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« Focus, people, focus! | Main | The teacher's prayer »

Librarian-proof libraries? Guest rant by Gary Hartzell

I received this great e-mail last weekend from my friend and colleague Gary Hartzell, and he has given his kind permission to let it appear on the Blue Skunk. BTW, I consider his book, Building Influence for the School Librarian, as probably the most important book written for our profession. Bar none.

Hi Doug,

I just read your "Head for the Edge" column in the new issue of "LMC" - page 106, vol. 28, no.1, August/September 2009.

I think you are right on the mark with point #6:

The librarian will always be the sole determining factor of quality of the library program. I’ve yet to see a great program run by a mediocre professional or a good professional that could not make significant improvements under the worst conditions. We are impatient, we hold ourselves to incredibly high standards, and we dream big. Those aren’t bad things, but we also need to remember that our greatest accomplishments are when we improve, even a little, the life of an individual student. Providing that one book that was “just right,” that one piece of illusive information, or that one life-long skill may have longer lasting ramifications than all the formal lessons we’ve planned or taught.

I got into a ripper fight with a consultant ... hired for a project I was invited to work on a couple of years ago. She made the outrageous and completely ignorant statement that the goal was to "institutionalize" a library media program - and that, if you did that successfully, it didn't matter who the librarian was; the program would execute itself. In a less-than-diplomatic moment, I told her that she was feloniously ignorant of the way schools really worked.

The library media program turns on the quality of the librarian, just as the quality of a classroom experience turns on the quality of the teacher. The notion that a curriculum executes itself or that classes are so
intrinsically interesting that it doesn't matter who runs them is more than naive; it is dangerous. No curriculum has life in and of itself - it always requires someone to breathe life into it. And this universal truth
runs into other areas as well. How many conferences have you been to where the topic was vital and the presenter wasn't?

This mistaken belief that teaching or librarianship is formulaic is a cancer in the educational body today. It clear is what is wrong with most history teaching in the U.S. Students find history dull because the people
who teach it are dull - usually tied to sterile textbooks. If students find libraries and information literacy skills boring and irrelevant ("Google will tell me what I need to know") it is because their librarians are boring - and, consequently, make themselves irrelevant.

The life in every bureaucracy is dependent on who occupies the boxes in the organization chart - not how the boxes are arranged - and if schools are nothing else, they are bureaucracies.

I remember one of my great experiences at UCLA when I had a couple of classes with Madeleine Hunter. She was forever touting the steps of her procedure, from setting the scene to closure. I had been in Texas that year - where the legislature had adopted her model as the framework for teacher evaluation. I asked her once - since I was a high school principal at the time - what should I do if I observed a teacher (and this could apply to librarians as well) who had the students' interest and enthusiasm, ran a classroom where good things were happening in the session, and the kids were clearly learning -- but the teacher was not executing all the steps of Madeleine's format. That was when the old girl came through: She looked at me as if I were not quite bright and said, "Gary, you lie. Mark the evaluation sheet with positives and move on to the next classroom." I semi-loved her after that .

You can do a lot of work to enhance and develop the talents and skills that a person brings into the job - but he or she has to bring something into the job. I helped people earn administrative (and even library media administration) credentials and ran the administrative doctoral program at the University of Nebraska for 15 years - and I never "made" an administrator out of anyone. The people who ended up good at what they did "brought their gifts to the party"; all I did was help them develop them.

So that's the end of my rant. I'm going to go back to the beach now.

Keep hammering at the LMC audience.


Gary Hartzell, Professor Emeritus
Department of Educational Administration
University of Nebraska at Omaha

In response to Gary, I wrote:

Of course, the effort to “teacher-proof” the curriculum continues unabated. (Your argument about good teachers who didn’t do Madeline Hunter can be applied to good teachers who don’t use technology as well.) I seriously doubt than many creative teachers in the classroom today would choose teaching as a career were they do to it over. I see SOME charter schools that seem to honor individuality. The irony, I believe, is that when we think back on our “best” teachers, I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that they are all idiosyncratic in some way. Personally, I preach subversion to teachers whenever I can.

And Gary replied:

Two quick thoughts:

The first has to do with the irony of it. If you can create a teacher-proof curriculum, why then push to tie teacher performance to teacher pay? If – what’s the phrase? – every student deserves a qualified and quality teacher, how then can any kind of programmed curriculum be sufficient unto itself? This just another example of the cross-currents we have in educational thinking.

Another quick example is that education seems intent on ignoring the research on cultural differences. I don’t mean ethnic cultural differences here – although that may be one piece in the mosaic. I meant organizational cultures; the cultures of schools. Just internally, at the most immediate level, there are profound differences between elementary, middle, and high schools. They differ in goals, objectives, organization, size, structure,
operation, personnel attributes, and student/client attributes. Add to that the attitude differences that come from district level organizational structures. All elementary districts are different from K-12 districts are different from just secondary districts, and all differ from public to private. Beyond – and compounding – all that is the set of differences between schools set in inner city, general urban, suburban, and rural environments. Then add to that all the cultural and physical differences that exist between schools in such disparate areas as Hawaii, Alaska, Utah, Texas, Nebraska, New York, Massachusetts, and Louisiana and Mississippi – and the whole notion that what will work in one school will necessarily work in another crumbles. This takes us back to the quality – sometimes contextually defined (there are great high school teachers who couldn’t last a week in an elementary school and vice versa, for the simplest example) – of
the teacher or librarian in a given context. That’s where your quality is. But educational “authorities” (using the word to mean both academic experts and all levels of government officials) continually ignore the research demonstrating this.

Just madness – and very disheartening.

The second thought is that there is research evidence to support your contention that the quality of a program turns on the quality of the person who runs it. You can find it as far back as Philip Jackson’s 1968 “Looking into Classrooms” and as recently as Richard Nisbetts’s 1009 “Intelligence and How to Get It.” It
seems absurd to me to try to erase the human element from any professional endeavor.

Lots of food for thought in Gary's comments.

So, is it possible to "teacher-proof" or "librarian-proof" a classroom or library? Why do we insist on a cookie-cutter approach to training and expectations? Can kids become creative thinkers and problem-solvers in classrooms with teachers who are discouraged from beng creative problem-solvers themselves?

Oh, yes Angelina does have a Gary Hartzell t-shirt. Can't show her GH tatoo on a family blog though. Sorry.

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Reader Comments (7)

I love how the Madeline Hunter anecdote illustrates the fact that the originator of an idea often sees the subtleties in it, but their acolytes never learn that lesson. As a result we see good ideas systematized to the point of becoming a farce. It would be funny in a Dilbert sort of way if it weren't hurting children and driving creative, caring people out of the teaching profession.

August 25, 2009 | Unregistered Commentersylvia martinez

The reason it seems all the "higher ups" in education are striving for cookie cutter and teacher proof curriculum is deceptively simple. They are attempting to make it possible for hopelessly inadequate teachers to teach a class with some illusion of success. They've had to resort to this subterfuge because the best and brightest are simply not going into the classroom anymore. Public school has become a scary place. Young, wouldbe teachers and librarians hear the horror stories of how things such as NCLB have put such unrealistic stress on teachers AND how parents have abandoned the schools that they are avoiding the profession like the plague. In a sense, I find it hard to blame them.

But, with so many of our best teachers leaving the profession because of NCLB burnout and/or lack of parental support, etc. they have to be replaced with SOMEONE. That's why programmed curriculum has started taking over in lots of places where the schools simply cannot get teachers to come teach. I hate to sound fatalistic, but until someone starts nothing short of a revolution, a true blue flag waving bloody revolution, complete with losing jobs and picket lines across the country and schools shutting down . . . until that happens, I don't think the system will change.

I know talking revolution like this is scary and ludicrous to a lot of people, but I need to remind everyone that the idea of 13 small, insignificant colonies breaking away from the largest, most powerful empire on the planet at the time seemed just as ridiculous, and yet it was done. Someone needs to start it . . . our children deserve better than what they are getting.

August 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterShannon Wham

Me too! Don't you hate those kind of responses.

I can hardly think of a thing to add beyond what has already been said because I fervently believe that the librarian is the determining factor in the success of a program. I also believe that if the school can do without you, they will -- at least if there is a money crunch. If the librarian has not made him/herself integral to the educational program of the school, the library will go on -- that is why we have clerks running library programs today -- but not the kind of library students deserve. When I was absent from the building, I always hoped that someone's life was inconvenienced. The trouble is that when programs become run by clerks, the teachers learn to do without the kind of leadership and integration of services that a librarian can provide.

August 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterFloyd Pentlin

You wrote that Building Influence for the School Librarian is an essential professional development book for any librarian. I am still relatively new to the library scene and am looking for a few good books that will help me become a better librarian. If you have any suggestions, please let me know!

August 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGrace

I forgot to add that I am an elementary school librarian/media specialist. I don't know if that helps, but I know sometimes it makes a world of difference.

August 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGrace

I would go out of my mind if I had to teach a scripted curriculum that told me I MUST teach from page 32 -page 34 on Tuesday. I have the attention span of a gnat and change my program every year. That's why I love libraries - the profession is ever changing. Thank goodness library is NOT a TAKS test and my job is instill a love a reading and I can do it anyway I want (even with brownies & ice cream)

A good library adminstrator (and I work for one of the best in the nation) can and has enhanced my skills and made me a much better librarian. But, as you say if the librarian doesn't bring imigination , a willingness to to push the envelope and love of the job to the table - well you can't get blood - or a good library program out of a turnip.

August 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGuusje

Hi Sylvia,

I've also noted that "you can't can passion." So many projects work well for an individual who is passionate about what they are doing, but the don't "franchise" well. Like other attempts to spread a great technique, things get simplified and watered down. And that is why when I talk about improving projects, I try to isolate critical elements that can be applied to any area of passion. See:

Thanks for the comment. How do we keep creative people in education???


Hi Shannon,

Cynical, but too often true. I will have to say in our area, we still get some really bright, dedicated people and many of them stay despite the limitations placed on them (bless their hearts). But overall, professionalizing the profession would certainly lead to better quality teaching staff in many areas.

All the best,


Hi Floyd,

I always took the undesirable jobs in my schools - things like yearbook, PTO rep, etc. I always figured then that if the principal were to cut my job, s/he would suffer for it. Not very noble, but satisfying!


Hi Grace,

I would scan the lists of Linworth Books and ALA for titles that appeal. While I would like to be able to recommend individual titles, I haven't read a lot of what look like great books - and I would probably miss some titles friends have written which would make them mad!

I think LM_Net now and then sends a call out for "must read" professional books. You might try to search those archives.

All the best,


Hi Guusje,

My sense is that many of us who liked working in schools and with kids but found the classroom too restrictive became librarians.

Tell me some things your library administrator has done to help make you a better librarian. (I am now feeling a little guilty about not helping my librarians more.) Oh, the response might make a great guest blog post - hint, hint.)



August 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

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