Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Five MORE Conversations [About School Libraries] That I Don’t Want To Have Anymore

Note: this post originally appeared in Connected: a publication of the School Library Association of New Zealand.  I was honored to be included and encourage you to read the rest of their great journal here

A few years ago, I wrote a post about a few school-library related conversations that I was tired of having. As I said at the time, I believe debate is healthy and, indeed, necessary to our continued survival. What's more, I find conversations hashing out the particulars of how our work matters to be both empowering and encouraging. At some point, however, some of these conversations grow stagnant and I find myself longing for a philosophical nudge forward. Back when I wrote my first post on the topic, I was ready for conversations about eBooks and copyright to be shifted on their axis and discussed in more relevant ways. With the benefit of time between that post and today, I believe those conversations have changed their trajectory, albeit in some circles, slowly.

These days, I'm ready to toss an ideological grenade into the center of a few other library related conversations in the hopes that they too will scatter in new directions or evaporate into the ether. They are...
cc img src: Might Little Librarian!
1.  Genre shelving: Full disclosure: I am a big fan of genre shelving in school libraries. To me, it just makes sense. After all, the library's resources exist to serve the needs of our communities and it is our job to make using those resources as easy and productive as possible. Genre shelving is an effective way to do this because not only is it an organizational system written in the language spoken by our students, but it also revolves around a life skill, not a library skill. And this is key. Knowing the Dewey Decimal System is not a life skill. It's not. And I know what you're going to say... but, Jennifer, what about all of the other libraries our students will have to navigate in their lives? The answer... they will navigate those libraries the same way they currently navigate yours: by either wandering the stacks aimlessly until something catches OR by asking the librarian. They won't learn Dewey because they don't need to. So how about arranging the titles in a way that engages them in skill building that they might actually need in the future AND in a way that increases the time they spend interacting with information by making it more likely that they'll actually find the information they need? Bottom line: Even if you are not ready to go full on genrefication, (your students are ready, by the way, they are just waiting on you to be), the idea that every library should be organized the exact same way is a notion that has outlived its usefulness. Our spaces should be responsive to what our communities need, pure and simple. And as such, I want to stop having this conversation because in the end, this really isn't a debate. Simply put, we need to remove the secret code that stands between our students and the resources they need and start organizing our spaces based on what's good for kids (not librarians).

2.  Technology as transformation: I really want to stop talking about how technology is transforming library spaces and start talking about how librarians are helping students use technology in transformative ways. Technology alone doesn't transform anything. An iPad in every hand or Google glasses on every head won't make education any better unless we're using those tools to do new and innovative things. Soon enough, all of our students will have a library in their pocket both when they are in and outside of our school buildings. It's inevitable. I want to stop talking about how this is going to change education and start talking about how we're going to harness this opportunity to help our students ask meaningful questions, build new knowledge and change the world.

3.  What should we be called? I really want to stop having this conversation. Really. It's not that I don't prefer one name over the mountain of others, I do. But I also know that what we're called doesn't change how we're viewed or whether or not we're
valued. In the end, whether you're known as a media coordinator, media specialist, school librarian, teacher librarian, information specialist, instructional coach or the man on the moon, people care more about what you DO than what your name badge says. Plus, by continuing to squabble over which name makes us sound "more important" (I've heard this argument multiple times in favor of one name over another), we send the message that we care about things that a) aren't important and b) aren't about teaching and learning. And that's no good for anyone. It's time to stop focusing on our collective identity crisis and start having real debates about things that matter.
4.  My principal doesn't understand what I do: If I had a dollar for every time I heard this, well... let's just say I'd have a lot of dollars. And, I do not doubt for a second that every time I've heard it, it's been true. What's more, I think this is a real problem. All members of our school community need to know what we do. Because what we do matters. But here's the thing: not understanding your job is not a blight on your principal's character or even an indicator of his/her ability as a leader. I don't know of a single principal preparation program, (or teacher preparation program for that matter), that offers a course titled "Librarian 101." The bottom line is, if your principal doesn’t know what you do, it is because no one has showed them. Which begs the question: what are waiting for? I want to stop having conversations in which we lament the ignorance of our administrators because the fact is that no one is going to swoop in and give your principal a primer on everything you do. That is your job. Only you can change their perception. It's time to quit talking about it and just do it.
5.  Collaboration: Collaboration, as we talk about it in library land, (and throughout much of education, really) is a pet peeve of mine because so often it is billed as "the key" to our success - as though collaboration is the end goal, rather than just a strategy for getting the work done. I want to stop talking about collaboration in hushed tones and as a part of contrived scenarios in which we document roles and put our faith in the process as our salvation. Instead, I want to start talking about collaboration as being the result of meaningful work that requires us to work together to solve a real problem or reach an authentic goal. No matter what kind of school you teach in, (urban, rural, big, small, rich, poor), your students face big challenges. Reaching every child and making sure they are prepared for a world we can't even imagine… that is a worthy goal. That is meaningful work. We ought to be involved in conversations about that, knowing that working together will naturally be part of the process because none of us can do it alone.
Back when I wrote my first post on this topic, I ended it with a healthy dose of gratitude. At the time, I was grateful that libraries were being talked about at all and that so many in my tribe were lending their voices to the chorus. I'm still grateful for both of those things. Debate is an essential part of growth and, as such, I'd worry much more about silence than about conversations that need a little mixing up. Still, there's a danger in having the same conversations over and over again. If nothing else, at some point, topics that have been discussed to death simply cease to matter… and if we're seen as the only folks to who care about them, it won't be long before we cease to matter too.


  1. I am right there with you! However, I still see so many school librarians just now venturing into these territories. While I am "been there, done that" with genrifying, I know librarians that haven't heard of it or just can't seem to grasp the idea for their own school.

    I like the idea of our conversations moving towards action versus endless debate. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I LOVE these! I genre-fied all of my fiction (and some nonfiction--mythology was all over the place in Dewey) almost three years ago now, and it was the BEST thing I could have done. My circulation TRIPLED and has consistently stayed at that high level every year since.

    I've also had the discussion of the librarian title a few times, even going so far as to have a friendly debate with a principal (not mine) who "requires" his librarian to sign her emails as "library media specialist." Priorities, people.

  3. I'm new to my library this year, but this post is inspiring me to begin the process of genre-fication in my new space. Thank you!

  4. What a great list. I'm with you on all of it except that as a non-professional #3 is a problem. Alone in my library, my kids and colleagues call me 'librarian', a monicker I accept from them but have trouble calling myself, since it seems to be reserved for those with initials after their names and I don't want to presume...My official job title is Library Assistant - held over from the days when we actually had a teacher-librarian as well as an assistant. I sign my emails 'Library Manager' because that's what I do, darn it.

  5. Ok. New to library and I will bite. Please provide genre list and tips to handling overlapping genre possibilities?

  6. Well said. It's tiring to have the same conversations. I also find that most of what is rehashed is, to me, all about ideas of what could be. I find it all too easy to become a professional idea collector at times. Gathering great ideas, showing them off maybe, or just reorganizing them from time to time. Well, they may look pretty but it doesn't accomplish much. I'd rather focus on being a do-er than a collector. Time to move forward. Perhaps that will be my New Year's Resolution.

  7. I agree with Linda R. What are the genres that you use to classify your fiction?

  8. Adventure, Historical, Realistic, Sports, Romance, War, Classics (Includes AP Reading List), Mythology, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Mystery
    Check DEMCO for spine labels to get additional ideas - the possibilities for genre fiction are endless! I have done this with 2 collections at 2 libraries, and it most certainly helps in location and circulation! Don't sweat the assignments of genres - you can even create a program/contest where the STUDENTS suggest the appropriate genre for a title or series - a wonderful discussion/debate starter!

  9. Jennifer,
    This post is incredibly inspiring. So many times we get bogged down as to traditional vs. non-traditional. There are hotly contested debates over genrefication and getting rid of Dewey, so much so that I'm writing my masters' thesis about it. I agree with all of your points here; I just wish it didn't take so much work to convince others that the library isn't OURS: It's our USERS. If we're not working for them, it's useless. Thanks for being a continued motivator and reassuring those of us who are working for the users, but feeling the resistance from everyone else.

  10. I would love to genrefy our fiction wall, but I am only half time with the budget cuts that hit our district. We've increased our annual student book checkout from about 3500 to about 10,000 (for 320 or so students), and our reading scores increased in a significant correlation, so even with highly streamlined shelving (by categories or collection types), I am busy all the time. About how many hours would you say it took you all told? We are a Pre-K-5 with about 3000 fiction titles. Just trying to guesstimate the time needed before I launch:)!