes to public schools, yet the ALA/OITP’s E-Rate committee was 99% composed of public librarians. Teacher Librarians need to be at the ALA/OITP table in order to have a voice, advocate for the important role of strong school libraries, and get ALA to advocate for strong school libraries as key to teaching digital literacy and cyber safety. For info on e-rate, see http://www.usac.org/sl/

    Public libraries are very important players in providing access to the Internet, but school libraries are tops for teaching digital literacy! Schools (and thus school libraries) have a captive audience of MILLIONS of students and staff that can be introduced to digital literacy through school library curriculum standards. It helps to have the library open and staffed by teacher librarians. This message needs to be delivered to the FCC and repeated. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

  16. Buffy: I concur. I have a masters in Educational Technology, a Life Science Teaching Credential and a Library Credential. And I don’t get it. Tom Torlakson, our state super for public schools is pro library and pro digital literacy. His motto: “no child left offline”. The problem is that the public has the perception that ordinary classroom teachers are trained to assist students with digital literacy and that computers in the classroom are sufficient. The library space and librarian are seen as unnecessary or “extras”. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Finally, you are right. The FCC is overlooking us and the ALA is not calling them on it.

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