The Role of the Librarian

This year has been immensely rewarding for me. This has been my first year as a school library media specialist. I have given my official resignation to my employers and I finish next Wednesday. I am taking a position in the Northeast because it is both a great opportunity and because it is much closer to family. I am simultaneously excited to return to the classroom next year and saddened because I am leaving a job, students, and a staff that I love. As a final act as a library media specialist, I would like to offer some observations on what the role of a school librarian should be as I find that most administrators, teachers, students, parents, and even some librarians really do not know what the job is supposed to look like.

The first idea that comes to mind when one thinks of the archetypal school librarian is an older lady who shelves books and hates talking, and possibly hates people. There is even a librarian action-figure with “Amazing push-button shushing action.” Let me say up front that I do not fit that mold. I’m 24, I hardly ever shelve books, and my library is never quiet. It is a bustling hub. We usually have close to 100 people in the library before first period starts; we often teach classes on both sides of the library for the duration of the day. The modern library is fun, active, and should be the heart of the school.

This is not to say that books are not important. The books (including physical books of all kinds, audio books both physical and electronic, and e-books) are the foundation of the library and a gateway to wisdom. I purposely used the indefinite article because it is vital that we realize that books are not the only gateway to wisdom, as they once were perceived. In terms of books, I do spend a lot of time reading books to stay current, researching what is popular and appropriate. I almost never shelve books. I can train student aides to do that so my time is freed to focus on more important issues. There is a fundamental difference between how school libraries and public libraries think about ordering and managing a collection. The public library can think only about what people want. The school library has a very clearly defined dichotomy. On one hand, we have to stock interesting and current literature for all tastes and ability levels to help foster a love of reading in the students. For example, my library is the first in my county to have a very large collection of anime/manga books. Many librarians look down on those books, but the group on close to 60 students in my school that read them have checked those books out more than any other books in our collection. More than half of those kids never stepped in their school library at their last school if they were not dragged there for class. Now they are reading for pleasure and occasionally branch out into other sections of the library. We need to get kids in the door and get them to want to read. Second, we have to look at the needs of the curriculum and the teachers. When my partner and I were planning our collection, we looked at the curriculum for every single subject as well as the new TN state standards to make sure that no matter what is being taught, there are resources here to support the teachers and the students.

The problem with many school libraries is that this is where the job ends. It should be where is begins. The librarian has many titles. In my brief tenure, my position has changed from school librarian to school library media specialist to school information specialist. I am not concerned with the title, but it should be evident that there is a great need for the librarian to current and skilled with technology. This does not mean that librarians should be interchangeable with computer technicians; rather, that they are the master learners in the building and continue to develop their practice in all aspects to support those in their building. A great explication of this was recently written by Debra Gottsleben, a librarian for whom technology does not come naturally, but who still helps her staff to integrate it effectively into instruction.

The first natural extension of current practice (by which I mean traditional, old libraries) into the modern era is in the field of research. Librarians were trained to research in books and this is still valid, but it is not the only or primary way to research anymore. Librarians need to be able to help students setup their papers, properly format them (usually in MLA or APA), and give credit to avoid plagiarism. When my English teachers were setting up their research units this year, I sat down with every one and helped plan a research unit around the needs of their students, which my partner and I helped teach with the regular English teacher. These included structured lessons on plagiarism, Internet safety, finding appropriate sources online, advanced searching online, using scholarly databases, formatting a paper and writing a works cited page, how to keep track of sources, and so on. The skills taught in freshman year were reinforced in sophomore year; the skills taught in sophomore year were reinforced in junior year and so on. Furthermore, we made research consistent throughout the building. We structured and helped deliver research units in criminal justice, algebra, chemistry, engineering, physical science, biology, music, and every history and social studies class we offered. Students were taught to approach research using the same skills and expectations throughout all of their classes. This helped students to see the importance and the relevance of it, and the research papers greatly improved throughout the course of the school year. We worked to teachers to make sure that with more creative projects, both in and out of the library, students still took the same careful approach to research and cited sources appropriately in any medium.

The students need to know that we are there for them in every situation. It is similar to the classroom in that the students do not care what you know. Our library program this year has been successful because we made it a priority to be available and helpful. Our school hours are 7:10 to 2:35. I get to school when the custodian opens the doors at 5:30 in the morning. It works well because I tend to get up early and my partner likes to stay late. She often stays until 4:30-5:30 in the evening. Between us, we make sure the library is an available resource to the students. The amazing part if that students, even without school transportation, are using it. I usually see 20 students here by 6:30 and 20-40 here after school every day. We make sure we walk around to check on the students, help them with their work, help them find books, and find out about them as people. This has contributed to our having a great rapport with the kids. I am happy to say that even in the rare times when I am in my office, students have no problems coming right in and asking for help. That is the environment we tried to cultivate. This is a service profession; we need to sell what we can do to the students so that they will utilize us. When classes come down, they are captive; it is incredibly powerful to see them coming here motivated and independent of any outside influence.

Librarians have an interesting position as they straddle the line between teacher and administrator. I teach constantly, but I also manage the library program. This puts me in a great position to help my staff. Depending on the culture in the school, I have noticed that teachers tend to be hesitant to be completely honest with the administrators for fear of repercussion or because they do not want to look vulnerable in front of an authority figure. I go out of my way to try to cultivate relationships with my staff. They trust my partner and I, and they tell us concerns and problems that they do not discuss with the administrators. This is a generalization and does not apply to every teacher I work with.

This is helpful for several reasons. First, we developed an extensive collection of professional literature and specialize in pedagogy. If there is a problem in a classroom, we are often able to help mentor the teacher and, when necessary, go to his/her classroom to help deliver an effective lesson. I cannot say enough that library is about service. We need to support our teachers and our administrators in whatever ways we can. This can be recommending a professional book, mentoring, being on committees, etc… We just have to remember, if we can help our teachers and administrators to improve, we make the experience better for students.

I have been blessed to work in a school where over 80% of the teachers are in their first or second year teaching. There is always room to grow and there were some issues from having such an inexperienced staff open a new school. Overall, I believe that they have done an outstanding job. What was wonderful about it, though, is that they did not come in with too many preconceptions about what the job is supposed to be like and were willing to collaborate. The absolute biggest part of my job this year has been co-planning and co-teaching. This looks different in every school, but I made it one of my highest priorities. Ours is a teaching library, not just books that collect dust and computers that are glorified typewriters.

I have had the honor to co-plan and co-teach with every single department in the school this year and nearly every teacher. We use Google Calendar to have a public calendar of who is schedule for the library when. When at teacher wants to use the library, they fill out a Google Form. The form includes areas for them to tell us what they want to do, what they think they need, and specify a time when they would like to collaborate. They can choose the time, but collaboration is non-negotiable. If a teacher wants to use the library they must collaborate. Some teachers need us a lot, some not very much. Before every lesson, usually a few days before, my partner and/or myself will meet with the teacher, we will discuss ideas, find tools, develop a full lesson for each day the students will be in the library, and develop a sound assessment. We make sure that all of the puzzle pieces are in place before the students come down and the lessons have been better for it.

After co-planning, we co-teach. There are 6 periods per day here. It is not uncommon to teach 10 periods in the library. I will work with a teacher on one side of the library and teach 5 classes. My partner will work with another teacher and do the same on the other side. Usually, the content area teacher comes with an idea and we help match the idea to the tool that will best help. Most of the time, although not all the time, this includes technology. One of my favorite ways to work with a teacher is that I will take the lead in the beginning of the day, especially on the lessons that are more heavily reliant on technology, and transition to the teacher taking the lead with less and less support throughout the day. Ideally, by the end of the day, the teacher is comfortable using the tool on their own and can continue to embed in their own instruction.

It has been tremendously helpful to me to be able to co-teach with so many different and skilled professionals. I am in the wonderful position of being able to observe the teaching styles of so many. I can try to assimilate their strengths and use the techniques I learn to help others. For example, one of our freshman English teachers has the best classroom management I have ever seen. I have watched her teach and taken notes. I have shared her strategies with many who were struggling this year and plan to incorporate them myself when I get back in the classroom next year.

Once I gained the trust of the staff, they started coming to me when they needed help. This manifests itself two ways. Especially in schools with a dedicated technology coordinator in the building, the librarian unofficially takes on that role. I have become the computer repairmen for all my staff and many of my students (many bring in personal laptops that need fixing). While it is not necessary to do this, it really helps relations with the staff and the kids. Remember, the library is a service profession. Second, I have began in the second semester to offer after-school in-services on different technology-related things that my staff wanted to learn. Again, this falls under the category of helping our staff get better to improve the experience for our students.

In my humble opinion, my views on being a librarian can be summed up in one sentence. Help the students in whatever way possible. Help them by coaching teachers. Help them by co-teaching. Help them by providing a safe and comfortable atmosphere. Help them by providing a place where they can work uninterrupted. Help them by working with the administration to craft sound policies for the school. Help them by being available. When we look at our profession in that way, it really is very simple. Find out what your students need, and provide it.

10 comments to The Role of the Librarian

  • Matt Guthrie
    Twitter: mattguthrie

    Great post Jason. You’ve accomplished quite a bit at a young age. I feel honored to be in your PLN.

  • Great helpful post! I recall being astounded a few months ago when I learned you were in your twenties! You were so knowledgeable that I thought you were older and had been teaching for years! Best of luck on your move and new position :) They are lucky to have you as I am to have you in my PLN!
    .-= MissCheska´s last blog ..She Tweeted You With Science 05/18/2010 =-.

  • Jason Bedell
    Twitter: jasontbedell

    Thanks Matt and Miss Cheska. I always appreciate both of your insight.

  • Susan Myers
    Twitter: susanrmyers


    I saw your tweet link to this and came over to read. You asked my opinion, and I am writing it here because it is too long to tweet.

    In summary, you hit the nail on the head. School library IS about service, outreach – proactively disseminating knowledge.

    I like your comment about books not being the only gateway to knowledge. That made me think – yes, we are knowledge gateway managers. So, we encourage patrons to find knowledge in its most effective (for the need) format.

    I don’t read it, but I love comics and anime/manga myself. We pulled all of our graphic novels out of the main collection and created a separate reading area. Boys often quietly sit there and read the books in that collection.

    What you are doing with research is wonderful. I want to do more of that at my school and think the level of research needs to pick up at all schools.

    We let/encourage students to walk into our office as well.

    Great great blog!!
    .-= Susan Myers´s last blog ..teencentric =-.

  • Jason Bedell
    Twitter: jasontbedell

    Thanks Susan. That’s certainly more than would fit in a tweet. It is uplifting to see others doing the same thing and having the same vision. It gives me hope in a time when library funding is being cut at every corner and charter schools are opening shortsightedly without librarians.

  • Robyn jackson

    Jason, I am amzed at how well you have seen this. You have truly hit the nail on hte head as a prevoius commnetor noted. Librarians are for service, as well as everything else you mentioned. I know that I, as well as my neice whom you know, have always loved libraries, and to have someone like you in a school library had to be amazing and so very helpful. Thank you so much for sharing your insight into the world of a librarian, and God bless on your move and new posistion!

  • Eric Conti
    Twitter: ericconti

    Jason, Thank you for sharing your reflections. I hope you will find your new school and district as supportive and rewarding.

  • gottsled
    Twitter: gottsled

    Jason first of all thank you for the mention. I love what you have written although I got tired reading about your schedule! I also try to get to the library early (I am lucky because we have a technical asst. who loves getting in early so she opens up the library and I follow closely after) so that we are available for the students. We have well over 100 students in the morning- some just like hanging out, some are desperately doing the hw that was supposed to have been done the night before, others are getting a chance to collaborate and continue working on longer term projects. Lunchtime is when we are really busy- usually around 200 students (everyone in our building has lunch at the same time, except of course for the library staff LOL!)with as many as 325+ on some days. Again the students use the library for a variety of purposes. My colleague, Bilqis stays late on Tues. Wed and Thurs. We also believe that service is key and that we need to be on the forefront of Web 2.0 tools so that we can make suggestions to staff for the best ways for students to demonstrate their learning.

    We have not had as much success with collaboration. We call it the “C” word! Some teachers are better than others but it has been an ongoing struggle. I think in many ways you were fortunate to start in a brand new school. I think that Bilqis and I are respected but many teachers are set in their ways.

    You have given me some ideas. We use moodle for our library signups but maybe we should give the google calendar a try (I use it for my personal calendar). We have had trouble getting teachers to share their lessons with us, frequently telling us that they don’t need help. Sometimes that is true but all too often we are bombarded by requests from students who have no idea what they need to do in order to successfully research their project and we have had no time to prepare. There is much work for Bilqis and me to do next year! Good luck in your new job!
    .-= gottsled´s last blog ..Flickr =-.

  • [...] You can finish reading the rest of Jason’s thoughts on library tech and new practice here. Filed Under: Digitaled Tagged With: EdTech, library, literacy, online reading, Teaching Breaking News & Updates [...]

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