Librarians are Teachers, Too: Why Schools Need Librarians Now More than Ever
5.24.11 | Like many who care about education and literacy, and especially in my new role as the parent of a child entering public school in California in the fall, I read the coverage about the cuts to school libraries last week with growing concern.
In case you missed it, the U.S. Department of Education withdrew federal support for school libraries last week, and in Los Angeles, the school district has sent layoff notices to 85 middle and high school librarians. If California’s budget cuts through, it looks like most school libraries in L.A. will be closed or left unstaffed.
These cuts are not new—see this Google map of communities that have cut school librarians nationwide. But the tone of the discussion is changing, with some arguing that librarians, along with nurses and mental health counselors and music teachers, are “extras” schools can’t afford in tough economic times.
Despite the growing number of politicians and educational leaders calling with urgency for students to develop 21st-century literacy skills, these same leaders seem blind to the fact that school librarians are way ahead of the curve and are the most qualified teachers to lead that charge.
“I think there’s a lack of understanding as to what a librarian is, that kids can just go on Google or Wikipedia and get information,” Esther Sinofsky, director of Instructional Media Services for Los Angeles Unified School District, told the School Library Journal last week. “Yes, kids are computer savvy. But no one will be there to teach students how to be information literate. Somehow I’m not hearing that as a point of discussion.”
To add insult to injury, the librarians in L.A. are being forced to defend their teaching abilities in Kafkaesque hearings before an administrative law judge. LAUSD’s attorneys are attempting to prove that librarians don’t have recent teaching experience in order to be able to remove the teacher-librarians from the payroll entirely and not have to move them into classroom teaching slots.
We’ve written much on Spotlight about the powerful work many school librarians around the country are already doing to engage kids in all subject areas and to teach digital literacy. We’ve called out librarians like Jennifer LaGarde at Myrtle Grove Middle School, who’s teaching students how to find credible information online - emphasizing that Wikipedia should not be one’s go-to source for information about how to prevent pregnancy, for example, or to find help for a friend with an eating disorder. We’ve also written about Laura Flemming, a library media specialist in River Edge N.J., who’s using transmedia books such as “Inanimate Alice” to help students forge powerful connections with literature. And in her spare time, she’s writing on a transmedia collection for the National Writing Projects’s Digital Is site and sharing what she knows at her own blog, EdTech Insight.
Writing in the L.A. Times, Nora Murphy, a teacher-librarian at Los Angeles Academy Middle School, says school librarians perform “the toughest, and most crucial, kind of teaching.”
Murphy described how she helped transform an eighth-grader named Mario, a struggling reader for whom English was a second language. Mario came to the library on his vacation to sit for hours reading, at first with audiobooks, at Murphy’s suggestion, to build comprehension and fluency, and then moving on to more challenging material on his own.
I think there’s a lack of understanding as to what a librarian is, that kids can just go on Google or Wikipedia and get information. Yes, kids are computer savvy. But no one will be there to teach students how to be information literate.
– Esther Sinofsky, Los Angeles Unified School District
At Creekview High School in Canton, Ga., librarian Buffy Hamilton is leading the way in digital literacy education with her Media 21 project. A collaboration with English teacher Susan Lester, Media 21 is a year-long program for 10th graders who learn how to search for credible online resources and create their own information sources collaboratively using social media and cloud computing.
I often hear arguments about the role of librarians presented as a dichotomy between teaching kids to love great literature and teaching research fluency in the digital age. But today’s students need all of the above. As Digital Youth Network founder Nichole Pinkard put it: “In essence, literate in 2018 will mean being multi-literate - the ability to critically consume and produce media such as print, video, sound and screen.”
“It’s not enough for children to know how to read – they must be able to select, evaluate, and use information appropriately and effectively,” Roberta Stevens, president of the American Library Association, and Nancy Everhart, president of the American Association of School Librarians, said in an open letter to the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Educators tell me these issues need to be tackled school-wide and librarians are among the few in the school community who can provide much-needed leadership.
Public libraries are fighting the same fight for funding and access for all. (Read Christine’s Spotlight post from last week on the new Geek the Library campaign.)
Author and entrepreneur Seth Godin’s call to arms on his blog last week about the future of the library argues that we need our librarians today more than ever. His post got a lot of attention on Twitter, including valid criticism from librarians. But his main point is well taken and useful in thinking about the role of teacher-librarians in our public schools:
The librarian isn’t a clerk who happens to work at a library. A librarian is a data hound, a guide, a sherpa and a teacher. The librarian is the interface between reams of data and the untrained but motivated user.
“In many ways, I see myself as more of a teacher now than I did when I taught high school English as I find myself continually exploring emerging and expanding concepts of teaching, learning, and multiple forms of literacy,” Buffy Hamilton wrote in a recent blog post.
Teachers in Los Angeles took to the streets last week in a large rally to protest teacher layoffs. Join them in the fight to keep librarians in our public schools. You can find resources at the American Association of School Librarians and the California School Library Association. Take inspiration from successful grassroots campaigns for school librarians in Chicago and Washington State.
And if you are a school librarian, or have been inspired by one at your school, or know other ways folks can get involved, get in touch in the comments. We’d love to continue to get your stories out there.
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