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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Teacher Librarian Virtual Cafe Crisis Webinar Archive

If you missed the Teacher Librarian Cafe Crisis Webinar that was attended by 130+ this past Monday(April 19) night, you can catch the full archive at http://tlvirtualcafe.wikispaces.com/Crisis_Webinar.  I was honored to co-present with Chris Harris, one of the sharpest minds in our profession; many sincere and heartfelt thanks to Joyce Valenza, Gwyneth Jones, and Carolyn Foote for their tremendous help in organizing this event as well as all the attendees.

Save the date for the next FREE webinar with the incredible Ernie Cox and Brenda Anderson on the Common Core Standards!

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