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The fixed-flex library debate re-visited

Over 15 years ago I poked a sacred cow of the school library profession by defending fixed library schedules* in schools (Real Flexibility, School Library Journal, Nov 2001). You can read the article, a grad student paper on the topic, and lots of responses both pro and con on my website. <>

In summary, I listed 5 reasons why fixed rather than flexible schedules might be better for both kids and librarians:

  1. You can’t teach kids you don’t see.
  2. We are enabling teachers to deviate from the curriculum.
  3. It’s not just research, but reading.
  4. Inquiry should be a daily activity.
  5. We are neglecting our part in the containment agreement.

In the districts I have supervised library programs, we have tended to have a combination fixed/flex program. Kids come to the library on a scheduled basis, but professional staffing permits the librarian to work with teachers on a special project type basis as well as doing some PD. In other words, we are not so fixed that some flexibility is still possible.

I'd not thought much about this then-controversial stance until receiving an e-mail yesterday asking if my feelings on the topic had changed. Well....

I still stand by my support of fixed library programs for many of the reasons that I detailed in the article linked above. In summary, a fixed schedule ensures that all kids in a school get access to library resources and to some basic information literacy skills. The program's success or failure is not dependent on the personalities of the librarian and other school staff members. School librarians have greater job security.

What has changed for me is that perhaps we should be taking more risks with the increased possibility of creating exceptional programs. Increasingly I wonder if standardized library programs, like standardized curriculum and standardized tests, inhibit creativity and growth and don't allow the kind of experimentation needed to re-invent and energize the profession.

My sense is that if these factors are present, a school should implement a flexibily scheduled library program.

1. Committment and understanding of administration. Principals and other school leaders need to recognize the value of a good library program and articulate goals and expectations for that program that are vital to the goals of the school building and district. Principals must also be willing to commit to ensuring that ALL students regardless of which teacher they may have will get equitable resource allocation and skill instruction.

2. Librarians who are self-starters and great communicators. The librarians who lead flexible programs cannot wait to be told what to do or how to do it, but must take initiative and be able to generate excitement and support. Further, they must recognize the critical need for good communications with staff and families that explains clearly what the librarian does if not supervising students.

3. Districts that have sufficient fiscal resources for non-classroom support positions. Flexible scheduling is more expensive for districts since librarians cannot provide teacher-contract mandated prep time. If budgets get tight, library positions may be viewed as dispensable if the program is not tied directly to the goals and mission of the school. Just the way of the world...

There are fabulous library media programs that are flexibly scheduled and that can serve as models for how our profession can remain critical as schools experience digital conversions, not just in educational  materials, but in teaching methodologies, and can better respond to the changing needs of both our students and our society.

Go for it! But plan and get buy-in from leadership.

* for non-library folks, fixed schedules are ones in which classes of students come to the library on a regular, usually weekly, basis for planned activities including book checkout, story times, and information literacy instruction. Flexible schedules are co-planned by the classroom teacher and librarian on an as-needed basis.

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