Our Students, Ourselves
This post was co-written with Erin Downey Howerton of schooling.us (Erin's is the first-person voice in this post) and Liz Burns of Pop & Tea Cozy, and cross-posted at the YALSA Blog. Erin is the school liaison at the Johnson County (KS) Library. She is a member of YALSA and AASL.
Librarians' hearts were aflutter today as the New York Times reported on school librarians in their Future of Reading column. Motoko Richs' article "In Web Age, Library Job Gets Update" features a day in the life of Stephanie Rosalia, a librarian at Public School 225 in Brooklyn. The piece marvels at how she does not simply stamp books and shush students, but rather teaches information literacy. It rose quickly to the #1 slot as today's most emailed NYT article.
My Twitter network was quite active as we traded links to various responses, and, regrettably, the comments on the article itself. Most dismaying was comment #24 from "suenoir," a reader who identified herself as a school board president from King County, WA and who felt that school libraries & librarians are superfluous in the face of the Internet and public libraries. She commented:
"If teachers used the public libraries, imagine what could be done with the space now occupied by the library. What if it were a music room? An engineering lab? Students have access to a librarian at public libraries, they do not have access to so many other resources."
This commenter appears to be affiliated with the Highline Public Schools (Susan Goding, board member, used the email firstname.lastname@example.org in her campaign information which is easily available online). Goding's district indicates that they enroll in excess of 17,000 students, and one of their secondary facilities reports that they see an average of around 100 students a day in their media center for regularly scheduled classes, not including students using the library who are not specifically scheduled for instruction. That's an awful lot of students to absorb at a local public library branch!
This article served to remind us in the library community that our patrons do not always easily or readily understand the differences in purpose between different library types. They may think of us all as interchangeable widgets, able to help in any library we might find ourselves in. This is not so. I had a great email conversation with Liz Burns and Sophie Brookover of Pop Goes the Library on just this topic:
Sophie: This article made me stand up and cheer, right at the breakfast table (because that's where I read it, after a friend posted it to my Wall on Facebook). Stephanie Rosalia is a perfect example of what a great, properly trained and enthusiastic school librarian can offer, which a public librarian cannot: just-in-time learning opportunities for students that relates directly to what they are learning in the classroom every day. She is exactly the kind of school librarian I want to be when I grow up.
edh: Yes, we public librarians often have very little contact with teachers at individual schools despite robust outreach efforts. I know some patrons get the mistaken impression that we're not concerned with student needs.
Liz: Public libraries don't ignore students; far from it! But a public library's main mission is not to be geared towards students. It's a system geared towards the entire public. Yes, that includes the homeless; teens; seniors; young mothers; people using the Internet; and students.
edh: I loved how the article and video demonstrated Ms. Rosalia's ability to incorporate all sorts of content in her school library. She's obviously deeply involved in the curriculum and learning process in her school.
Sophie: School librarians remix and mash up content from all sorts of sources -- online, print, audio, video, and more -- every day, all with a view towards matching the right content with the right kids at the right time. Public librarians do this every day, as well, but to be a great public librarian is to be a fantastic generalist. To be a school librarian is to be what many of us are called these days, a media specialist. As a media specialist, your area of specialization is your school's curriculum. You are aware of a wide body of resources, but you home in on the materials that meet the specific needs of your students' assignments.
edh: Absolutely! I am not entirely sure that the school board member who commented on the article understands the distinction between our libraries' functions.
Liz: Saying "use the public library, there is so much more we can do with school resources and money" is like trying to have one's cake and eat it, too. Because while sometimes there are actual joint libraries (with appropriate funding and staffing), more often shutting the school library does not result in additional funding being given to the public library. So there is an addition of students needing instruction, books and materials for reports, but no funds to purchase those additional books or to hire the needed staff.
edh: And some public libraries have restrictions on the materials they can buy – collection development policies can prohibit us from purchasing the books and media that would best address student learning.
Liz: And that's aside from the loss of the librarian as teacher. When will those students be able to go to the local library? Students get transportation to schools; they don't have the same access to public libraries. Those students with parents who have the transportation and time will benefit from school libraries; those students whose parents don't have ready access to cars and who work while the library is open, won't be able to use the public library. I've been in libraries where there are a good number of local kids who use the libraries; and just as many kids who don't, because they don't live close enough to the library to walk or ride a bike safely. Public libraries may be full of students; but can one imagine that if they are filled WITH school libraries available, how overwhelmed those libraries would be WITHOUT school libraries?
Additionally, public library budgets are being cut. What would your school do when the public library cuts hours, staff, and the materials budget? Open up the school library? By that time you'd have a dearth of materials missing from the years it was closed.
edh: That's just for materials designed to support academic assignments – imagine all the great fiction titles you would have missed out on in the intervening years. The public library alone is not enough to supply a student with the choices they need to read widely for enjoyment.
Sophie: A good school library should absolutely have high-appeal leisure reading. After all, AASL's Standards for the 21st Century Learner are fully 25% about the pursuit of personal and aesthetic growth, and with that in mind, I've sunk a large proportion of my own school library's budget into high-quality, high-appeal books for my students to read for fun. I've been lucky enough to have the unswerving support of my school's English Department, many members of which have brought hundreds (yes, hundreds!) of students to my Library Media Center for booktalks and reader's advisory, all in the service of year-round independent reading assignments. This collaborative effort has been so successful that I plan to continue to develop and promote the LMC's fiction and nonfiction collections for leisure reading.
There are so many opportunities for school librarians to collaborate with public librarians to provide even better services and collections to our students, but I think it's very important, as Liz said, for school and public librarians to spend some serious time educating the general public about the different missions of each institution, as well.
edh: Yes, letting people know about what we do in different libraries is imperative. I find myself also recommending special libraries to students who have a very specific or advanced assignment. We're lucky to have special libraries in the Kansas City area that will lend freely to the public and assist students with individual disciplines. The Midwest Center for Holocaust Education library is great for students looking at Judaism and World War II, and the Linda Hall Library has a special collection just for aspiring teen scientists among their more esoteric materials. Access to only one library is never enough! If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a variety of libraries to educate them into adulthood.