Monday, August 29, 2011

Getting Out of the Box with School Libraries

Welcome to my first post since retiring as a Library Media Specialist.  Or Teacher-Librarian.  Or Information Consultant.  Throughout my 28 years in education, I've worn the label of all of the above while serving as a school librarian for 25 of those years.  The label doesn't really matter.  The passion, commitment, and those we serve, do.

The topics chosen for this blog are a reflection of my thoughts.  My posts will reflect my observations from the the standpoints of being a parent, community member, educator, classroom teacher, and, of course, the school library media specialist.  I invite comments.  The ability to post comments is the best part of a blog, since they provide feedback on which we can further reflect and grow.

Let's begin with a question.  What does a school library media specialist do?  I'm willing to bet that most people will give an answer similar to, "checks books in and out," "shelves books," "reads to students," and "hold book clubs."

How sad.

The professional school librarian in this state is required to hold a Master's Degree in a field such as information science or educational media.  Here is another thought.  School librarians have standards to teach, just like teachers, preferably through collaboration with classroom teachers during research.  Our state also has standards for cyber literacy, naturally connected to our national standards. In addition, the school librarian prepares and oversees a budget, selects and manages materials (both print and nonprint), serves on school wide and district committees, oversees adult or student assistants, may (and should) serve as the school's instructional technologist (helps teachers implement technology into lessons), and is frequently assigned other technical duties. School librarians do basically what a school administrator does, on a smaller scale, except they also teach.  Many also sponsor programs that offer students experiences for growth in reading, special interests, and computers, and also are responsible for the morning live (or recorded) closed circuit news broadcast.

Now, here is another question. What field has shown possibly the most growth in the past decade?  The answer is the field of information!  You knew that though, didn't you?  So, where am I going with this?  Hang on, I'm almost there.

Let's take a quick look at some concerns we have about schools and our young people in general. 1) poor test scores 2) students' lack of knowledge about how to access, acquire, and use good information 3) poor reading skills 4) and how students practice risky behaviors in cyberspace.

Now, what do these concerns all have in common?  They are all areas that the school's librarian has the power to foster improvement.  So, in many cases, this isn't happening.  Why?  Because when it's time to lower costs in a poor economy, we cut an already minimal library staff.

Because this is what has always been done.

FACT:  Students know how to entertain themselves with technology by downloading, uploading, texting, viewing, and listening.  But, ask most teachers, and they will tell you that they do not know how to access and utilize information, or what sources to use to gather information.  They do not know what is legal and not legal.  They do not understand that a posted photograph cannot be deleted, even though they remove it from a site.  It's in cyberspace forever.  In other words, they do not possess the life skills necessary in the world we have today.

The school librarian can "fix" this problem.

School librarians have free online tools such as TRAILS to assess student knowledge, and obtain individual scores before working with classes.  They still teach how to use a dictionary or encyclopedia, only now, it takes longer, because we teach how to use both printed and electronic ones.  21st century librarians reach their communities through Facebook, Twitter, blogs, wikis, podcasts, online photo sites, and it takes time to update those.  21st century school librarians collaborate with classroom teachers, bringing together an expert in content, and an expert on information, to provide the best quality experience for the students embarking on research projects  School librarians still pull requested materials from the shelves for student and faculty use, but also utilize Web 2.0 tools to create helpful links for online resources.

This sounds wonderful.  So why are school librarians on all levels often frustrated?  Because instead of  conducting the types of professional activities listed above, they must circulate and shelve materials, process new materials, repair worn labels or book spines, keep the batteries charged for the  myriad of electronics, check in and stamp magazines, because they have no paraprofessional to assist them in the daily activities.

School librarians do the same tasks as 30 years ago, plus the added tasks involving technology, information literacy lessons and research projects, keeping up with the latest and greatest online tools, and share them with students and teachers.  In other words, the work load has increased about three fold, but there is still one person doing the work.  My work week went from about 45 hours (including work at home), to about 60+ hours per week.  If I see this correctly, that is not enough added time to conduct 3 times the workload.  And 30 years ago I had a paraprofessional.

School librarians are the only educators whose standards include the lifelong skills of locating, accessing and utilizing valid and appropriate information, and working together as students to create new information.  Our standards also  promote lifelong growth through reading through individual interest and selection.  

Cutting library staff, or having a minimum level of professional staff is not only hurting our student communities but is no longer acceptable in the 21st century.

In closing, I challenge a school district to go "outside of the box" by piloting a program where there are MORE than the minimum number of professional and paraprofessional staff in a school library, by conducting a 3 year research study to demonstrate an increase in test scores,  teachers empowered with technology knowledge and digital tools to use with instruction, and information literate students, with lifelong skills to help them be successful for life.

Investing in qualified, creative, and  knowledgeable school librarians is a sound investment in our future.


  1. What valuable insight! This post should be required reading for all educators and administrators.

  2. Great posting Betty! Required reading for all educators! And hopefully a challenge to all of us in the profession to meet the 21st century needs of our school communities...

  3. What is sad is that as you and other media specialists worked to address the needs of the 21st century, too many misinformed individuals still believe that you shelf books all day long. It's the same with most educators - too many people who haven't set foot in a school for decades think they know what we do and make decisions from misguided notions. We have had interns who've walked in the door thinking they knew it all only to be blown away by the reality of the job (a week in, when it hit hard). What legislator has walked in our shoes? What politician? What talking head or reporter? The question to me is, how do we combat misinformation?

  4. Well said! These are all things that I can say without a doubt that you did. I've come to expect that as the norm for what a media specialist is and does. It's sad that the public, and even some people within education, are so misinformed. I'm willing to bet that the findings of the study you proposed would find that students scores do increase, and teachers are more supported. It's sad that the media centers are always first and hardest hit with budget cuts. In a time of economic crisis, we should be encouraging readers not closing libraries and complaing about low test scores. Furthermore, you are right, students haven't a clue about using technology to correctly find information. They can text, IM, and perhaps email, but they don't know the basics of using a word processor, or finding credible site. Yet we think that technology will fix everything. Betty, this is excellent! I can't wait to see what you post next. Required reading for all!

  5. Please keep the posts coming! You were by far the best media specialists I worked with, so we need your insight!

  6. Well said, Betty!

    You are so right that the media specialist impacts every student and every teacher in a school. Even when you had a wonderful helper in the library, you still spent more hours than most teachers at the school.

    When people talked about going back to school to become a media specialist, I asked them if they were ready to do ...... (and I would list all the things you did). They could not believe that a librarian did so much.

    It is hard to believe that the district could not see the importance of having paraprofessionals in the library. Without help, our media specialists become clerical people. They do not have time to share their expertise with students and teachers. The entire school suffers.

    Thanks for being the person I could always depend upon to help - whatever my challenge at the time. In fact, you continued to be my go-to person for three years after I left your school. I knew you would know the latest and greatest way to solve my problem.

    The school district - and more importantly the children - have lost a great resource.

    Enjoy your retirement! - and keep on writing. Our community needs to read your thoughts.