Nancy Robertson is not a school librarian—but as Michigan’s State Librarian, she believes strongly in the role of certified media specialists in student success. And although she has no effect on schools’ library budgets, or whether Michigan’s school librarians keep their jobs, she has worked for the last five years on a benchmarking program called SL21, to help school librarians in the state measure their own success in areas of leadership, teaching, and learning environment, and to glean details on how to raise their programs to exemplary status.
“I wanted to make a difference for school librarians when I started in this position in 2005,” she tells School Library Journal. “We’re not politically active but we’re generally advocates for the importance of school librarians. We want to make sure they don’t get left even though their numbers are dwindling.”
Around the country—in California, Illinois, Texas, Ohio, New York, Florida, and Pennsylvania, for example—school librarians are repeatedly finding themselves on the chopping blocks, or their roles inside school buildings stretched as budgets have carved holes into their line-items. Michigan does not mandate certified school librarians in their schools except at high school level—and even there, that requirement is difficult to enforce, says Robertson.
“If they have a library in a high school, it has to be staffed by a professional,” she says. “But that’s not anything anyone can really police.”
Jeffrey Hastings may not work in a high school, but he knows first-hand how budgets can affect school librarians. As the former school librarian at Highlander Way Middle School in the Howell (MI) Public School District, Hastings avoids walking the first floor where the school library sits. Today, he teaches eighth grade English, and often has his students travel to the library for materials on their own.
“It’s a little surreal to walk in,” says Hastings. “If you have been in a facility for 20 years, you can emotionally attached. To see it die is kind of hard.”
Hastings was one of two school librarians—the last two in his district—removed from their posts last year and offered teaching positions. His former colleague declined and is now a school librarian in another district, while Hastings was reassigned to teach English in the same school. He continues to try to teach his students about how to use the library, which is currently staffed with two part-time secretaries, one who worked with Hastings for a year.
But overall, he remains confused about how he and his former colleague could be cut when their roles seemed to dovetail so well with the recently adopted Common Core curriculum.
”It’s ironic,” he says. “I looked at [Common Core] and thought, ‘Wow, this is everything I’ve been trying to [do] for the last year.’ I thought, ‘This is going to save us.’”
But Robertson is not surprised. She’s watched over the years as schools and school librarians who have received national and local attention for their library programs have ultimately had their programs shuttered. While she believes administrators don’t want to make those choices, to her their decisions reflect a lack of understanding of the roles their removing.
That’s a core reason why she requires school librarians to have their district supervisors sign their submissions to SL21 before they send them.
“They don’t know what school librarians can do,” she says. “We want them to see what school librarians bring to the table and what would be missing if they were gone from their district.”
Hastings himself knows, but with his job now to teach two English language arts classes, he says he has to stay focused on his current responsibilities. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t kept his eye open for another school library position should it present itself to him. “I would love it if someone needed what I do,” he says. “If it would be a potential that wouldn’t be wasted.”