The Truth about School Libraries. Besmirched By Some These Days, Here’s What Libraries in Schools Are Really Up To
November 16, 2022
November 16, 2022
By Nathan Sekinger
What really goes on in school libraries? If you’ve been checking the news lately, you might think they’re hotbeds of controversy. The truth is that a school library is both a refuge and a resource, and an amazing one can the heart of a school. It can be the connection between reading literature and meeting a favorite author. It can join a scientific concept to a makerspace for deeper exploration. And it’s a space where learning can be infused with choice and identity.
When I meet my newest middle school students each year, I’m sure to tell them that the library is a shared space for all of us, one that’s even better when we all add our ideas and voices to it. In fact, it really only works when we all add something. And the best libraries are the ones that try to include as many voices as possible. Each library should be a reflection of its school community: its students, families and staff. It’s a vision meant to reflect and inspire our community, where the challenges of our past inform the ideas needed to meet our future ambitions.
What does that look like?
How does that vision look in the real world? The library should have room for student voices. There is student art displayed on the walls, ways for students to review books or provide recommendations, and students designing and leading programming. Students should be leaders in the library, taking ownership over the places where they find their identity. The library must also be a safe space. From inclusive policies and signage to Zen zones and comfy furniture, a library can be a physical and emotional comfort for our community. Through its resources and displays, a library can tell its community that it values and embraces their identity, even as it is still developing. And the library can be a place of joy. Special events, food, and service programs can offer opportunities to build connections, to try something new and be a part of something important.
This means that, as a school librarian, in addition to being an enthusiastic manager for this ever-changing madness, I recognize the awesome opportunity I have to curate not just the books on the shelves, but to be a steward to the space itself. Retired Ohio State professor Rudine Sims Bishop, a pioneer in studying children’s literature, calls this providing “the mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors” that our community desperately needs. While this pivotal idea originally pertained to literature, it is equally applicable to the library as a place, not just the books on its shelves. That means that the library is a mirror, a place of reflection and self-affirmation for students, allowing our community comfort and sanctuary in the space. The library is a window, a place of imagination that allows someone to see far outside of their circumstances into a thrilling world beyond. And this window, in the library, can become a gateway for students to learn and discover something new, or even better, to imagine themselves as something new. This is the sliding glass door that a library can become, transporting our students into smarter, more thoughtful and kinder versions of themselves. That is the magic of a successful school library and it begins with a school librarian.
The Virginia Association of School Librarians (VAASL) says it this way: “School librarians are certified teachers, instructional partners, information specialists, program administrators, and leaders who are essential to student success.” We’re taught that a successful librarian weaves all these roles together throughout the year.
Librarians are teachers. Last school year, I taught over 700 lessons in more than 25 content areas, reaching all students in my school. To do this well meant working as an instructional partner with teachers. Librarians make excellent collaborators. I don’t teach just what I think is important to students, but plan content in context with what is happening in a teacher’s classroom. The right lesson has to occur at the right time. This requires understanding the students and curriculum with each group and teacher that I work with. As an information specialist, I work to find the best resources for students and staff, providing a robust understanding of research processes and ensuring that our methodology allows for a diversity of opinions and resources. From reading to robots, gardening to geeking out, our library offers a plethora of programs to try to capture the interest and attention of our nearly 1,000 students. We may start the week with video games design and microcontrollers, only to follow it with cosplay costume making and end with hosting manga fans for a reading trivia challenge. As a program administrator, I balance cost and value, manage a budget, recruit student managers, and always look for ways to inspire my students and connect them to literature, the library and each other. And finally, as a leader, I understand the challenges of being the only one in a building. Advocacy becomes a necessity, as vital as oxygen. I truly believe that students need and deserve the best possible education they can get, so that means their library needs resources, opportunities and partnerships.
Partnerships are vital
School librarian leaders need partners to make their libraries the amazing places they should, could and deserve to be. Everything I know about how to be a successful librarian comes from others, including my librarian colleagues in my school division. I am the only librarian at my school, but with a full-time library assistant, the two of us work as a team to support the many roles of a school librarian. We want the library to be open always for check out, research and student exploration, while also allowing time for collaborative planning and teaching, as well as strategic planning and implementation of ongoing programs. This is more than a full-time job for two people.
Partnership extends to the teachers in my school; I rely on them to be the experts of their content and their students, while I try to infuse the library’s role, resources and my own professional knowledge as a teacher into the projects we design together. It could be a single lesson for one class or an entire unit for a whole grade level. Beyond classroom teachers, the library’s role extends to finding collaborative partners among our administration, families, businesses, building maintenance, and food services. Planning conversations with the head of our food services was instrumental in blending remote library services with food pick-up during the pandemic. Families found access to books at all levels and a hot meal. When a library seeks to be the heart of a school, it must make extensive connections through all parts of its community.
I also rely on partnerships beyond our school and community to increase my effectiveness as a librarian and educator. I joined the Virginia Association of School Librarians (VAASL) shortly after transitioning from being a high school and college level English teacher to becoming a middle school librarian. I found colleagues from across the state interested in learning and sharing with each other. They faced similar challenges and developed expertise in areas that I was interested in, developing valuable programs for students, growing a school makerspace, and using best practices in teaching research skills. They were also an amazing support as I pursued my National Board Certification, and I was eager to celebrate with VAASL when I became a NBCT in 2013. As I expanded my skills, I was invited to present at conferences and was eventually selected by VAASL as their 2017 School Librarian of the Year. Soon after, I served as the Director of the Rappahannock Region and starting in November, I will serve as the President of the organization. What I understand now about the organization is that a member serves the group, while the group serves the member.
This past school year has been a prime example of how individuals might need the support of a strong organization. As a librarian and an educator, I have been privileged to be a member of both VAASL and VEA. With the wave of misguided book banning sweeping across our country, my educator colleagues might share my opinion that this is part of a broader movement that distrusts educators, willfully misunderstands our curriculum, and seeks to score political points rather than support our students. This movement might be a political fad, but it will have lasting effects by discouraging educators and demoralizing the students we support. And while we can attempt to challenge this movement in our individual classrooms and libraries, it is only by rallying large groups of fellow educators and our larger communities that we can begin to respond to this vocal minority.
Taking a stand
Last fall, in our neighboring county of Spotsylvania, a few comments of concern about a book from a parent led to a dramatic reaction among school board members, including stating that questionable books should be “thrown […] on a fire.” It was also suggested that entire school libraries must be closed so that librarians could audit their collections for questionable content, rather than following their own established policies for considering a challenged book. Both VAASL and VEA members sprang into action. I was overwhelmed when I attended the a Spotsylvania school board meeting last November to hear from dozens of parents, students and librarians about the power of literature, the personal impact that reading had on them, their shock at the school board for not following the established county policy to handle a concern about a book, and their revulsion at the idea that clearly biased individuals on the school board would make choices for all students about what books were appropriate for a school library. My VAASL colleague and friend, librarian Kim Allen, spoke eloquently at the meeting, challenging the school board with these words: “Librarians are encouraged to not only follow a list of selection criteria but to also do a gut check and ask themselves if they are allowing their own beliefs or biases to play a factor when purchasing resources for the library. I would ask this board to also do a gut check and examine your own discriminatory practices, prejudices and beliefs. Are you allowing those practices to get in the way of your due diligence towards our entire school community?”
VAASL and VEA brought their communities with them to that school board meeting, countering the misinformation and attempted censorship and sending a clear message. As one former student said eloquently that evening, “Books teach compassion. Books teach empathy.” Both of those messages were evident from the crowds that evening.
I certainly learned something from that experience and left with equal parts inspiration and preparation for future challenges. I was inspired to see so many students take action against the threat to their ability to make choices for themselves. They demanded a voice in their education. I also recognized that school librarians have work to do. We must channel the voices of our community and help to amplify and support them. As a VEA member, I looked to my local division, the Stafford Education Association (SEA), to support VAASL in our push to encourage Virginia legislators to fund a Virginia Department of Education position for a library specialist, as many other states have. This position was cut in 2008. We urgently needed it reinstated, as our over 1,700 school librarians across the state can provide tremendous value for students and teachers. One empowered school librarian can have an impact on a whole school. I was pleased to see the SEA draft a letter of support in February of this year and encourage its members to contact their legislators. Some progress has been made, but VAASL will continue to advocate for adequate representation.
We must amplify our messages of inclusivity and intellectual freedom. We must look for partners that share our passions and purpose. We must connect with each other, support each other, and rely on each other. I was proud to see educators stand with school librarians in Spotsylvania and am sure we will reciprocate in times of challenge and also in celebration. We must all share our voices. As we connect with each other to support our school communities, it can only make our libraries, our classrooms and our schools all the better.
Nathan Sekinger, a member of the Stafford Education Association and the president-elect of the Virginia Association of School Librarians, is the librarian at Gayle Middle School.