February 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

SLJ Talks to AASL President-Elect Gail Dickinson

Gagaildickinson(Original Import)il Dickinson, editor-in-chief of Library Media Connection and an associate professor at Virginia’s Old Dominion University, has been elected president of the American Association of School Librarians for the 2013-2014 term.

We spoke to the former school librarian about her plans for when she takes office, her advice to colleagues, and why it’s a riveting time for the profession.

What excites you most about being president of AASL?

I am so looking forward to gaining a new perspective on school librarianship by having conversations with school librarians across the country. School librarianship, no matter where and how you practice it, can be isolating as everyone strives to perform in their little box. Being president of this great organization and an excellent leader of this profession is a “box-busting” experience, and I am thrilled to start the adventure.

You’re taking over at a crucial time: school library positions and budgets are being cut nationwide. What can be done to give media specialists the recognition they deserve?

This is the third major downswing in terms of job-cutting that I have seen in my experience, and although it can be alarming, the profession is strong. Now is the time for celebration on what strong school librarians are doing to make a difference in teaching and learning. We can work to mitigate the job losses, but we have to be very careful to make sure that is not all that is in the news. Amazing success stories are all around us, and I would much rather a superintendent read about these positive situations than I would have a superintendent read that others at his level are cutting jobs. Cuts beget cuts, but I also think success begets success.

You’re right. Despite all the bad news, it’s certainly an exciting time to be a school librarian. What advice do you have for your colleagues in the profession?

My advice to any educator is to always focus on the child. Education is always one child at a time, so the role of the school librarian has to be measured in the impact on the learning of each child. My advice is for school librarians to really look at each student entering the library, and think about what that student needs to set and achieve positive goals. The librarian works school-wide and curriculum-wide, so we are the common thread in the instructional life of the student. I tell prospective school librarians that they now can be the teacher that they always wanted to be. The library as that school-wide and curriculum-wide classroom can be a true learning commons for each student. It’s not just about technology and ebooks. They are just tools. The learning is the thing.

How will your experience as a professor, librarian, and editor-in-chief help you in your new role?

School librarians are continually learning and continually teaching. Class does not end when the students leave the library. The librarian keeps teaching until the last faculty member has left the building. What I loved about being a building-level school librarian was the helping nature of the job. School librarians spend their time helping find resources, helping classroom teachers learn technology, and helping school-wide as education changes. In my role as a library educator, I always say that I am not teaching about the profession of librarianship, I am creating experiences in which people can become librarians. The process of becoming is always more difficult than simply learning about. I see my role as editor-in-chief of Library Media Connection as an extension of my role as a library science educator. I am continuing to help school librarians become stronger by providing opportunities for them to write for the profession and for them to read about the experiences of others. It’s all the same, really.

How have things changed-in the classroom and in the profession-since you were a school librarian?

The job has become both bigger and smaller. The logistical details involved with the administration of school libraries was so time-consuming that we were limited in what we could do, because maintaining the structure took so long. Now we have streamlined so much, and I think we could streamline so much more. I love the idea that we can grab new tools and new technologies without high implementation costs and tedious backroom work. What has never changed, though, is that librarians make a difference in the lives of children. No one ever pointed back to the library catalog as the change point in a life going downhill, but some regularly talk about their school librarians as making a difference for them. That will never change.

What role do you see school librarians playing with the common core standards?

As the common core standards become implemented in most states, librarians will need to continue to fulfill their role as leaders in school change and curriculum implementation. School librarians have always been translators and filters for implementation, helping to decide what strategies work best in schools. The common core gives us a common language to speak as a national profession, and we will have to seize the opportunities that are provided by the focus on the common core.

How important is advocacy for media specialists?

Advocacy is like breathing for school librarians. It’s essential for life, it’s a natural process, and it happens sometimes without us even thinking about it. We need to share our successes through advocacy, and I think this is one of the many successes that AASL has helped to achieve. The organization has a great structure to provide advocacy opportunities, resources, and experiences.

Would more collaboration between school and public libraries help?

Through new technologies and new abilities to network, there is a need for more collaboration with all types of libraries.

What are you the top issues that you’d like to tackle in your new role?

Having been elected for all of three weeks, I feel I am still learning about the role. Diversity of the profession is certainly an issue I would like to explore, and I want to talk more with both [outgoing AASL President] Carl Harvey and [AASL President Elect for 2012-2013] Susan Ballard on their thoughts as well.

About Debra Lau Whelan

Debra Whelan is a former senior editor for news and features at SLJ.