As the end of the school year approached, the library listserv LM_Net considered several distressing strands: How do you close a library for the summer when it may never reopen; how do you hand off library duties to a nonlibrarian; and how can we transform library service to serve more students with fewer staff? Situations like these result from administrative decision making based on short-term gains—with long-term losses for our kids. Wouldn’t it be nice if these local problems had been countered by a professional association actively engaged in stopping these cuts by providing solid data on the value of school librarians at the highest state and national levels?
As I travel to the American Library Association (ALA) annual conference in Chicago later this month, I will inevitably carry the baggage of an unresolved disconnect. Those of us inside Libraryland know what our K–12 peers deliver, yet that value is clearly not understood by administrators, who are cutting school librarian positions nationwide. I can’t help but think that a key resource is being squandered out of sheer ignorance.
We have a perception problem. ALA’s current president, Maureen Sullivan, agrees. “I am concerned that school administrators may not fully understand the critical role school libraries and their librarians play in fostering academic achievement and student success in a technology-driven world,” she wrote recently on Huffington Post.
I think she’s right. Moreover, ALA has an obligation to help set the record straight and demonstrate to school leaders the value of the talented people and programs right under their noses. But this challenge calls for more than a task force. It requires a shift in strategy.
Don’t get me wrong. It was encouraging to see Sullivan’s “State of America’s School Libraries” (April 15). The post conveyed urgency and important background about school librarians’ role and their contribution to student learning. But, she buried the lead. The massive body of research that articulates how librarians directly affect student success was allotted only a short paragraph. I think administrators will care if they see what they are actually giving up.
So, what to do? Engage in radical advocacy. The last time ALA leadership really confronted a pressing perception problem—the refusal of publishers to offer ebooks for lending in public libraries—they broke the mold and made inroads with industry leaders through a persistent series of high-level meetings to raise awareness about the role libraries play in building a reading public and marketing publishers’ products—books.
Somewhere along the way, ALA realized the necessity to reframe the conversation about libraries in light of ebooks. It needed to proactively engage the powers that be in the commercial sector to correct the misperception that a library sale is a lost sale. I’m sure some of those meetings were hard to arrange, and even felt risky. I sat in on one in New York that was undeniably confrontational. Facing differences of opinion and knowledge gaps can be like that.
I urge ALA leadership to step out of the comfort zone as it did on ebooks and advocate with education leaders they don’t normally talk to—district leaders, principals, superintendents, and departments of education—to correct the misperception that school librarians are expendable. Tap incoming president Barbara Stripling’s deep passion and knowledge to tip the scales. She managed one of the most complex school library systems in the United States, New York City’s, during a time of tremendous change, and she is past president of AASL. Stripling is uniquely positioned to tell this story in a compelling way.
Cuts to school libraries can’t just be one of ALA’s problems, and it’s not a challenge for the youth divisions to shoulder alone. These cuts impact all libraries and leave our kids in the lurch. If you care about the future of libraries, you have to care about the future of school libraries. Just as the association tackled ebooks head on, now is the time for ALA to drive a new advocacy strategy for school librarians.
Rebecca T. Miller