Librarians’ hearts were aflutter yesterday 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 yesterday’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 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.

Erin Downey Howerton is the school liaison at the Johnson County (KS) Library, and is a member of YALSA and AASL.

Elizabeth Burns is a Youth Services Librarian for the New Jersey Library for the Blind & Handicapped. She is active in YALSA and NJLA.

Sophie Brookover is the Library Media Specialist at Eastern Regional Senior High School in Voorhees, NJ. She is active in YALSA and NJLA.

4 Thoughts on “Our Students, Ourselves

  1. First off, let me just say that I Really appreciate hearing this kind of dialogue between public and school librarians. As much as I love YALSA, I often feel a little isolated because I feel like the only school library voice at the table. (Which was actually the case at one of my committee meetings at Midwinter!)

    Secondly, it is *so* frustrating that these “Who needs school libraries when there’s a perfectly good public library?” sentiments are coming from other educators. I happened to meet a rural school superintendent at a house party a month or so ago, and not very long into the conversation I mentioned I was a little bit nervous about my job prospects this spring because so many school library positions and programs have been cut. His response? “I guess they just have to cut the least essential services first.” (He’s lucky I didn’t do a spit-take.)

    Our response to hard economic times should not be to throw each other under the bus. We need more library and educational services, not fewer. Investing in every kind of library and every kind of school can only strengthen us in the long run.

  2. As someone with a passion for public libraries who just a few months ago found herself working with 38 school libraries, I was thrilled to see the article in the NYT and to see this blog posting which I will be able to use next week when talking about public/school library cooperation

    Just been talking to people around my school district about the article and video that I forwarded on to them yesterday. Like most of the country our district is facing a budget crunch which comes at such a bad time because one of my colleagues in Information Technology and I had spent months putting together a pilot project to put certified Teacher Librarians in a few of our elementary schools because having a highly qualified librarian in an elementary school library makes a huge difference in the entire learning environment of a school. The good news is that even with the budget woes some principals are trying to figure out ways to reallocate resources to provide their students with the kind of library they deserve staffed by a “real” librarian.

    I’m so glad to see this dialog taking place and love the closing paragraph of the blog posting. Thanks.

  3. Erin Helmrich on February 17, 2009 at 3:40 pm said:

    Erin, Sophie and Liz – this is an awesome post! Good detective work on comment #24 — anyone going to email this post to that board member? Sounds like she could use some education 🙂

  4. Cynthia Matthias on February 18, 2009 at 1:00 pm said:

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. I’m willing to bet that academic librarians also have much to say about the importance of having certified media specialists instructing high school students. The need to research efficiently and effectively does not end with graduation from high school! I’m a public librarian, but I used to work at a university library and can attest to the leg-up that freshman have when they come in armed with a basic awareness of the library resources available to them. I have a strong desire to do the kind of instruction media specialists do with their students, but in the public library setting it’s often just not possible, given how busy and chaotic things can be. I certainly appreciate the work that media specialists do.

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