February 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Utah’s School Librarians Push to Shake Up the Status Quo

Shelly Ripplinger watched last year as her job disappeared in Utah’s Ogden School District—fired along with 19 of her fellow school librarians. But after push-back from colleagues, parents, and advocates across the state, one-time money has now funded seven district librarian positions, of which Ripplinger’s is one of these few. They travel to schools as mobile co-teachers, while clerks man the school libraries.

Whether Ripplinger has a job for the 2014–2015 school year is still not determined, which is all the more fuel firing her up to change the perception of what a school librarian can accomplish and of its value to students. “I think there’s some people who have a preconceived perception of librarians as keeper of the books and that doesn’t seem as valuable,” she says. “Of course there’s so much more. So we have to deal with their perception, and have to try to change their perception about what are the possibilities.”

Amanda Porter couldn’t agree more. As the president of the Utah Educational Library Media Association (UELMA), she believes school librarians in her state need to shake up the way they see their position in order to stay in the game—and stay in their jobs.

“I feel like this profession is in a transition stage,” says Porter, who is a former school librarian, now working as a digital learning coach at Rocky Mountain Middle School in the Wasatch County School District. “I feel there were a lot of librarians who did work in the old model. They stayed in their libraries and focused on books and that didn’t sit well.”

Hardly alone, Utah’s school librarians are trying to build a case for their relevancy in the school system. Budget cuts are impacting education across the country—and school librarians are often eyed as a line item to be erased. But in Utah, advocates are working hard to shift the tide.

The state is currently down to three school districts out of 41 that employ full-time certified school librarians at all three educational levels: elementary, middle, and high school, according to PALS, a 600-member volunteer group advocating in Utah for school libraries and librarians. There are 10 districts without any teacher librarian at all, the group says.

PALS sets up field trips for legislators to visit school libraries to see how an effective program can change the way students engage in their classwork and lessons, while also advocating at the PTA Annual Conference, and other events.

“But we haven’t gone to standing in front of the grocery stores with flyers as they did in Washington,” Sharyl Smith, a former state specialist for library media with the Utah State Office of Education, tells School Library Journal. “There are only five of us on the Steering Committee and we do what we can.”

What they’ve done is support funding for school library books and electronic resources at the state level, now a line-item of $500,000 a year, according to the group’s site. While less than $1 per student, notes Smith, it’s “something to grow on,” she says. And they continue to push where they see school librarians needing another voice—and support.

Ogden’s Ripplinger also hopes she can help re-build the image of her colleagues by collaborating with teachers to help students utilize Google apps, do research on Native American history, and write bills for a U.S. government class, as she’s done already this year.

“Instead of being information specialists and showing where to get information, we’re collaborating to see a project to the end,” she says. “We’re showing that the role is more valid than ever, and more needed. We’re showing why we need to find the money to keep teacher-librarians.”

Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at www.laurenbarack.com.

Building Literacy-Rich Communities
Hosted by Library Journal and School Library JournalStronger Together is a national gathering of thought leaders and innovators from across the country who will share where and how partnerships between school districts and public libraries are having success. Join us May 10–12 at the University of Nebraska Omaha, as we explore the impact these collaborations are having on the institutions, communities, and kids they serve.