Saturday, December 21, 2013

Joyce's Story: The Ending Is Up To You

A few days ago, Joyce Valenza posted a video and script of what she called a School Library Story.  Both are a testimonial of sorts.  A response to the continued cuts to school library programs across the country, but specifically in Philadelphia, where there are only 15 school librarians left to serve their 250+ schools.  It's an accounting of what happens in school libraries and, more importantly, of what kids who don't have access to a quality school library program are missing out on.  And because it's Joyce's work, it's very well done.  What's more, I've had several conversations with other librarians who have watched the video and read the script and we all came to the same conclusion:

If every school library looked like what Joyce is describing, our profession would not be on the endangered species list.

Unfortunately, however, as my good friend Jennifer Northrup says, there's still a lot of bad apples in libraryland.  And while I recognize that there are a lot of factors, (some of which are within our control and many, many others that are not), that result in professional paralysis and instructional inertia, I've gotta tell you, folks, the why of it doesn't really matter.  That fact remains: one bad apple really does ruin the bunch. (And we've got more than one to worry about).

That said, it would be bad enough if Philadelphia was the only place where school library programs are in grave danger of becoming a thing of the past, but we all know that's not true.  The reality is that I've run out of fingers and toes to count the number of district and state level leaders who have told me that they're considering cutting school library positions. And I'd need a calculator to add up the number of districts and states I've visited where those cuts have already begun.

It's time for all of us to ask ourselves some tough questions relating to the focus of our work and the impact it has on kids.  It's not enough to just work hard.  It's not enough to be exhausted at the end of the day.  The hours we spend with children must matter.  The work we do on behalf of students must result in measurable outcomes.

We can't just be busy, we have to be significant. 

I suggest using Joyce's work as a starting place.  The script from her video would make a wonderful self assessment tool for school librarians to use to take stock of their current work.  Take a look at the categories she identifies and ask yourself: Am I doing this?  Am I doing it well?  Can I produce evidence to prove that this work makes a difference for students?  If you're not sure of the answers or, you are sure, but you don't like what you see, it's time to make some changes.

To that end, in thinking about Joyce's video and the reality that so many see our profession as outdated and unnecessary, I started to visualize a plan of action.  To me, it's simple.  The perception that library programs are unnecessary exists for one of two reasons:  Door #1: the work being done really IS unnecessary or Door #2: the work being done is not being shared effectively. After that, it's just a matter of fixing the problem.  This is how this process looked in my head:

Click here for Hi-Res image for download.
And, listen, I know change is hard.  But unemployment is harder.  And knowing that our kids are missing out on the fundamental and democratizing role that libraries play in their lives and in their education, well... that's much harder still.  

I was recently told that every complaint is really a request.  For example, if I complain that my husband plays too much golf (actually, he's never picked up a set of clubs) then what I'm really requesting is that he spend more time with me.  Anyway, if that's true, and if we think of every proposed cut to library staffing and services as a response to the complaint that the services we currently provide are not cutting the mustard, then it may be useful to identify the requests behind those complaints.  In which case, saying school libraries are unnecessary is really just a request that we shift our focus to what matters to those whose decisions matter a great deal to us.

Of course, these requests will vary in as many ways as our schools and students vary, but there's one thing that's true for all of us.  The time to close our eyes and wait for things to get better has passed.  The clock has run out.  We must all act now.  Before it's too late. 


  1. Great post. Action does need to be taken before it is too late. We all need to be aware that we need evidence about what it is we do, this is not easy in our profession. Collaboration with the teachers and taking their evidence of improved research skills and better grades because of the work that they are producing because of a librarians imput is one way to justify your existance. Teachers are always expected to provide evidence so we have tailor made evidence if we are working well with our teachers.

  2. It is also disconcerting that there is a pervasive public/parent perception that libraries are unnecessary esp. for educational environments increasingly becoming 1:1 or for homes where the ratio of devices to people is 3:1. The misconception seems to be, “All my son/daughter needs is a device and Google.” Many are accepting Reality #1, so there is not a riotous outcry from the general public when school libraries are cut. If school libraries are to survive (and for our students’ sakes, survive we must) we must change public perception as well. We can easily let ourselves be overwhelmed by this charge, or we can “put one foot in front of the other” (I’ve obviously recently watched Santa Claus is Coming to Town) and exemplify to our schools and parents that our services matter.

  3. Personally, I know the majority of this discussion is based primarily in the US, I still have so much trouble grasping the number of cuts I read about. It's really disheartening when I think about how much I relied on growing up and the missed opportunities for so many students of today's generation.
    In Canada, it's an issue on a smaller scale. Most schools that I've walked through or worked/volunteered in have some form of library or another, it's not an easy task but if you have a great administrator and teachers who support full-force of having a library it makes the job a lot easier to obtain and keep. Budgets will always be the issue, but that's another conversation.
    I agree that things need to be changed. I know, by what I've been told by the students I see regularly, I definitely do a lot more than the last librarian in regards to just "being there". I seem to have time for everything from cataloguing new books, to book fairs, helping students locate a particular book and all the extras in between. Granted, I have a smaller number of students (just over 600) but I hear otehr librarians of my district saying they don't have time for ANYTHING!
    I think being available to the students at a minimum makes all the world of difference rather than just being seen not heard.

  4. Excellent post, compelling ideas, and a very practical way for each of us to consider and act. Thanks!

  5. It's sad especially because Philly was the BIRTHPLACE of free libraries...courtesy of Benjamin Franklin.

  6. Or option 3, you are doing what your supposed to be doing but the teachers don't understand how you are really helping because they don't understand information literacy themselves! Elementary teachers, in my experience, have no real knowledge of the library or what it entails. Which in turn tells me that their degree is practically useless in today's world.

    1. I have a Q for U... How do you get elementary teachers to understand more about literacy? On a monthly basis the librarians of my district come together and collaborate on ideas/thoughts and try to come up with ways for our teachers to become more "aware" of the library. We've noticed it's a lot more difficult with teachers that are set-in-their-ways versus newer teachers that are constantly grappling to find something and are (thankfully) coming to you about their wants, needs, etc.

  7. I totally agree with both realities you have highlighted in your graphic, and certainly feel it is up to us to find the viability in our programs. Also, the point you made about complaints being actually a request for help is an interesting slant, and I haven't thought of teacher complaints in this light before. What tips can you give for teachers who do nothing but complain when I ask to collaborate? Many of them think collaborating is them emailing me a list of the objectives for the week and me coming up with something for their kids to do when they come to the library. So, I always feel obligated to make it work out, and am doing double or triple the work load to make sure the student needs are met to keep the teachers from complaining about how much they already have to do, AND to keep my position viable.