February 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

ALA, It’s Time to Step Up for School Libraries | Editorial

Librarian with kidsAs 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

Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller (rmiller@mediasourceinc.com) is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.



  1. L Hamann says:

    Well said.

    I decided not to renew my ALA membership over 15 years ago when the membership rate went up and up and I could see no benefit for me, a school librarian. Now, when I am the only librarian in the district, waiting to hear if I will have this job in the fall and knowing the the library assistants will be at half time or less next year, I am saddened to see that ALA still has not realized that they disenfranchised librarians who have a captive audience of readers to influence.

  2. Go, Rebecca! ALA has the mic, and what better way to use it.

  3. Thank you, Rebecca Miller! What you say is true. We can and still must vigorously advocate for the role of libraries and librarians in the schools. I feel that ALA has essentially abandoned school libraries and school librarians to the school budgeting process and allowed them to fall into the shadows as computer labs in the schools have proliferated. Even worse, I think school libraries have been subjected to standardized testing results without objection. (“Does the library raise test scores?” !) That is a mistake that must be corrected. Framing the conversation IS key. Keeping a sharp and steady aim toward literacy, learning through research and the habits of life-long learning is essential. To do this however, I think ALA must fearlessly confront the problems and weaknesses in Internet-based research and the standardized test movement and be the vocal advocates of learning that embraces the complexity of knowledge and depth of learning. In other words, take a stand of resistance toward the current trends in America’s schools and, on behalf of children and libraries, articulate the power and benefits of a well-staffed library with a good, if not excellent collection.

  4. Charlie Parker says:

    In my region we have seen 2 school districts vote to eliminate school library media specialists in the last months. The problem we encountered when trying to engage in and support advocacy is that we could not locate a clear, brief, impactful, compelling statement describing why school library media specialists are essential. We could not find an op-ed like piece that said these are the 3 reasons why school media library media specialists are necessary for children’s success in school. The studies are good but alone they aren’t sufficient. We found nothing that would stir the public to action or tell them why they should care. This should be easy to find from the ALA or AASL web pages but its not. Until ALA gets out a brief, clear, powerful message things will only get worse. This is not rocket science – just put the message out!

  5. Now is the time for everyone to stand up and speak on behalf of school libraries. Our district cut ten library clerks last year and, in the coming year, will be whittling down the secondary staff from two Teacher Librarians to one–serving about 3,000 students. Not too long ago, our Teacher Librarians played major roles in curriculum development and technology training for staff and students. Here are the sad changes facing our nation’s schools and libraries. What can do to help?

    10. Schools rush to buy new technology. When one software version or device becomes dated, schools rush to replace. Allow students to bring their own digital devices and connect. Provide for those who need. Teach flexibility in regards to Web 2.0. It should not be about a single company’s apps, software, or devices; instead, schools must embrace online technology, teach the “ins and outs of cloud storage,” and use a variety of web bookmarking, note taking, citation making, and graphic editing tools with students– so to offer students what best promotes learning and preparation for their future.
    9. Lack of interest in the well-planned national celebrations of learning is sad…such as National Poetry Month and Teen Read Month. It goes like this…. “I wish I had…,” “I should have…,” “I didn’t hear about it…,” “I didn’t know about it.” People don’t read announcements. People don’t keep calendars up-to-date, and then it’s too late–the opportunity passes quickly. Staff and administrators should encourage participation in these national, state, and local events and activities. Students will remember participating in these activities far longer than sitting in a classroom seat or staring at a computer screen!
    8. Expect our national standards’ curriculum to emphasize the basic “core values of humanity.” Global communication, listening to the thoughts of others, respecting what others think, and being considerate rather than defensive, should top everyone’s TO DO list.
    7. Digital learning does not take the place of face-to-face communication and personalized education. Technology should not allow the pencil–or pen–and paper to go by the wayside. Why not regularly write a few quick notes of appreciation to others or take the time to visit them, in person, to show gratitude—just because? If we practice and model this, maybe our following generations will think it of value! These are opportunities that build upon a core understanding of humanity!
    6. Leadership is not about “showing power” but about “helping every human being on the face of this earth achieve their greatest potential.” Let the power be a shared endeavor–one that focuses in leading and lifting each other. It’s in helping one another that we provide the lifelong educational memories worth treasuring.
    5. When new leadership enters an organization, they must LISTEN to the wisdom of each individual, regarding his/her best contributions to the organization. Everyone needs to feel their VOICE counts. What are the positives that are already in place before the new leaders arrived? The new leadership should build foundations on these current successes and weave these strengths into their desired plan of action.
    4. Are we honoring the creative teaching skills and expertise of every educator? When teachers are advised to use the same methods, materials, and testing models, learning becomes stale and creativity in the classroom becomes suppressed. There are those that would argue to move towards an online education with minimal teachers and space required. I would argue that students learn from the “face-to-face” interaction with all kinds of teaching styles within the school building. This is learning to cope and succeed in life, in training. It allows for spontaneous interaction and communication. This is critical learning at its best.
    3. Pretesting, post-testing, testing, and more testing places a huge emphasis on test scores rather than nurturing the students’ abilities. Testing takes time away from valuable, authentic instructional time in the classroom. Testing is minimal in meeting the critical needs of developing individual worth. Some believe a formal pre-test sets the student up for failure. We must develop teaching strategies that utilize healthy vibes, smiles, and language to provide positive direction and feedback, so that our children feel success rather than failure from the start. Formative assessment, throughout a unit of study, does just that – molds success. It encourages the learner to develop a positive attitude and an eagerness to want to learn, achieve, and improve.
    2. Keep the lights on and the doors open in our school libraries and keep these facilities staffed with trained educators. It takes qualified personnel to properly manage libraries. Upon entering a school library–sit awhile and watch students enjoy their learning space–talk to students and listen to them–pick up reading materials and share what you are reading, seeing, and thinking. The library is the inner heart and soul of the school and offers great value to the learning process – as the students have said, “My school library is like home away from home.”
    1. Libraries are places for people of all interests and talents to unite and share, learn and grow, build new relationships, respect, and develop an insight into the lives of others.

  6. Della Curtis says:

    Thank you for our compelling article! I agree! Barbara Stripling’s ALA presidency is timely and her expertise and passion for school libraries will chart new thinking about the value of school library programming and literacy instruction in the education of youth.

  7. Well said and well timed Rebecca! We can all gain by pushing ALA to strengthen support for school libraries. Effective education is in everyone’s best interests, and Teacher Librarians are at the Heart of Student Learning. Thanks also for SLJ article on ” Strengthening America’s Schools Act, introduced in the Senate on Tuesday June 4th by Tom Harkin (D-IA), Patty Murray (D-WA), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Jack Reed (D-RI), includes strong provisions for effective school library programs, and is the first piece of legislation to recognize the role school library programs play in student learning since 1965, according to the American Library Association.”

  8. For years I have been saying that ALA, and AASL, have been giving their constituents lots of ideas about doing their jobs well, advocating, etc.–but they’re speaking to the choir, and the group that needs to hear about the value of teacher librarians is made up of administrators who hold the personnel and budget reins. In a large, multicultural, economically diverse, urban district of 19 schools, there are TWO professional teacher librarians–me at one high school, my colleague at the other. No one on the Central Office level takes responsibility for the libraries; we have no advocate at the top. We’re going into our second year with NO budget for books, magazines, databases (though there’s a bit, just a bit, of $$ for tech). This year my principal decided the best use of the library was to house large study halls every period of the day–granted, NOMINALLY “supervised” by (disinterested) faculty members. I discovered this on the first day of school. And I’ve been told flatly that it’s MY fault the situation isn’t working well and teachers are reluctant to bring in classes with so many distractions. MY supervision of OTHER TEACHERS’ study halls was part of my annual evaluation (which I am contesting). Next year I’m losing the library computer lab one period every day because a class needs it–so I need to tell teachers who want to schedule time in the library, with computers, that they can’t come Period 8. Last year part of the library was commandeered for Inschool Suspension space. When the school formed a “Research Committee” to design research projects at each grade level, my then-colleague and I were not invited–though the first meeting took place in the library. (AWKWARD!!!) We were told we were too militant. When we finally got onto the committee, we were pointedly ignored as we spoke in favor of teaching a scaffolded research PROCESS rather than concentrating on PRODUCT rubrics. I don’t take any of this quietly; I inundate my principal with quality articles about the value of school libraries, I ask for proof of “best practices” when decisions like those described above come along. But since there’s no one at the administrative level supporting the library program, the two of us at the high school level are lone voices and (to the principals and housemasters) argumentative crackpots.
    ALA and AASL leaders, movers, and shakers–TAKE THE MESSAGE TO ANNUAL CONFERENCES FOR ADMINISTRATORS!!!! MAKE THEM HEAR!! They can still make their decisions based on whatever voodoo data they claim to be using, but they can’t say they didn’t know otherwise.

  9. Thank you for writing this article. I lost my position after 10 years in a local Middle School, because they wanted to replace me with a clerk. I would like to see a new movement of librarians working together to push for certified librarians in every school in this country. We need to ban together on the local, state and national level to push for a “certified librarian in every school in this country.” If anyone has ideas, please email me at ammatics@hotmail.com Thank you for reading this comment.

    My new motto “one school=one certified librarian”

  10. California is the battle ground that all librarians and those who care about libraries should be standing with us. Soon the California School Library Association will publish the data on teacher librarians in our state (about 1:7000 students). We have an entire generation of educational leadership and teachers who don’t know what a teacher librarian is. The blueprint that works in California for advancing teacher librarians in all of our schools is a blue print that will work anywhere. We are the new New York, if you can make it here you can make it anywhere! If you would like to collaborate and/or explore our efforts and/or combine efforts please contact Glen Warren at warren media@gmail.com