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A Tough Question

Probably the most difficult question I get asked as a library "expert" is whether one should actual go into the school library field at all.

It's a serious question that has thousands of dollars, huge amounts of time and effort, and even livelihoods at stake for the person asking. When i can't avoid answering at all, I couch my answer very carefully.

Anecdotally at least, the profession of school library media specialist is under fire in a lot of places around the US and even internationally. A rather dismal map has been put together by Shonda Brisco that pinpoints school library job losses across the U.S. 

View A Nation without School Librarians in a larger map

And stories like these are too common (actual board minutes, winter of 2011):

"WHEREAS, the Administration has determined that certain programs and or departments are not operating as efficiently as they should and are not meeting the District’s objectives;
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that as a component of the need for program changes, the Board of Trustees of __ISD hereby approves the identification of employment areas for elimination in accordance with Board Policy DFF (Local) as follows:

1) General Administration
2) Technology Facilitators
3) Librarians (elementary secondary)
4) Gifted and Talented teachers
5) Special Education – Inclusion teachers"

I do, however, believe only one side of the school library story is being told. I wonder what a map of growing school districts, charter schools and other progressive places that may be adding library positions might look like? It's cold comfort, but I wonder if a map of regular classroom teachers and other educators might not look as bad or worse than Shonda's librarian's map? And we boomers have to retire someday - or at least remove our cooling bodies from behind the circulation desk.

So my answer to the earnest individuals asking about whether to go into school librarianship is a firm "yes, if..." Go apply to the nearest library school right away if, but only if ...*


  • You are geographically flexible. Tight job markets in general mean that getting a job may mean re-location. It may mean taking a job in a rural district, an urban district, or an international school. Each of these kinds of place have their rewards anyway.
  • You don't care about your job title. If you are willing to be called a technology integration specialist, information literacy coach, or something other than librarian, you will increase your chances of employment and still get to do many of the things a librarian does.
  • You are turned on by technology, kids, and change. For 20 years, I have been warning people that if you are looking at a career in librarianship because you like "books and quiet places," you will be deeply, deeply dissatisfied with working in today's school libraries. Now if you are looking at the career because you like helping people find information using technology, become self-directed and capable learners, and find new ways to learn, you will love your job.
  • You like books and reading but aren't hung up on print and are willing to document how you benefit kids. OK, the role of the librarian in children's lit and reading is by no means dead, despite that last remark. But what is different is that story time by itself doesn't cut it. You have to be able to empirically document your efforts to get kids reading: how you work with struggling readers, how you support the classroom curriculum and how you are impacting your building's learning goals. Cute alone isn't enough anymore (and it probably never was.)


Bottom line. Yes, go into school librarianship but do so with open eyes. There will always be room in the field (that may at some time be called something other than school librarian) for the very best, hardest-working, most creative teachers. And it is probably the most exciting and challenging job in the school building.

Of course this is the same thing I would tell someone who wants to be a third grade teacher, a chemistry teacher or a school principal. If you are the best at what you do, there will be a place for you in education.

What advice would you give a person who is earnestly thinking about becoming a librarian? Or a teacher?

* This month's School Library Journal has a great article by Lisa Von Drasek and a great editorial by Brian Kenney related to this topic.

View Standing Up for School Librarians in a larger map

Beth's map from her comment below.

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Reader Comments (6)

Hello Doug.

A number of us on twitter started a map last year to represent districts that added or defended library positions.,-97.207031&spn=44.101922,158.027344&z=3

It is sparse compared to Shonda Brisco's map. I hope we will see more additions to it in the future, representing a turn in the tide back toward an expert certified librarian in every school.

February 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBeth Friese

Thanks, Beth, for sharing this map.

I really wonder how accurate either map might be. We tend to emphasize bad news, it seems, but then who, when their job is in jeopardy, wants to take the time to put a pin on a map?


February 12, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

It is really strange to consider that we are living in a society that is de-emphasizing learning and time in libraries. It is such a sad state that we are in, as unemployment rates skyrocket and drop-out rates soar.

February 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPest Control Kansas City

I was particularly struck by “You don't care about your job title”. I have always been proud to be a librarian, and found the title of Library Media Specialist a bit cumbersome and confusing. I have changed my mind. I think the job title of librarian is inextricably bound up with the dreaded old stereotype – even though it is hard to find any extant fuddy-duddy librarians in the wild these days.

Too few people associate us with technology. Too many view us as the keepers of an antiquated source of information. For someone who loves books, technology and libraries as much as I do, it saddens me to say this. But I think making people understand that we are information experts as well as book experts is a losing battle. We need to re-brand ourselves.

This year, our district put our libraries officially in charge many things we were already doing as a matter of course. Our library mission has always been to smooth out the kinks, roadblocks and potholes in the information highway by making books and technology accessible to all. It seemed very natural for us to troubleshoot technology hardware and software glitches whenever possible. After all, we are standing there right at the point of need. What we can’t do gets passed on to the IT department. I was shocked that our superintendent did not realize this.

We need to get out more and let the powers-that-be know what we are doing. Perhaps if we leave the term librarian behind and use a title such as “technology integration specialist” or “information literacy coach”, we might be able to convince our districts of our worth.

We might end up being hired under a new title. Then we just have to convince our new employer that the office of their new “Technology Integration Specialist” should be in the library … that place where the librarian used to work.

February 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJacquie Henry

Hi Jacquie,

I've always worried about the profession of librarianship. What I have never worried about are most of the individuals it's comprised of. This bright, hardworking and talented people will have (or make) jobs for themselves in schools. They just may not be called librarians! You description of what you're doing sounds much like what we've done here in our district.


February 16, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

I think that I would love this kind of job just so that I can pass on some of my love for books with kids. To me books and reading are essential to living a happy and successful life. I'd rather live in a modest home, with a little pest control problem, and reading my books than in a mansion without them.

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