We should all be obliged to appear before a board every five years and justify our existence…on pain of liquidation. George Bernard Shaw
A recent (and failed) White House petition started by a desperate California librarian demanded:
“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."
What a great idea!
For about 30 seconds.
Buffy Hamilton, The Unquiet Librarian, had the courage to suggest this petition was not well reasoned. (Why I Am Not Signing The "Save Libraries" Petition) In her thoughtful commentary she observes:
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. (Read the whole entry - it's good.)
I would go further and argue that this was not just a poorly worded petition, demands for mandates are not the right way to help insure good library services to kids period. I've been an opponent to any kind of educational staffing mandate for a very long time. And with all the destruction NCLB has caused in good schools, any thinking person should be thinking twice before asking for anything regarding education from the federal government.
In my 2003 column The M-Word, I wrote:
When one works without a net (mandate), one tends to pay more attention to the needs of those one serves and perhaps a little less attention to theoretical “best practices.” Best practices are those that keep school libraries vital and indispensable by providing the services that are seen as important by the entire institution. We need to acknowledge that other people in education also have valid perspectives about what is in the best interest of the children we all serve. I know it is exceedingly hard to admit, but we school library media specialists may not always have all the answers. (However, we do have them a frighteningly high percentage of the time.)
We also need to recognize that many, many people resent mandates and the people who are in schools as a result of them. Mandates don’t insure quality, only quantity. And mandates can give the person mandated a false sense of security and an excuse for not providing indispensable services. Mandates can protect the less competent in our profession whose image then reflects on the rest of us. In an “image challenged” profession, who needs that? Even great programs can be endangered by mandates if the need for good communications is not seen as critical and they slip into invisibility.
Does not having a state or federal requirement that a school have a librarian mean that some librarians are doomed? That librarians will have to work in new ways? That librarians will need to change to a form that maybe unrecognizable as "librarian" at all?
Probably. And that's a good thing.
In a panel at a school library conference not long ago, I suggested that the reduction in library positions may turn out to be a very good thing for the profession. Gardeners know that plants need to be pruned now and then in order to keep the entire plant healthy. Species that cannot adapt to changed environments die out, leaving those most fit.
I have absolutely no doubt that most librarians who figure out how their programs can support their schools' goals and develop a strong communication and advocacy program will not just survive, but thrive. Might some good librarians' positions be cut? Of course. But over all, those who remain will be great. And students will be the beneficiary.