I’ve blogged about writing Mission and Vision Statements because I think they are vital for keeping grounded and focused in the hectic day-to-day life of a school librarian. However, I haven’t discussed the importance of a having a written philosophy. It’s been included in several of the books I’ve written for ALA Editions, and I have students in my Management of the School Library course do one, so I think it’s time to put the need for one in the spotlight.
A philosophy is a statement of beliefs. It identifies your core values. The AASL Standards for the 21st-Century Learner begins with nine “Common Beliefs” which in many ways constitutes the beliefs of the profession. These beliefs are a good place to begin framing your own philosophy. What is it you hold dear? What do you feel is essential to your personal definition of what a library is? What are you willing to fight for?
I embrace all nine Common Beliefs but the one that means the most to me is “Equitable access is a key component for education.” I couple it with another core value of mine, “The library is a safe, welcoming place for all its users.” The two don’t seem to be linked, but in many cases they are and I deeply believe that when the two come together, it can transform the life of a child.
“Equitable access is a key component for education” is a growing concern as the digital divide continues to increase. Students who don’t have Internet or even a computer at home are at a serious disadvantage. We get stories of students who hang around the school where they can pick up free Wi-Fi for their phones so they can do searches for their classes. But homework cannot be done on a phone.
As a librarian, I believe you have an obligation to do whatever you can to help those students. It may mean getting a grant to have the library open after school to accommodate those without home computers. It means making teachers and administrators aware of the problem. Too often we take access to the Internet as a given. The flipped classroom is a great idea. But it doesn’t work for those who can’t go online.
A basic truth is that schools and school libraries are not funded equably, sometimes even within the same district. We always assume this is true in urban areas but rural communities are often in even worse shape. The lack of access to computers is only one aspect of the problem. The ones who need the resources the most are the very students whose schools have libraries with aging collections, if they have a library, and quite possibly no librarian.
ALA has recognized this lack of “equitable access” and is in the process of drafting a resolution on “Equity for All to School Libraries Community.” It’s still be worked on, but the key points are to have ALA work to get certified librarians in all schools, equitable funding for all school libraries, and work with research committees to document the disproportionate cutting of resources affecting racial and economic populations.
Those are lofty goals. If and when it’s passed it won’t compel districts to hire librarians or fund libraries. But by putting the weight and lobbying power of ALA behind the resolution, we can raise awareness. And as ESSA is being fleshed out, we have a good chance of making some significant changes. (Be sure you keep aware of what ALA/AASL is doing to keep librarians and libraries positioned to take advantage of all that is in ESSA.)
“Equitable access is a key component for education” is also about intellectual freedom. I have blogged about Censorship and the lonely courage of a librarian who chooses to purchase a book, recognizing the subject matter is one that may raise challenges. We are all aware that a LGBTQ book will bring out censors in many communities. But those are the very places where a LGBTQ child feels most vulnerable.
A book, fiction or nonfiction, can help those kids see they are not alone. They can even discover they are “normal.” It can direct them to sources for help and advice. And this gets back to my other core value of the library being a safe, welcoming environment.
We have heard from authors and others that the library was a sanctuary for them. A place where they sometimes could hide and feel safe from whatever and whoever threatened them. We know schools have anti-bullying codes, but much happens in a school that flies under adult radar.
As a librarian, keep a watchful eye for those who escape to your library. Sometimes you can have them become “library assistants,” letting them avoid lunch in the cafeteria. You may find you become a confidante and then must travel a careful line between holding their confidentiality and knowing when to contact a guidance counselor or an administrator. You once again are making lonely decisions. I have made a few such in my career. The student never knew how nervous I was, trying to do what was best for the child without violating school policies.
In making these tough decisions it pays to have a written philosophy. It’s longer than a Mission or a Vision, so you have room to include all the beliefs you have about what a library needs to be. You can mention collaboration, and opening students’ minds to the world around them, helping them become independent learners and critical thinkers.
But you also must include how the library must feel for all its users, whether the child who is keeping his or her homelessness secret, a kid whose parent is in prison, or one who is abused at home. The library must be there for them, and so must you be.
As you write your philosophy, you will find out who you are at your core. You may eve revise your Mission or Vision as a result.
Do you have a philosophy? What is the most important belief in it?