Thursday, December 6, 2012

Librarians as an Endangered Species

Thanks to the new emphasis on nonfiction in the Common Core standards, my school visit dance card has been filled for months (and for months, even years to come).  Books about Sasquatch and UFOs may not land me a place on most award lists, but they make it easy to define critical thinking skills and the value of diligent research.  

My job seems secure.  Not so for librarians. 

Coast to coast, city to city, I’ve seen a disturbing trend.  Librarians are fighting for their lives. IMHO, we should be fighting right alongside them.  Librarians are the living, breathing bridges between writers and readers.  And they need our help to survive. 

Public education budgets are stretched to their limits and administrators are search for ways to cut costs.  Librarians are an easy target, thanks to the ready availability of paraprofessionals.  “We can fire our librarians,” the ill-informed conclude, “and hire paraprofessionals at half the expense. After all, how hard is it to check out books?”  

Our educational administrators are stretched so thin with the demands of academic life, they’ve failed to recognize how much their librarians do, beyond checking out books.  So I hope we can gently remind them.
Librarians ARE Teachers

They are professionals with years of academic study behind their credentials.  Like classroom teachers, they have worked hard to achieve their professional degrees and to keep their credentials current.  They are specially trained to work with books for young readers – and the kids who will discover them.

Librarians Build Relationships

Consider an elementary school librarian’s awesome reach.  He or she meets a student as a five-year-old checking out books for the very first time.  He knows if the kindergartener had trouble being away from home.  He knows if they recognize their letters and colors.  He knows if there are signs of abuse or neglect.  He knows if the child is gifted or needs extra help.  A year later, he sees the progress the six-year-old has made.  He knows the second grader got a new step-father, and he knows the marriage crumbled by the time the boy turned ten.   Year after year, the librarian offers her students a safe place to go – and a witness.  The relationship between a librarian and a child is far deeper than most people recognize.  It is long term and it is vitally important. 

Librarians Spark Imagination

Because of their long term relationships with an entire school population, librarians acquire books with specific readers in mind.  They target their purchases with precision and sharp consideration.  When a librarian buys IN SEARCH OF SASQUATCH, she knows exactly who will check it out first – and who will line up to check it out later.  She knows which readers are waiting for the new Lisa Yee novel.  She knows who’s aching for BABY MOUSE and who’s secretly ready for Chris Crutcher.  Years of professional observation, years of trust have created the potential for great reader growth, thanks to the careful selection that goes into an exceptional library collection.  It’s personal.  And it matters. 

Librarians Are Media Specialists

Common Core standards emphasize the need for students to read and understand nonfiction in all of its research applications.  College students will be required to research and write in depth papers.  Our schools are charged with making sure they’re ready once they graduate.  Who better to teach young people about research than our media specialists?  Librarians know their collections inside and out.  They know what books are available on loan.  They also know their electronic devices, their computers, their access to online material.  Classroom teachers are charged with teaching math, science, English, history and social studies.  Librarians should be celebrated for their ability to teach research skills.  

Librarians Have Heart

Where principals are the heads of every school, librarians are the hearts.  They are the gentle glue that binds the whole school population.  Like the books they choose, protect and repair, librarians reach out to needy children and remind them they are never alone.  As long as they can find the perfect books, they can find their kindred, even when traditional friends are scarce.  As long as a librarian is on call, kids will find those perfect books.  It’s what librarians are trained to do, thanks to years of education.

Librarians ARE Appreciated

Well, they SHOULD be.  They are the gatekeepers, poised to unlock every young reader’s passion for reading.  But they are far too often cast aside.  I did a school visit yesterday where the librarians had been fired, district wide.  One librarian had been retained to care for the collections and populations of twelve different elementary schools.  One librarian, twelve schools.  She happened to be at the school I visited, though she was not aware of my visit and the library had almost none of my books. 

I asked her how she managed twelve schools as one individual. She shook her head and laughed.  “I don’t.”

The squeaky wheel gets the librarian grease – she goes, at any given moment, where she is most needed.  But she doesn’t know any of the kids.  How could she?   She’s never building relationships.  She’s always putting out fires.  She teaches a research unit one week, weeds a collection the next.  She can’t buy books for readers she doesn’t know.  So she buys, hoping she’ll hit the mark – never knowing if she's even come close. 

I asked what we could do to help.  She said, “Oh god, if you could only speak up.”  

When the district fired the librarians, she said loud voices made it possible -- voices fighting for music; voices fighting for art; voices fighting for physical education.  And I’m glad those programs were defended.  I would have been lost without P.E. and art.  But the silence disturbs me.  No one fought for the librarians, so they were easy to scrap without the threat of angry reaction.   

As we face the onset of 2013, I hope we’ll look for opportunities to celebrate our librarian friends the way I did at that same school visit.  I knew when I walked into the school that the librarians had been fired – even before I spoke to the over taxed one to twelve remainder.  As I watched one teacher search for the projector while another looked for a table, and still another searched for a microphone that worked, the principal apologized. 

“It’s hard to pull things together,” he said with a smile.  I smiled when I answered, too. 

“I know exactly what you need,” I said.  

He seemed so sincere as he asked his one word question.  “What?”

“You need your librarian,” I said.  “They are the keepers of the keys.” 

“Ah…” he said, almost wistfully.  “I’m beginning to think you may be right.” 

I smiled again.  “I’ve always loved new beginnings.” 

Bless the principal for inviting me.  I am grateful.  He cares about his students, and the visit went very well.  The kids were enchanted by my books – only one of which was in their library collection, one published in 2003.  I donated seven more before I left because the value of a school visit to a student depends on the chance to explore the books after the author’s gone.  

The paraprofessional was delighted.  She loved my presentations, even if she had no idea who I was or what I wrote when I walked through the door.  And we had a good day.  But I couldn’t help wishing I’d fought harder to save the librarian along with the paraprofessional.   A good author visit could have been great, in the hands of a devoted librarian.  

An academic team works best when it has all its most crucial players.  Librarians should be at the top of that list. 


Myra Zarnowski said...

I couldn't agree more about the importance of librarians. As a former elementary and junior high teacher, I know from experience how helpful librarians are. Now as a college faculty member, librarians help me all the time to find material and suggest sources. As we implement Common Core State Standards, more than ever teachers need to partner with librarians in order to create curriculum materials.

Susan E. Goodman said...

Kelly, you are so right, but every point. The school librarian is also often the very person to introduce kids to new (new to them at least) books. So many kids can't get to the libraries in their communities.

Jim Murphy said...

Yes, librarians are absolutely critical to getting the right material into the hands of eager readers and researchers. And, sadly, they seem to be an easy target for budget cutters (as are music and art teachers). We can support them by talking out in public meetings, making donations (and free visits) to school and public libraries, writing letters to politicians...and the list goes on. It is, as Myra says, a partnership arrangement that needs to be renewed on a daily basis.

Michelle Cusolito said...

We are so very lucky to have a wonderful librarian at our elementary school. Thank you Mrs. Morris!