School Librarians as Support Staff?

As you may know, I have recently returned to Scotland to study for the LLM in International Law and Sustainable Development, but I am  not planning to turn my back on the library and information profession (not just yet anyway :) )! My workload for the LLM is going to be quite intense, but I am considering part-time work to stay up to date and keep the proverbial foot in the door.

I have recently seen two fixed-term school librarian jobs posted in my area, although I am not certain that they would be an ideal fit for me anyway as they are looking for full-time workers, and I am only available on a part-time basis.  However, it was not the hours of the jobs that gave me pause, but rather the classification of the librarian within these particular schools. Looking at the school websites, I discovered that the school librarian is considered support staff. I was in a similar position at my former school; although my contract outlined the position as professional, I was listed on official school documents as either office staff, clerical staff, or support staff.

The support staff label is a common designation for school librarians in the United Kingdom, where many librarians have professional library qualifications, but not teaching qualifications. Some librarians I have spoken to do not seem too perturbed by this label as they understand that many schools have only two staff designations: teaching and support staff. Whilst I agree that having a professional approach to one’s work is far more important than any label or title, I do wonder if the support staff classification does not contribute to the relatively low status of school librarians in some parts of the UK.

When a school librarian is considered support staff, he or she is unlikely to be viewed as an instructional partner, even if he or she has undergone additional training or has experience of co-teaching units with teachers. Colleagues have told me that when they start at a new school, they feel as though they need to prove themselves in order to be treated as professionals. Whilst I applaud their initiative and am impressed by their advocacy efforts, I think the fact that master’s degree-educated professionals feel as though they need to prove themselves before they can even be given the opportunity to do their jobs demonstrates that there is a problem with the way librarians are viewed in some schools.

The designation of support staff also implies that school librarians are there to make life easier for teachers. Of course, librarians can and do take on responsibility for helping pupils to develop research skills, thus taking some pressure off teachers, but the role of a modern school librarian should be to improve student learning. Sometimes this does mean that librarians will introduce tools that help students and teachers streamline traditional tasks, but learning is messy!

Shelly Blake-Plock has recently asserted that the purpose of educational technology is not to make life easier or allow schools to run more efficiently. Technology in schools can sometimes make standard tasks simpler (i.e. electronic registration systems or email in small doses), but for the most part, it makes education more complex, and this is no bad thing. Educators need to stop thinking of educational technology as a tool to make life easier, and start seeing its potential to make learning deeper, richer, and more engaging.

Likewise, school librarians should be seen as partners in the learning process who can help improve learning by integrating information literacy into the curriculum, designing more engaging research projects, and promoting the use of educational technology. This might not always be “easy,” but it should definitely help ensure students engage in more authentic, project-based learning. Of course, the most experienced, confident, and innovative librarians can overcome the support staff label to achieve professional status within their communities, but is that really good enough? If it is truly important for students to become successful consumers and creators of information, then should the success of a library programme be determined by the personalities of individual librarians?

Support staff label aside, I think I may apply for the positions in my area on a job-share basis. Reading Joyce Valenza’s updated Power Tools ideas and Michael Kaechel’s goals for the year makes me eager to return to schools.  Therefore, if invited to interview, I will diplomatically state my reservations about the support staff label and ask the panel how they regard the librarian position. I know jobs are thin on the ground at the moment, but I think it is imperative that librarians make it clear when they accept jobs in schools, they will do so only under the condition that they have parity with teaching staff. Then, of course, it will be up to us to ensure we maintain the skills and knowledge necessary to act as education professionals.

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About thegreatnorthernlibrarian

I am a newly qualified librarian and law student currently living in Scotland. The name of this blog was inspired by my extreme northern location at the time of the blog's creation. Savvy readers will recognise that it is also a Twin Peaks reference. I do not necessarily categorise myself as "great."
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