New York City middle school librarian and social media devotee Deven Black caught the attention of many in the library community a few weeks ago with an unusual blog post in which he lamented being underutilized by his school. New to the profession yet emboldened by a strong relationship with his principal, Black hoped the post would generate ideas on ways he might better brainstorm projects and integrate his library with other educators at the school, he tells School Library Journal. Curious if the post had its intended effect, we arranged a one-on-one interview with Black; in it, he talks candidly about his unusual path to librarianship, why partnering with one’s principal is key to a successful school library, and the challenges (and triumphs) of professional development.
Your path to the profession was not at all direct; most recently you worked as a teacher, but you have also been a newspaper reporter, radio newsman, bartender, restaurant manager, copywriter, and public relations rep. How did you become a librarian?
I am a two-time high school dropout and a college dropout, all before I was 17. I eventually got my B.S. degree from SUNY/Empire State College (where I am now an adjunct) at age 42. I had a double major of psychology and education studies. I received my Masters of Science in Teaching from Fordham University, and my MLS this year from Queens College.
I became librarian [at Castle Hill Middle School 127 in Bronx, NY] very suddenly two years ago, replacing the woman who had been our librarian since the school opened in 1956. She had not been able to do the job for a number of years but still came to work every day. The library was in total disarray; books were piled everywhere, and there were more than 25 unopened boxes containing new books.
On the Friday before Christmas break, my principal [Harry Sherman] came to my classroom. We sat down and he said, “Have you ever thought of being a school librarian?”
I knew nothing about being a librarian other than that I would need to get an MLS degree to keep the job. I went onto Twitter and got advice, recommendations of priorities, names of suppliers, and lots more useful information within an hour. Two days later I attended my first library professional development session; two weeks later I started classes in the MLS program at Queens College.
My principal paid to automate the library and arranged my schedule so I’d have large blocks of time in which I could leave the building to do the degree’s required field work and internship hours. I jumped into the new situation with two feet. Within a few days I had a plan of how to reinvigorate the library and presented it to my principal. He gave me a budget that would pay the fees to start automating the library and to buy a few basic supplies. I worked from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. or later every day weeding, putting on bar codes, and doing all the other things necessary to make the library work.
I received my certification from the state on February 1 this year. It has been one hell of a ride.
It sounds like your principal really understood your capabilities and had a vision for the school library. Can you tell us more about your relationship?
I am a school librarian because it was my principal’s idea—his way of saving my career, or so it seemed at the time. He explained why he chose the position for me: I was failing as a classroom teacher at least half the time, but he thought I had a lot to offer the school and didn’t want to lose me.
He mentioned one of the most fundamental ways we disagree as a strength for me as a librarian: I don’t believe in distinct subject areas. To me, knowledge is a holistic, completely interconnected, ever growing thing; he believes there is a fundamental difference between math and ELA, for example. He said that as a librarian my holistic view could be a valuable asset, and it has proven to be so. He and I see the world in very different ways and we disagree with each other about many topics in education. One of the things I have always appreciated about him is his willingness to listen to and consider other views. Even though we disagree on things we’ve always been able to talk to and listen to each other.
[He] was very eager to have a functioning library and did everything possible to make my transition work for the school and for me. He has given me time off to attend conferences (particularly Educon in late January every year), encouraged me to participate in the union catalog pilot with the NYPL, gave me freedom to make decisions about the library without almost any oversight. In short, he trusted me to understand and support his goals for the school as a librarian just as I had as a teacher.
I trust him, too. I know I can go to him with any ideas I have and will usually get the opportunity to try them. He has let me know he is aware of how much I’ve accomplished—he’s signed off on all the grant applications I’ve submitted, among other things—and I’ve let him know how much I appreciate his faith in me to do this job and his willingness to work on saving my career. We still disagree on some basic things, but we’ve learned how to work with each other.
What was the thought process behind your recent blog post? Do you think other schools are underutilizing their librarians or underestimating their skills?
I wanted to try to generate some discussion on how else I might be able to approach my principal with ideas. As it turns out, some major changes are starting to happen in my school [and] my principal has asked me to take a major role in leading aspects of the change.
I think that in many schools the administration does not really understand what the librarian is capable of doing. We are off in our libraries, sometimes removed from the stream of consciousness of the other teachers and administration. Other librarians are in a very different situation where they are fully integrated into the school. I think in my situation, because the school got so used to not having a functioning library and librarian, I have to take bold steps to enter the consciousness of everyone.
What kind of feedback have you gotten from the post, both inside and outside of your school? Have you been collaborating with teachers more at your school?
The feedback I’ve gotten has been very positive. One librarian called me brave and another called me foolish for posting what I did. A few librarians have said they wish they had the courage to do what I did but they were afraid they’d get fired. It was one of the more popular posts ever on my blog.
My principal’s response was generally positive. He encouraged me to continue sending resources to the staff, suggested I reach out to the APs in change of social studies and science to discuss the ideas I put forth in my post, and told me he was open to me trying anything as long as I followed whatever Department of Education policies that might apply (such as for putting student work online publicly).
I try to collaborate with colleagues, but they’re still getting used to the idea of having a librarian. Unfortunately, they feel so pressured to move the curriculum along that they do not feel they have time to involve me in their plans. I keep pushing resources out to them and a few are starting to notice. It is a process. When I started as a librarian I had to steal the school’s copying machine and move it into the library so that I’d get to see and talk to the other teachers. Now they see the changes in the library daily and are starting to realize that things are different now.
How is being a librarian different from your experience as a classroom teacher?
[It] is very different. For one thing, students like me a lot more as I don’t give assignments, homework, or grades. I’m the big, friendly guy who will listen to them blow off steam about their teachers knowing that I will keep their confidences. I get to know more kids than the classroom teachers, though I don’t always get to know them as well. Even so, I have my regulars and we get to know each other pretty well. I am very open to their questions about my life and, as a result, they’re open to my questions about theirs. Of course the best thing is that I don’t assign reading, I’m the one who tries to keep the joy of it alive or establish that joy where there is none.
What advice would you offer school librarians who are seeking ways to build better relationships with their principals and administration?
First of all, try to understand your administrator’s goals. Show that you are part of the team. Give more than you ask for. Document everything. Ask questions, anticipate needs. Solve problems, don’t be a problem or cause them.
I have it easy in a way, I’m still being compared to the woman I replaced and everything I do looks like progress. I’m not that much younger than her—I’ll be 60 in October, I started teaching at age 50—[but] my view is looking forward and hers was trying to maintain the library she knew in the 1950s. At some point my principal is going to start comparing me to other modern librarians; I just need to make sure he never hears about Shannon Miller or anyone even half as productive as she is.
Things are also likely to change in the library. We have a new elementary school sharing our building and next year I am going to be the librarian for that school as well as my own. That means working for two principals, having two different library programs, one for middle school students and the other for kindergarten and first grade students. Just when I’m starting to feel comfortable and ready to take the library onto the next level—an online presence, for example—I feel like I’m going to have to start over.
What has been the most valuable professional development you’ve received so far?
The single most valuable professional development as a librarian all happened in the first two weeks of starting back to school after that Christmas break. I got informal PD via Twitter from Shannon Miller, Joyce Valenza, Buffy Hamilton, Diane Cordell, Melissa Techman and some other people I’d met online.
They helped me set priorities, told me about supplies I’d need and where to get them, all kinds of immediately useful information. Then, a couple of days after school started again, I attended the first session of four full-day Saturday PDs run by the NYCDOE School Library Service for new librarians. That was very useful because not only did I learn a lot, I started to establish relationships with the Library Service people, particularly Melissa Jacobs Israel, and some librarian colleagues. I have become very active in our small community of librarians and have made some very solid relationships.
Do you think you’ve found your calling with this new job?
This job suits me and I suit the job. I like having responsibility for a “department” and I like having the flexibility to allocate my own time. I like being around books and students. I like that I had to learn so much to be able to do this job—learning is really what I like to do most of all.