School Librarians: Expect More, Original photo by Buffy Hamilton

The new issue of School Library Journal features a cover story called, “Next Year’s Model: Sarah Ludwig left the library, became a tech coordinator, and forged a path to the future.”  Unless I have misinterpreted the article, author Linda Braun wonders if school librarians have to leave the library and take on a completely different job title to do the work of a modern school librarian.  The thesis seems to be that school librarians taking on job titles other than school librarian, like “technology coordinator”, might be the future of the profession.  While I’ve  had my own misgivings about the future of  the profession, I respectfully disagree with Linda Braun and would argue that such a path will only lead to the demise, not the flowering, of our profession’s future.

In the last year, I’ve had conversations with colleagues like Ernie Cox, Kristin Fontichiaro,  Heather Braum, Jennifer LaGarde, Susan Grigsby, Beth Friese, Linda Martin, Peter Bromberg, Melissa Johnston, Diane Cordell, and Sara Kelley-Mudie about the future of school librarianship.   We’ve wondered about the future of the profession and the challenges of becoming more immersed as an instructional leader and pedagogy specialist in a current model of school librarianship that is physically limiting in the sense that one person, two at best in most places, is expected to excel in multiple roles for student populations that might vary from 850 to 2500 students and up to 100+ faculty in a building; in some cases, school librarians are being asked to be a teacher, program administrator, information specialist, leader, and instructional partner with no planning period and no clerical assistance.  Like Braun, we’ve dared to wonder if we would be better positioned to accomplish the kind of change we envision in our learning ecosystems in another role, perhaps back in the classroom or some other educational role; at times, it’s felt rather blasphemous to even articulate such wonderings.    However, I think such questioning and the interrogation of our beliefs, of what we’ve held sacred both personally and as a profession, are healthy so that we can reflect thoughtfully on what we value.  Through these conversations I’ve had with my friends, the mucking around in what I believe has pushed me to the edges, particularly as I’ve dealt with some very trying circumstances in the last year that have threatened to encroach upon the heart of The Unquiet Library—the integrity of the instructional services and participatory model of learning I’ve tried to provide my school.    The crucibles that I’ve faced personally and as a part of the larger profession have forced me to think long and hard about what I believe and how I might act upon those beliefs.

For me personally, these wonderings have intensified in the last two years as I’ve become much more immersed in my role as an instructional partner and have felt stifled by staffing decisions made at the district and building level and the larger cultural learning climate that like many places, emphasizes outcomes of standardized testing.  At times, I’ve felt very disconnected from other conversations in “library land” that feel removed from my struggle to implement a vision of librarianship that has been participatory and learning focused for the last six years, a vision that I’ve tried to transparently share through this blog, presentations, published articles, webinars, and my library’s online presence, including my multimedia monthly and annual reports and research guides, I’ve been hopeful that sharing the work that I’ve done through my library program with students and teachers has shown a glimpse of what IS possible through school libraries.

However, to scale out what I’ve been with both depth and breadth and to leverage more impact in my learning community, I need additional librarians (and have the numbers to justify it) on my staff—it is simply not physically possible to reach 1800 students and 100 teachers under current conditions because the bottom line is that cultivating true partnerships for learning is extremely time intensive in terms of planning and actual implementation.  Participating as a co-partner in the instructional design process, which is essential for creating meaningful, rich learning experiences, and participating in all phases of the learning experiences, including formative and summative assessments,  requires a tremendous amount of care, energy, and time commitment.  Nurturing and tending to these relationships require constant care much like a garden—you can’t plant the seeds and then just assume they will grow with minimum care or attention.  And while technology integration is a part of these processes, it is not THE focal point—I’m more concerned with high quality instructional design and teaching than I am technology integration–if we don’t have sound pedagogy that we’re collaboratively crafting with teachers and students, we’re not really getting to the core of what libraries should be about—learning.  With more human resources, we could reach more students and teachers not just in the physical and virtual learning spaces, but more importantly, to have the time to cultivate relationships and trust with our teachers, the true cornerstones of building communities for learning and partnerships for learning.

There is no doubt the current model of school librarianship is way past broken–this is not a big secret.   It’s an outrageous, outdated model that basically demands we be the equivalent of a martyr and ultimately sets us up to fail in the kind of  excellent and instructionally oriented work modern school librarians strive to achieve.  It’s a model that has left us emotionally, physically, and intellectually drained and beaten up, a model that has failed to evolve with our mission and philosophy of 21st century librarianship.  Instead of expecting less, we should be expecting more in terms of a model that would be supportive of the work we’re trying to do.  And while I appreciate conversations about our future and how we shape that as school librarians, I respectfully disagree with Linda Braun that the future of school librarianship is to walk away from our title and to try and do the same or similar work under a different title.   While I wholeheartedly applaud Sarah’s work, I’m disappointed Linda Braun did not include any discussion of school librarians who are doing the same work and possibly more in the role of school librarian.  Yes, the term librarian is ridiculously laden with an array of complex political, cultural, and historical dialogic voices.  But I think when we look at the short and long-term future of school librarianship, a conversation about elevating our role as instructional leaders and learning mentors would be a more thoughtful conversation.  To imply that we as school librarians can’t do the work Sarah (whom for the record, I count as a valued friend and colleague, and whose work I very much respect) is doing and more with the title school librarians marginalizes the revolutionary work that many of us are doing (and under trying conditions, I might add) in the trenches of our nation’s public and private schools.

Rather than suggesting we can’t do the kind of work we know matters under the name “school librarians”, I would suggest we need to boldly embrace the term librarian and dispel the old stereotypes through more widespread and fearless sharing and transparency in that work that keeps students and learning through multiple formats at the center of what we do.   Our challenge is how do we grow school library programs in these difficult economic times and a shifting educational  landscape that is increasingly discounting the value of school libraries as an essential partner in learning spaces?  How do we encourage our learning communities to expect more, not less of us, and to support a model of school librarianship that would increase not only the quantity of school librarians, but the quality of school librarianship as well?  I still don’t believe it is through mandates, but instead, we must find better and more effective ways of engaging school and district administrators, school board members, teachers, students, and parents in honest conversations about librarians as instructional partners.  How do we engage them with the shared story of library we’re trying to compose and construct with our teachers and students?

I do not have all the answers, and I’m wrestling with these questions as I and The Unquiet Library program face our most severe crucibles yet.   And while I have had my share of dark days full of doubt and questioning,   in my heart I  still believe in the possibilities of libraries and school librarians–but those will never come to fruition if we acquiesce and abandon the effort to elevate the library as a site of participatory culture and a cornerstone of every child’s learning experience in schools, as a partner who can support our teachers by being embedded as part of the team to give every child positive, constructive, and meaningful learning experiences.  Changing the perceptions about what modern school librarians do, not our job title, is essential for the future of this profession.  Finger pointing and the blame game are ultimately counterproductive at this juncture in the profession—we cannot change what has happened in the past, but we CAN make a difference for the future with the work we do now if we will carry the banner for school librarian more assertively and with respect for the possibilities that are inherent in that name: a librarian is not a technology specialist, but instead, a learning specialist and architect.   

While I love my physical library space, that is not what I’m trying distribute throughout my building, but instead, it’s the experience of library and myself,  the human resource and all the energy, expertise in many kinds of literacies, and desire to help students learn, that provides the most benefits to my school.   I wholeheartedly applaud Dr. David Lankes and his assertion that, “… great school librarians have  collections of lessons they teach, student teams that assist teachers with technology, and collections of good pedagogy. Want to save money in a school? Close the library and hire more school librarians.”  As long as I have a space to teach in the building and the means to teach  teachers and students, I can bring the experience of library anywhere.  Great and talented librarians, contrary to what those making budget decisions might think, are not easily replaced and whose absence won’t be appreciated until it is too late for our students and teachers.

We are librarians.    Own it.  You must believe even when others do not.  For every doubter, hater, or naysayer, there are children and teachers whose lives and classrooms a school librarian has impacted for the good, and there is no longer room for those who do not put community, service, and people first.    Let us not shrink from what that means and what it can mean, but instead, strive to grow the successful models of school librarianship that DO exist and DO make a real difference because they have a librarian whose work, struggles, passion, and collaborative efforts with teachers and students do matter in helping students compose their own narratives of learning.