School Librarians, circa 2010
By Sasha Nyary, Dean’s Editorial Fellow
With school budgets shrinking, the role of the school library teacher is overlooked and, often, not included in a school’s curriculum. In thismonth’s feature, we spoke to some librarians to learn what school library teachers do, and how their work adds value to a school.
Two years ago, school librarian Sharon Hamer (GSLIS ’85) was on the job market and she wasn’t hopeful. “I was expensive,” she says frankly. “I was 56, with two master’s degrees, and lots of time in public schools.” Of her 30 years of professional experience, almost all have been in public high schools.
But then she lucked out. The new superintendent of the Saugus public schools and the new principal at the town’s Belmonte Middle School were eager to turn the school’s rec room back into its library, which it hadn’t been for a decade. They wanted a visionary with extensive experience, strong librarian and teaching skills, and lots of dedication — and the parents had raised $20,000 for books to prove their dedication. Hamer fit the bill exactly.
Libraries and librarians everywhere are struggling in these challenging times of tremendous transition coupled with plummeting budgets, and school libraries are no different. But a little commitment goes a long way, and Hamer has that — and so does her school. Supportive principal and superintendent? Check. Classroom teachers interested in collaborating? Check. Flexible teaching schedule? Check. Active volunteers? Check. Great kids, a little funding, a lot of enthusiasm? Check, check, check. With a couple of these assets, a school librarian position can be enormously fulfilling.
In her first year, Hamer reclaimed the library from the dank, cleaned out the mold, laid down new carpet, fixed the shelving, designed and installed a circulation desk, weeded ruthlessly, and bought furniture, computers, some 1,000 books, and a SMART Board. Saugus Community Television donated a 52-inch flatscreen TV. Hamer worked with a designer to put up a website for the library that includes the databases she subscribed to. She set up an online catalog and processed hundreds of books. She won a monthly drawing at Bob’s Discount Furniture, which she spent on comfy reading chairs. The school committee found heran extra $10,000. But most important, Hamer made the library an integral part of the school’s curriculum.
“I immediately started getting programming going, getting the teachers in, and designing programs,” she says. The school, which has 700 students in grades six through eight, desperately needed her. “The 6th graders are new to my school. And they’ve had no library instruction — and until I got there last year, they had none until high school! They have no idea how to read a shelf. They keep reading across a shelf; they don’t know to follow the numbers down.”
No matter which library environment, it seems, the public frequently doesn’t understand the “instruction” part of a typical librarian’s job. And in fact, Massachusetts does not require school libraries, says Fran Zilonis, the new director of the GSLIS School Library Teacher Program (SLTP). But the regional accreditation associations that certify schools across the country expect high schools to have libraries (in these financially difficult times, a school may sometimes be granted a waiver, but it’s presumed to be temporary), and since it’s important for students applying to college to graduate from an accredited high school, most high schools have a library.
Perhaps surprisingly, while school librarians in Massachusetts typically have master’s degrees, the degrees do not have to be in library science. School librarian teachers are licensed, however, to become so they must demonstrate command of mandated standards and competencies. Consequently, the Simmons SLT program focuses on developing those specific capabilities. Coursework for GSLIS students with a concentration in SLT includes teaching strategies, MCAS testing, and reading, in addition to basic library skills. And because Massachusetts has accredited the SLT program, an SLT graduate is automatically granted a license as a pre-K to grade 12 school librarian teacher; this license is reciprocal in 46 other states and territories.
But in these times of severe budget shortfalls, school libraries are increasingly seen as a luxury, and many communities are forced to choose between a classroom teacher and a licensed school library teacher.
As a result, says Zilonis, “children — high school included — have not had the instruction. They’ve taught themselves and they think they know. But they really don’t know. They have to unlearn bad habits.” School librarians can facilitate access to books, along with reading and instructional technology, she says. “They can be a staff developer in the school to assist the teachers in learning how to use the technology and integrate it into the classroom. Helping students ask the appropriate questions, find the information, evaluate it, and use it to fulfill the requirements of projects and deepen their knowledge of concepts being taught in the classroom is the ultimate challenge.”
Hamer, who worked with Zilonis in the Cambridge public school system in the nineties, agrees: “‘Why can’t kids just use the public library?’ people say. Because they are not being taught how to find and use information in a critical way. They’re being helped, but they’re not being taught. The school librarian should be saying, ‘You want to find something? Here’s the online catalog. Do you know how to use it? Do you know how the books are organized on the shelves? Let’s take a minute and I’ll show you,’” Hamer says. “I tell the kids what needs to be done and then I stand by them when they do it. I’m not doing it for them. And I do that so by the time they get to college they can use the materials they need independently.”
Fortunately, Hamer’s school has a flexible schedule, which means she has the time and the opportunity to work collaboratively with classroom teachers to plan units and teach lessons, unlike with a fixed schedule, where all or most of the librarian’s time is filled with scheduled classes. In that case, the whole week is blocked out, so a school librarian doesn’t have the time to work individually with a teacher; the whole notion of collaboration doesn’t happen. “You’re creating things that are beneficial to the students,” Zilonis says, “but are not of primary importance to them because they’re not of primary importance to the teacher. And you’re not able to get books back on the shelf, or do outreach, or work with integrating technology. You can’t do it because you’re overwhelmed with scheduled classes. Under these circumstances, librarians are more like babysitters.”
Zilonis envisions school librarians in partnership with teachers: the students come with the teacher to the library, where they learn inquiry and research skills as they work on projects and are exposed to instruction directly related to what they’re studying — in short, becoming effective users of information. Hamer shares that vision. “With flexible scheduling,” she says, “the librarian is there as a resource for the classroom. You want the kids to come into the library and do some research that they can then use to create something that isn’t just regurgitating, but shows some synthesis. That’s the learning process, that’s the collaboration process.”
Again, Hamer lucked out. Before she started, the school’s teachers of the major subjects drew up a curriculum map that described what they were taught, week by week, and how it met the state frameworks. Not having had a library, the teachers had no idea how to incorporate one into their curriculum. But Hamer had the map at her disposal, and she approached them. Her first month she saw that the 7th grade was studying world history. “I showed them how to use the databases,” Hamer says. “We only had 10 computers, and no SMART Board yet. So I’d have a student at each computer and the rest standing behind them, and then they’d switch. I had to pull the books off the shelves — we had no catalog yet — in order to show them what print sources we had, which were very few. Our newest encyclopedia was from 1996.”
The kids did great projects, and Hamer sent out an email to all the teachers, saying, here’s what we did, and you can do it too. It was slow going at first. “I think the perception was, that’s one more thing I have to do,” Hamer says, “when in fact it’s one less, since here’s a way to teach what you want to teach in a way that’s exciting to the kids.”
That’s what Jennifer Darcy (GSLIS ’08), the librarian at Shepherd Hill Regional High School in Dudley, Mass., has also found. “My third week I went to the teacher who does fairy tales every fall and said, ‘how would you feel if I made a shelf for the kids to look at all the relevant books we have? They can’t take them out, but I can put them on reserve.’ She said she’d never had anyone ask her that before.”
In an effort to entice the school’s 1,200 students to the library’s 30,000 materials, Darcy worked with the English teachers to develop a freshman library orientation. Now all the 9th graders come to the library in September with their English class, and they learn to use the databases, the online catalog, and how to locate books on the shelves using the Dewey system. They get instructions on how to get a six-month electronic card from the Boston Public Library so they can use its databases, and on how to get a library card from their local public library that they can then use to access the central Massachusetts library system’s databases.
“People are starting to see the library as a research center,” Darcy says. Between 300 to 500 kids come to the library every day, and she knows almost everyone by name. Clubs meet there. Darcy has 16 student library aides, and she also offers an independent class in library usage for credit. She has become such a fixture at the school that she’s earned the nickname “Den Mother Darcy”. After she finished reorganizing the vast fiction section, a teacher celebrated with a surprise ribbon-cutting and a cake. Nearly three dozen teachers showed up and the principal made a speech.
The kids at her school have also responded well, Hamer says. “They feel like they are getting what other towns have. They’re proud. Is it making a difference academically? That’s still anecdotal. Last year the teachers saw a difference in the projects the kid were doing. And I believe the MCAS went up quite a bit, and I would like to take all the credit for that, but I can’t. We all did a very big push in all the subjects.”
Hamer’s goals for the future? “I want the library to be funded by the city so that we’re not at the mercy of fundraising. I want to raise the average copyright date of the materials from 1986 to, let’s say, 2005. I want to keep building classroom use, so that instead of being an afterthought, the library is the first thought — ‘I’m going to teach this, how can the library help me?’ And I want the kids to think of the library first too. I want them to be effective users of the library.”