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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Let's Make Information Literacy a Priority: A Librarian Speaks Out

Kate Brown

K-8 Librarian and Information Literacy

Today's guest blogger is Kate Brown, a K-8 Librarian and information literacy advocate. She is also an active participant in Edutopia's Library Media Specialists group. Below is her response to a recent thread entitled "School librarians being cut."

I, too, am extremely disheartened by the course of events over the past several months. But I also find that I am becoming increasingly angry with each additional story I read about a layoff or RIF.

Ironically, I have not seen articles indicating that music, art, or PE teachers are being laid off in similar numbers, or that whole music, art, or PE programs have been abandoned or turned over to volunteers. Classes have not been increased to 25 children so that one teacher/grade level could be eliminated. Advertisements for positions for professional and para SPED and support staff personnel -- speech, OT, PT, adjustment counselors, social workers, psychologists, career program staff, etc. -- positions continue to fill the "Help Wanted" columns at the same level as years past; there are no reductions there. Nor are there ANY reduction that I can tell in ANY of the sports programs. None.

Classroom teachers and specialists occasionally, and library media specialists especially, have been the positions hit. Heck, even the NYT has picked up on the fact that the libraries in many of the schools across the country are all but done forever. Hey, who needs libraries, right? With Google and the internet, books are obsolete, or even dead as some say.

Adapting to the Future

Okay, watch out, 'cause here comes the nasty blow... We are getting what we deserve.

What have we done for the last 50 years that would indicate that we are an invaluable part of a learning community, and that the mere suggestion that a district rid itself of its libraries and librarians would bring on howls of protest and/or gales of laughter? Absolutely not one thing. Nothing.

Instead, we have stayed in our libraries, quietly aging ourselves before our time, wearing out our bodies, minds, and spirits until we are but half the person we once were, and doing what amounts to a super-human job without so much as a wimper. How many of you are scheduled for a lunch break, but have to eat a sandwich at the circ. desk because the library has to be opened at all times during the day and there is no one to spell you so you can go to lunch? How many of you, albeit it you are FACULTY members and work under the FACULTY contract, teach every period, every day. Planning periods? What's a planning period?

And that's just looking at the time you're on the floor during the day. Has anyone EVER factored in the work you do that nobody recognizes, understands, or even knows about? The technical, technology, vendor, collection development, collaboration, program planning, access services that make a library in the first place and keep it running in the second? I doubt it. I will bet, however, that you do a little bit on that between each of your eight classes (rather than stopping by the faculty room to get a fresh cup of coffee and say hello or read the headlines), or after school (when you can see everyone's taillights disappearing out the gate of the school and you're just starting your "other job.")

And to whom did you speak about these situations, all of which are "illegal" according to the teacher's contract. You are to have a lunch period. You are not to have a student load in excess of x number of students (hah!), you are to teach five classes a day and have one period for personal planning and one for group or team planning. If I had a dollar, I would put it on the fact like librarians across the country, you said nothing. Not to the principal. Not to your union rep. Not to a friendly parent who would sympathetically have taken it to the community. Not a word. Why?

The Giving Tree

Because you were too busy -- servicing the kids, the faculty, the administration, the parents, the other buildings, and every other person who walked up to the circ desk, or into your face while you were teaching, or grabbed your arm to get your attention while you were working with a student, or left you notes, messages, emails, etc. about the fact that they contacted you five minutes about and where was the video they needed this block? And all of us -- me included -- took it without a word. That's the nature of librarians. I have been trying to find a personality profile article about us with no luck, but my best guess would say that we are the most service-oriented, gracious, giving, and caring people imaginable. We don't get angry. We never say "I can't." We always find a way to fit in two more things when we already had ten things too many to do. And we just kept taking it, taking it, taking it, whatever the "it" of the moment was, because that's the way we are.

Luckily, we didn't do that because we thought we would get any sort of personal gain from doing so. (Hard to imagine, I know, but there are people like that out there.) Had that been our motive, we would be even more hurt now by the actions of our school boards than we are.

"HURT"? What hurt? How about furious? How about ripped? How about screaming "injustice," "illegal," "unconscionable," and "I-G-N-O-R-A-N-T!" from the steps of the admin. building? The supreme paradox of the leaders of the town's schools firing those most prepared to take the children into the 21st century" is astounding. Tech knows plugs, wires, HW, and SW, but we know integration and applications. We know information like nobody else in the district, but nobody knows or realizes what we know and how critically important we are to their success in bringing kids and faculty into the modern era because we have been hiding our own light under a bushel while we allowed ourselves to be scheduled to teach our peers' students so they could have a planning period ... that we didn't get! Because we never got to the cafeteria to talk to our colleagues at lunch ... because we were eating our sandwich at the circ. desk, checking out books, which is all the rest of the faculty thinks we do all day anyway.

Don't get me wrong. Some of you have made tremendous progress and some of you couldn't ask for better working relationships with your faculty and administration. But believe me, if there were opportunities for genuine collaboration with faculty, and if you were able to help them accomplish their learning goals, get the tech worked into their lesson plans like they are supposed to have done, etc., they would have been beating down the principal's door at the first hint that the LMS was on the way out. You would have been so invaluable to them that that would happen only over their dead bodies.

Same thing with the parents and the kids. If parents had seen their kid excited about a free choice book, or clicking on the library website to do homework, don't you imagine they would be right there with the faculty demanding that this outrageous notion of firing the LMS staff be dropped post haste?

But we aren't invaluable like that to people because we have had so much to do, so many classes to teach, so many people's needs to service, and so many people that we care about so to help that we haven't been able to do what we know is what we want to be able to do and what we know is what would do the trick and make us as invaluable as a winning coach.

A Call to the 21st Century

As one body, we must become nationally visible, vocal, and vigorous about broadcasting evidence of work that clearly mandates that a school's or the district's Library Media Specialists be part of and actively involved in transforming the schools into 21st century-style learning communities. For heaven's sake, with a significant portion of the world adopting an information-based operating paradigm, why do school leaders fail to recognize that reality? More to the point, why are they so out-of-touch with the potential that is represented by their own staff to solve the problems they can't even fathom? Why do they immediately turn to today's heroes, the tech staff, for answers when in fact, tech people know plugs, wires, and loads, not applications and integrations? That is our specialty, and we are the people they should be looking to to bring about the changes they want in the schools.

I go back to my original point: because we are too busy doing what we do at this minute or that to think of our future and build in our own safety nets like everyone else does.

Time to take on a different persona folks, because as Humphrey Bogart said, "It's a tough world out there," and you have to take care of yourself first.

Kate Brown (B.A., M.Ed., M.S.) is an experienced information specialist, classroom educator, and manager who has brought innovation and excitement to the development of information literacy at the elementary, middle, and high school levels in both public and private institutions. Besides her family and Sadie, their labradoodle, her passions include speaking up, speaking out, and speaking often to the role of libraries and librarians as key figures and leaders in the evolving educational landscape.

Kate Brown

K-8 Librarian and Information Literacy
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