I have been writing for school librarians since 1979. I have been speaking and presenting to them for almost as long. Many would say those first years –1980’s and 1990’s – were a golden age for school librarians. Certainly we weren’t seeing librarians being eliminated, but the times weren’t perfect and many of the seeds of today’s challenges were planted then.
While this look at the past may seem laden with doom and gloom, hang on. There is light at the end of the tunnel. You can and must be part of the change. Yes, you are part of that light.
Articles in the early issues of School Librarian’s Workshop dealt with budget constraints. Libraries still got money, but it was often cut. Principals saw that large chunk of funds as a source for some of their pet projects. And how did the librarians respond? They complained to their fellow librarians. “Woe is me. My principal doesn’t see the importance of the library program.”
Sound familiar? I would give a workshop at a state conference—usually my home state—and invariably one or more librarians would tell me, “My principal has no idea what I do.” There is a connection between an administrator having no idea of what you do and not recognizing the importance of the library program. But too many librarians didn’t want to undertake more work to change perceptions.
Time and again, I was told by elementary librarians, “I am needed because I provide teachers with their contractual duty-free period.” The unsaid message was, “my position is secure.” I would respond that times change and so do contracts. The answer mostly fell on deaf ears. These same librarians would also complain that teachers dropped their class off and came back to pick students up without caring about what happened during the “library period.” “They think of me as a babysitter.” Yet, the librarians did nothing pro-active to raise teacher awareness.
At the high school level, more librarians had staff and reasonable budgets, but these were cut on occasion as well. Teachers who liked libraries and had a project would bring their classes in. Some of them worked with the librarian. So in a typical high school, English and History classes were likely to be the only ones who ever used the library.
High school librarians had rules. I know of one situation where the two librarians would not schedule all the sections a teacher had for the same day. Too much work. They only permitted teachers who gave them a copy of the students’ assignment to be sure the period wouldn’t be used to give the teacher a break. Students were allowed in the library at lunch only if they had work to do.
This is not what school libraries are like to today, but this is what they were like for a long time and what teachers saw. Librarians had a cushy job. A number of those teachers went on to be administrators. They took their perceptions of the librarian and the school library program with them.
In 1997, Gary Hartzell wrote a two-part article for School Library Journal on “The Invisible Librarian.” He pointed to the omission of the role of librarians in teacher training, the absence of librarians in many professional organizations, and the difficulty in measuring the value of librarians contributions. There was general agreement with Hartzell’s views. Librarians saw it as confirmation that they were ignored and one positive result emerged. Library researchers began investigating the contributions of a library program and developed ways to measure them. Those studies continue being made today.
Unfortunately, most administrators and lawmakers don’t seem to care—or even know about them. They remember the librarians from their early career. Sure they would have continued library programs and kept librarians, but then the economic crisis hit. School budgets were slashed. Time to cut the expendable and not vital. Library programs were a logical place to begin.
In the slashing of programs, many wonderful librarians with outstanding programs were eliminated. We are all still reeling from how quickly we lost so much. But bemoaning the past doesn’t get us anywhere. We need to learn from it and use the current scene as an opportunity to emerge better than ever.
The big lesson is, if the school community doesn’t know who you are, what you do, and why it is unique, they won’t value you. If your principal doesn’t know what you do, how can he or she be expected to see you as vital to student learning and helping teachers teach their students critical thinking and the host of other information literacy skills which are integral to what we do? You must always find creative ways to let your administrators know about student projects and activities you developed in collaboration, cooperation, or conjunction with teachers.
You must make your presence known. It’s imperative that you step out of your comfort zone and become a leader in your building. By working with teachers, helping make their jobs easier, showing them how to integrate tech into their lessons, you become invaluable to them. They know what you do and want more of it.
Serve on building and district communities to show how you contribute. And finally, you must help other librarians in your district be leaders as well. The past has shown us it’s not enough for one of you to be great. The broom sweeps out everything at once.
You must do whatever you can to build that advocacy program. Get ideas from the AASL Health and Wellness Toolkit. Look for programs on leadership and advocacy at your state association’s conference. Re-read the blog from two weeks ago on mentorship—and become one.
And if you need an incentive, think of Elizabeth Warren’s quote: “If you aren’t at the table, you are probably on the menu.”
How are you demonstrating leadership? How are you building more leaders? How are you contributing to the future of school libraries?