A steady barrage of listserv messages, tweets, Facebook postings, and blog entries have been making the rounds in recent weeks urging people to sign a petition that states the following:

“Any school receiving Federal funds should be required to have a credentialed School Librarian on staff full time with a library that contains a minimum of 18 books per student. Failure to have a school library open to all students and/or failure to have a credentialed School Librarian to run that library should be punishable by a immediate withdrawal of all Federal monies.

Study after study has shown that well-stocked, well-funded, well-organized school libraries staffed by a “highly qualified” School Librarian, or other similarly qualified credentialed individual, improve student reading scores, test scores, and literacy rates. All children have the right to read and to have access to materials that will help them grow as learners and as people. No Library = No Freedom to Learn.”

While I know the intent was noble and well-intended in creating this petition, petitions like these are often a slippery slope, so I’m going to be politically incorrect and offer a dissenting perspective.  We need to advocate for more than  being “properly staffed, open, and available for children every day” because truly effective school librarians and programs go beyond staffing, accessibility, and materials.  I assert that a “credentialed” school librarian and 18 books won’t guarantee an effective or relevant library program.  These criteria are a gross and superficial oversimplification of the complexity of cultivating meaningful library programs and the possibilities for school libraries in a learning community.  Plenty of schools have “credentialed” school librarians who are ineffective on many levels—pinning language to such a narrow term that unfortunately can’t equate “credentialed” with highly qualified is problematic.

It’s also a false premise  that either of those requirements will guarantee or help deliver an effective library program that is worth a public school losing federal monies/funding.  Here in Georgia, we have a state requirement that calls for every school library to be staffed by a certified school library media specialist [see specific rules requiring media center staffing here and here as well as state of Georgia code], but some school districts participating in the state IE Squared program (which among other things, gives districts more spending flexibility), like our neighboring Forsyth County District, have received waivers from the state that gave them permission to eliminate school librarians from a number of their elementary schools.  This example illustrates how districts will find ways to circumvent mandates when it serves their economic challenges or educational philosophy.  I hate to sound cynical, but in these economically-challenged times, I think it’s realistic to expect many states or school districts would seek waivers to such mandates or even worse, lower the bar for what it takes to be “credentialed” as a school library media specialist in that state.

I’d also rather have seen language in the petition that emphasized tools and mediums for learning, not just books—by privileging a requirement of 18 books, we continue to perpetuate and privilege the stereotype (or what grains of truth are in that stereotype, I wonder?) of the library as a book warehouse rather than the library as a place of learning.  As many of you know from your own state and regional accreditation agency mandates, requiring a certain number of books rarely results in funding for a rich, current collection (which should be more than just print for learners of all ages).  At my last high school, we met the now-defunct requirement for 10 books on paper, but guess what?  Because previous library staff was afraid to weed the collection regularly due to insufficient funding to purchase new and timely materials to replace the weeded materials, we had a collection with an average copyright date in the 1970s; this  phenomenon is sadly commonplace across the country.

Additionally, studies referenced in the language of the petition don’t actually show a definitive cause and effect between a “well-stocked, well-funded, well-organized school libraries staffed by a ‘highly qualified’ school librarian or other similarly qualified credentialed individual”  [what does “other similarly qualified credentialed individual” mean?], and the  improvement of “student reading scores, test scores, and literacy rates”.  While these popular and oft-referenced studies show correlation between the two, they do not show an direct actual cause and effect; to actually prove such would be exceedingly difficult as there are many variables in what contributes to academic achievement, and defining what counts as excellence  in these areas can even be debated.   While the reference of many of the popular studies has proven effective as a form of library advocacy in some states and districts, on the whole they have failed to convincingly sway stakeholders on a national scale.  Perhaps the time has come to concede that while these studies do yield useful data with important implications, they don’t have the definitive data decision makers are seeking.  As a profession, I hope we will  point to more data (qualitative) in addition to standardized test scores as a measure of the impact of school libraries on teaching and learning.  If there are quantitative or qualitative studies that show direct, unequivocal cause and effect of school library programs and student achievement, I would appreciate any links or publication information for such studies.

I do not mean any disrespect to those who think this petition will make a difference, but I would encourage us a profession to unpack the language and assumptions laden in the wording of this petition before we write off lack of participation in this petition as apathy or indifference.  I’d encourage each of us to contemplate what exactly this petition actually means and the values about school libraries implied before we market this petition as something that will actually ensure the highest quality of school library services because it most certainly doesn’t guarantee that.   We would all love a simple fix to the challenges our profession is facing, but the reality is that it’s going to take more than being federally mandated on paper for us to gain real and meaningful traction in being regarded as a relevant and necessary component of a successful school–that is the real elephant in the little red schoolhouse.  The challenge of changing perceptions about the role and value of school librarians and school library programs is not an easy endeavor as we try to position ourselves as learning specialists and teachers who are as valuable as any content area teacher–I think our time may be better spent engaging in some honest dialogue and open, candid critique about what is working and what is not as a profession in taking on this challenge rather than counting on a federal mandate to “save” us or our programs.  The mandate that will yield the most powerful and authentic impact we need to grow and sustain effective school library programs that contribute to school learning communities must ultimately come from the administrators, school board members, teachers, students, and parents we serve as that is where the true power of “buy in” lies, not in a federal mandate forced upon schools.