Librarians Uniquely Equipped To Address the Tenor of the Times

Finding accurate information is more important than ever, and school librarians are here (as they always have been) to give students the "gift" of truth, according to AASL president Kathy Carroll.

Kathy Carroll quote with graphicAs Kathy Carroll watched the January 6 ­attack on the Capitol “in total disbelief.” The American Association of School ­Librarians (AASL) president knew she needed to say something, that she wanted to say ­something, and carefully crafted a tweet to the ­organization’s members:

“We as professionals have to be brave in our convictions. We are the curators of accurate unbiased information. Don’t be afraid to have hard conversations or to stand behind truth and facts. Our students are counting on us! #TruthWins #FactsMatter”

“I was very intentional with every word, because I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve now seen the real power of language and words, I need to be very careful,’ ” she says. “But I didn’t want to steer away from the truth, so I did put that we have to have hard conversations.”

Those discussions include information literacy, conspiracy theories, civics, history, bias, social justice, and white supremacy. School librarians must face these subjects in a facts-first, age-appropriate way that doesn’t suggest the educator is uncomfortable in any way or afraid to discuss it, she says. Students can sniff out that fear.

“If you lose credibility with them personally, you’re going to lose it with them when you’re trying to have an academic conversation,” says Carroll, library media specialist at Westwood High School in Columbia, SC. “It’s all about relationships.”

The state of the nation is an opportunity for school librarians, albeit one that comes from concurrent traumas. The need for news literacy and critical thinking is a call that school librarians are ready to answer.

“It’s not as if the house is on fire and we’re suddenly looking for water,” she says. “We’ve been preparing for this, because this is the cornerstone of what we do. We curate accurate information to then disseminate it, but we also show our learners how to acquire the information they need and then to dissect it, to make sure that it’s accurate.”

Across the country on January 6 and the days that followed, school librarians were immediately providing colleagues with resources and booklists to help students process the events with a sound factual foundation and talking to kids about the day in classes and clubs.

Tyler Sainato, school librarian at Cane Ridge High School in Antioch, TN, spent two hours discussing the Capitol attack on a video call with two students in her Project LIT chapter.

“We were talking about the differences in the Black Lives Matter protests that occurred in the same space and what the police presence was, how the narrative would be different if it were anything other than a bunch of white nationalists that were there, and wondering why they were being helped down the stairs after instead of shoved,” says Sainato.

There were tears and confusion and anger during the conversation, says Sainato, who tried to be honest with the kids.

“I was pretty transparent,” she says. “I said, ‘I’m hurting, I’m struggling, I’m questioning. Let’s just kind of go through it together and know that I do not have an answer, never mind all of the answers.’ ”

Teacher librarian Anita Cellucci had similar conversations with her high school poetry group in Westborough, MA. After a discussion, they tried to work their way through the events by free writing. Students described being confused, horrified, and appalled. They wrote poems about the racism clearly on display at the Capitol.

Educators participated in the Capitol insurrection, forcing administrators across the country to investigate whether their employees were part of the illegal attack on the Capitol or just there for the rally. They also must address pandemic concerns. The rally was full of people who did not follow the recommended public health measures to mitigate coronavirus transmission. A school ­librarian from Vermont took a bus trip to DC with unmasked riders. Her school closed its library for a week and got a substitute teacher, according to reports. On social media, educators and authors expressed disappointment that a school librarian attended an event based on disinformation where she was with people in clothes with racist and anti-Semitic slogans.

As the Biden administration has made fighting systemic racism and recruiting more teachers of color a goal, Carroll is trying to bring new voices to school libraries.

“We are actively embracing diversity,” says Carroll, a Black president of an organization that represents an overwhelmingly white profession. “We have paths to leadership for all members. We are strongly advocating for equity, diversity, and inclusion, and we’re just trying to be a safe space.”

A proponent of diversity of voice who describes a recent town hall meeting as “lovely, very lively, [and] feisty,” Carroll says she has not heard from school librarians within the organization who betray the professional mission of truth and equity.

“I can honestly say if we have those voices, they are not magnified nor given credence,” she says. “They have not gained traction in our association.”For any school librarian who furthers inaccurate narratives (be it about the pandemic, election, or any subject or event) or is racist, Carroll seems almost at a loss for words.

“I don’t know if there’s much that I can say, because that is not what we stand for,” Carroll says. “That’s not who we are, and they don’t reflect our association’s vision or mission.”

Opinions should be left at the library door, she says.

“Maybe, personally, they have a view, but when they get in that room with those minds and impressionable learners, I don’t see how they can do anything but what’s best for them,” she says, admitting she may be a little naive, but that doing the job properly means teaching facts.

“[You tell students]‘This is what has happened. This is why it’s happened. Now you have a decision, because life is about decisions. Which path are you going to choose?’” says Carroll. “That’s what our role is, to provide information—not judgment—but accurate information.…I just can’t think of a better gift to give somebody than the truth.”

It is this foundation for critical thinking that, Carroll hopes, will keep students from falling for misinformation and disinformation in the future.

“I’m going to equip you with the skills to ­always see: Is someone trying to manipulate you? Is this biased? Does this person have an agenda? Is this accurate? Is this doctored?” she says. “Based on that, it’s still your decision. We’re not ­making a bunch of little clones. We’re just trying to raise informed citizens who hopefully will make good decisions.”

School librarians, of course, operate in the real world, where not every administrator is supportive and parents don’t always agree with the work being done in the library. But Carroll says it is still realistic for members to “adhere to the vision and goals” of AASL even if there is pushback from the school community. It can be frustrating, but choosing to acquiesce to those calls could have dire consequences, according to Carroll.

“People like us—who are trying, who care, who want to champion what’s right and the truth—if we just give up and go away, please understand there will be someone to take our place,” Carroll says. “I can’t even envision what it would be like if it’s the wrong set of people.”

Serving as AASL president in 2020-21 hasn’t been easy. But Carroll says a flexible strategic plan and goals that already aligned with the unprecedented course of events made it ­easier pivot to meet student needs during the pandemic, racial protests, election misinformation, and insurrection.

The DC rioters reminded her not only of the power of words, but of the importance of repetition. Librarians need to repeatedly make a point of what is important, just as those pushing disinformation use repetitive phrases to drill in their message.

“It’s something almost seductive,” she says. “It’s ingrained in your mind. So we have to combat other things with truth.

“We live in a really complicated world and there are a lot of entities that are very sophisticated in how they ­disseminate information. I can’t send our learners out ­ill-equipped.”

She does not mean to suggest, she says, that school librarians are cape-wearing superheroes of truth and justice, just that they are perfectly equipped in education and mission to meet the vital needs of students in this time, and they will be there to do their job.

“We’re in a fight,” she says. “We’re going to fight for these kids.”

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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