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BFTP: Librarian-proofing library programs

A weekend Blue Skunk "feature" will be a revision of an old post. I'm calling this Blast From the Past Original post January 31, 2007. Thinking still about the mood and conversations I had at AASL in Minneapolis a week or so ago. We librarians are an anxious profession.

If a librarian cannot lead his or her learning community, perhaps that librarian really is obsolete. -Joyce Valenza

Librarians are the last gasp of an educational system that believes in information gatekeepers, master archivists who work like priests. It's about time we did away with these intermediaries to the words and ideas of people like you and me, and helped everyone accept information literacy as their own personal responsibility (oh, I wanted to write "saviour" but it wouldn't fly...). - Miguel Guhlin, (much tongue in cheek)

Become the thing that replaces you. - Kathy Sierra 

oldlib.jpg(This post started as a reply left to Joyce Valenza's blog posting, linked above and here. You should read it now if you haven't.)

I've been finding my hope for the future of the school library field rises and falls in direct relationship to the last librarian with whom I've talked. When I visit with Joyce Valenza, Adam Janowski, Ron Darow, [and more recently Buffy Hamilton, Gwynth Jones, Shannon Miller, Cathy Jo Nelson, Jennifer LaGarde], the librarians in my own district, and other progressive, thoughtful professionals, I know the future for school libraries is limitless. But when the last librarian I talked to is negative and reactionary, I wonder how we survived this long, and tend to think much more like Miguel in his quote above than I'd like to admit.

My question is: How can we remove the individual as a factor in whether the library position in a school is in jeopardy? You get a bad science teacher, you don't eliminate the science program. You get a poor reading teacher, you don't stop teaching kids to read. Tell me one position in the school - not guidance counselor, not PE teacher, not art teacher, not custodian, not vice-principal, not even tech director - that the person in the position is routinely eliminated by eliminating the position itself.

What do librarians do that is so damned important that school would not go on were the position not to exist?

In my column The M Word, I suggested that our district's librarians and library staff were less vulnerable to cuts because:

  1. Our district’s elementary librarians teach and assess a required part of the state standards and give grades to all students on information literacy, technology skills, life-long reading behaviors, and appropriate use. (This includes Internet safety instruction now required by CIPA.)
  2. Our district’s elementary media specialists cover prep time.
  3. Our district’s media specialists are the webmasters for their buildings.
  4. Our district’s media specialists have network administration duties.
  5. Our district’s media specialists help administer computeized reading and math programs in the buildings that use them.
  6. Our district’s media specialists do staff development in technology.
  7. Our district’s media specialists serve on building leadership and technology teams.
  8. Our district’s media specialists participate in our PTAs.
  9. Our district’s media specialists serve on curriculum committees.
  10. Our district’s media specialists meet each year with their building principals to make sure they know their buildings' goals and work with the building leadership to make sure the library’s goals and budget directly support the building goals.

I would suggest that if things REALLY got bad, only items 1 and 2 will really save positions, even in our district. The rest of the list is great to do since it adds job security, but does not make the job indispensable since others could take these roles on.  I would encourage all librarians to find, articulate, and be held accountable for a piece of building learning interventions (like item 5). I don't see that happening.

Using fix schedules as a means of achieving permanent positions in schools is demeaning if it is only seen as babysitting by the rest of the staff. Fixed schedules alone should not be why librarians are employed.

To me that leaves one main area that we need to continue to develop: having a mandated curriculum that we are responsible for teaching, assessing and reporting. If our roles did not exist, our kids would not get these skills - yes, much like being the math or reading teacher. (I've explored this idea before.) I am fighting for mandated IL/IT skills at both a state and national level. I'm doing this primarily because it is right for kids who will need these skills to survive in the 21st century economies. But I will happily accept job security as a side benefit.

A good question to ask ourselves is what do we do as librarians that justifies having us on the job - the cost of which results in more kids in a classroom, less technology, older curriculum materials or higher taxes? If the offer were made to your classroom teachers to have a couple fewer kids in class or better technology or a new reading series or a professional librarian in the school, which would they chose? What would parents choose? What would your principal chose? And most importantly, what would your kids choose?

You can build all the lists you want about why librarians are important. But in the end it comes down to "Why are MY librarians important in MY school?" When I last visited with library guru Mike Eisenberg, he stated that we all need to be important in our own ways in meeting the needs of our individual buildings and teachers. Some schools will want a reading specialist, some a computer geek, some a Chief Information Officer or uber-reseacher, and some an information literacy teacher.  "Be what your school needs you to be," he recommends. Good advice.

If you won the lottery and retired tomorrow, would your school replace you - and why? Is your position librarian-proof?

Image in this post is from the Library of Congress American Memories project. 

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Reader Comments (6)

Very much the philosophy in a quote we discuss in my classes

What do you do in your position that, given the present economic circumstances, NO ONE ELSE in the building can do? What makes you INDISPENSABLE? Don’t even bother saying something like collection development because if the district and the state are broke, nothing is going to be available to develop a collection with. Face it, our specialties are not tested on NCLB high stakes tests so in these lean times, our programs are dangerously close to being considered very expensive luxury liabilities. Say I am a traitor to our profession. Call me a rank pessimist if you wish. Just remember that pessimists are very seldom blindsided since we always expect the worst.

“Busted Flat in Baton Rouge.” Granny Beads & Grocery Store Feet

November 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFloyd Pentlin

Hi Doug,

It is exhausting, sometimes, to champion a profession whose members are, far too often, its worst enemy. Part of the problem, as I see it, is that librarianship suffers from terminally low expectations. When I entered the profession (5 years ago) no one at my school had a clue what I was supposed to be doing – including me. As a former classroom teacher, I already had a passion for teaching and learning, but really, it was only because of the example set by the list of folks you mentioned above, that I found my way.

That said, if I can be so bold as to kill two posts with one comment here, that’s why I think professional development that exists beyond the hallowed halls of convention centers is so important. As I see it, librarians fail students for one of two reasons. Either a) they don’t know how to meet their needs effectively or b) they don’t care about meeting them. The latter folks need to go, but the former group simply needs to be taught. So, in the absence of the state and national curriculum standards you mentioned, and in a profession that is so often lacking direction and expectation, the more we can take the learning to the people, the better chance we’ve got at creating more indispensible librarians. In short, don’t stop leading webinars, Doug. We need you.

Finally, the fact that I am mentioned in that list tempts me to cash in my chips while I'm ahead - professional bucket list complete. Thank you.

November 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

I love it - a vertically articulated, state-mandated, K-12 information literacy curriculum, which is tested along with reading, math, history, and science.

Let's do it - I'm in; let's find out what it takes to create such a thing in each of our states, then get it done. If our subject area is tested, you'll be sure to soon see librarians on every campus that are competent, professional, forward-thinking, and just as invested in their students' success as many of our teachers. Librarians who are either unwilling or unable to hack it will be forced to move on, and I feel that is a good thing, both for our profession and for our kids.

Those of us who teach students every single day will find new purpose and direction, and those of us who are still musty old shushers jealously guarding our precious tomes from the filthy hands of those little rascals will be put out to pasture.

I'm willing to work on a National/Texas curriculum. Who's with me?

November 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLen Bryan

Thanks, Floyd. I appreciate the second.


Hi Jennifer,

You are simply not allowed to "cash in your chips." You are one of the brightest stars rising in the profession that desperately needs those to who lead by example.


Hi Len,

Another approach is to deconstruct the Common Core standards and take responsibility for the IL and like pieces.

I am glad others see this as important.


November 9, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

"Be what your school needs you to be," Great idea! I always tried to be that - and found that as long as I was doing that, I could also be what I wanted me to be as well.

Glad to see you the other day. As always, your presentations were terrific! And so glad you got to meet my two successors - Matt Harvey and Kathy Lepkowski. They are amazing librarians. Awhile back, the district was thinking they could afford only one librarian in the district. Her principal refused to have her travel ... and the HS principal must have held on to her guns also. Hence - they hired Matt, a classroom teacher in the high school who has almost completed his LMS. I am so relieved to retire with my district in such good hands!

November 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJacquie Henry

Hi Jacquie,

Great to see you as well. I really had fun with your region's librarians and I was so happy you were there. Sort of a last minute thing, but I think it turned out OK.

All the best,


November 15, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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