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TL v62n1: Sarah Culp Searles
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It's My Opinion!

School Libraries


Sarah Culp Searles


School librarians are hybrid critters, aren’t we?

We are librarians. We select print and electronic resources, and we use everything from traditional classification systems and controlled vocabulary to modern social tagging to facilitate users’ access to those materials.  We conduct reference interviews and act as expert searchers to help users locate not just what they think they need, but what they really need.  We understand and anticipate information-seeking behaviors, and we develop services targeted to meet users’ needs.  We champion intellectual freedom; we understand the ubiquity of information problems and the democratic need for equal access to information for all users.  Yet we frequently hear that we are not “real” librarians, that our librarian-ness is somehow watered down by the environment in which we practice.  (If you happen to hold this view, dear TL reader, please give me a call so we can have a pleasant chat over lunch sometime.)

We are teachers.  We identify students’ unique learning needs, using assessment data to inform our practice, and differentiate our instruction accordingly.  We engage in continuous professional development to understand and apply the latest in research-backed teaching strategies.  We doggedly pursue funding for the technology resources our students need to support the development of 21st-century skills.  We pour our own money back into our programs, providing the supplies for learning that our districts are perennially short on.  We address our students’ social as well as academic needs, finding them books to support even the most random of interests and spaces where they can celebrate those interests free from bullies. We discipline students as needed, teaching them how to behave in the world in which they’ll be expected to live and function.  Yet we frequently hear that we are not “real” teachers, that our teacher-ness is somehow watered down by the fact that we work in a larger classroom with every student in the school. 

In pondering the way we exercise our dual role as both teacher and librarian, I’ve noticed another group with whom we share many characteristics: administrators.  We sit on curriculum design and leadership committees, helping solve the most essential problems of the school.  We provide professional development on learning strategies, available resources, and technologies for the rest of our faculties.  We have perhaps the best bird’s-eye view of authentic student learning of anyone in the school.  Yet school librarians frequently complain amongst themselves that they feel unvalued by their administrators, reduced to erstwhile clerical staff, facility managers, and placeholders for classroom teachers’ plan periods. 

It’s this last commonality, that with school administrators, that I keep coming back to as I study a 2008 article by Allison Zmuda and Violet Harada entitled “Reframing the Library Media Specialist as a Learning Specialist.”  This article has really made me stretch my mental muscles, and I’m going to have to keep mulling and promise to return to it in a future column for a more detailed discussion.   In sum, though, it deals with redefining the nature of our field. 

Zmuda and Harada suggest that as school librarians, we are part of a specialized group of professionals including reading interventionists, technology coordinators, and math coaches—people who do not keep formal classroom assignments but who are uniquely qualified to understand and support the process of student learning.  The article makes sense to me, especially given our likeness I’ve noticed with many administrative, whole-school roles.  It gives many suggestions for what the priorities of a learning specialist should be and for how school librarians should shift their practice to fill this new framing of our role.  What it does not suggest is how we can possibly reconcile this new view of our role—one I do believe is good in many ways—with the split personality we’re already dealing with.  Despite our many professional qualifications, we are only human.  We can only serve so many masters. 

In considering this idea of framing myself as a learning specialist, I am both inspired and daunted.  I believe the central problem is defining our mission; are we mostly librarians, mostly teachers, or mostly something else?  What is the balance between the three?  The answer may be different now than it was in the past, given changes in access to and types of resources, school structures, and student needs, and it may be different from school to school.  With a clear mission statement, we can plan our programs and services to focus clearly on fulfilling that mission and to abandon unproductive work that distracts us from our goals.  As with any change, this is guaranteed to cause a few of our number to dig in their heels and resist it.  But we owe it to our students, teaching faculties, and librarian colleagues to give it our best efforts.

I invite you to read the article and let me know what you think, and we can chew on these ideas together.  You can find it here: Zmuda, Allison, and Violet H. Harada.  “Reframing the Library Media Specialist as a Learning Specialist.”  School Library Media Activities Monthly 24.8 (2008): n. pag. Web. 28 Feb. 2012.

And while you’re reading, think kind thoughts for the platypus.  I can imagine how he feels.


Sarah Culp Searles is the school librarian at West High School in Knoxville.


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