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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The Evolution of Research

I’m so pleased that Joyce Valenza has just posted this piece, which outlines the adaptation of the See Sally Research essay she co-authored with Doug Johnson into a TED talk. Both are long blog posts, but they perfectly capture the evolution of the research process. By providing a thorough analysis of the ways in which the information landscape has changed over the past twenty years, Dr. Valenza challenges the notion that school libraries are obsolete because students can simply complete research assignments by performing a quick Wikipedia search.

Joyce Valenza is an inspiration to many school librarians, and I certainly strived to create the type of learning environment she advocates when working in my previous post as a school librarian. I particularly like her analogy comparing a modern school library to a kitchen as opposed to a grocery store. I spent considerable time in my recent post explaining to teachers that librarians do much more than manage collections and provide materials for lending, which is a message that all librarians seem to be trying to get across to their communities, with varying degrees of success.

I found myself nodding along when she asserted that “even at the youngest level, research is not reporting.” I have discovered that the term “research” tends to get thrown around in schools with little consideration for what the word actually means. A worksheet that asks students to look up basic factual information on the internet is not a research assignment, nor is it truly possible to “teach research skills,” despite the fact that many school librarian job descriptions require us to do just that. Good research skills are developed over time with the guidance of librarians and subject specialists, who have ideally worked together to prepare assignments that require students to dig deep and use their critical thinking skills.

I may not be working in schools at the moment, but I know that there are other school librarians out there who are using Joyce’s posts as templates for their own libraries. I just hope that there are enough of us sharing our experiences with administrators, teaching colleagues, and decision makers so that we can finally stop fielding the question “So what do school librarians do?”

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Booster Squad

At the weekend, a teacher friend told me that he has been tasked with boosting staff morale at his school.

I’m guessing that decent pay and working conditions are not being considered as viable options.

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Glass Half Full Librarianship

I am currently working on an entry for the School Libraries E-book Project, which is something I am looking forward to reading. I’m eager to hear from librarians and educators whose voices aren’t always represented in traditionally published materials, and I sincerely hope that the project attracts the participation and readership of people outside of librarianship.

One of the submission guidelines did give me pause, however. The firm instruction that all entries must “be positive” made me wonder about the message this book will be sending. Reading through the project coordinators’ rationale, though, I completely understand why they seek to find authors who can focus on the positive aspects of the future of school libraries.

The past few years have been incredibly hard for school librarians (indeed, for librarians and workers of all types). Staff morale for many school librarians is at an all-time low, and this is the result not only of budget cuts and job insecurity, but a result of the complete lack of understanding of a school librarian’s role.  Librarians have always suspected that Joe Public doesn’t actually know what a librarian does, but the fact that some principals and head teachers didn’t have a clue came as a surprise to many. Librarians have had many discussions on blogs and forums regarding this issue, so I understand why the e-book creators want to move away from the negativity and focus on the constructive, practical steps librarians can be taking to ensure students get the most from school libraries in the future.

Reading Barbara Ehrenreich‘s Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America & the World (or, Bright-Sided, as it is titled in the United States), however, has got me thinking again about librarians’ insistence on always seeing the bright side of things. I don’t mean this as a dig at the e-book project creators at all, but I have had many conversations with librarians in which the conversation steered away from difficult issues. In my previous post, when I attempted to share my concerns with the impending restructuring of library services with my head teacher, she brushed aside my concerns, assuring me that it would “never happen to them.” Of course, the restructuring has now happened, and that school has been without a qualified librarian since I left nearly a year ago.

I am often encouraged by other bloggers to maintain a positive outlook when blogging about library issues. Whilst I do attempt to avoid getting personal or bad-mouthing previous colleagues, I do think it is important to be realistic when it comes to the challenges of librarianship, particularly school librarianship in the United Kingdom. School libraries here need a major overhaul if they are to truly serve students (and allow librarians to keep their jobs, of course).

In order to move forward, it is important for librarians to admit that there are issues we need to address. I’m not saying that endless moaning about low pay, teachers who don’t “get it”, or nonexistent budget is the answer, but some constructive criticism is needed. Even more controversially, perhaps it is time for a discussion as to whether the new arrangements in some Scottish school libraries will actually lead to better services for students, or whether they are in fact band-aid measures that will only lead to the dissolution of school libraries in the future?

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There’s No Place Like Home

I am back in Scotland now, and my hiatus from blogging is down to the fact that I have been busy catching up with old friends, unpacking, and getting my new flat organised before beginning the LLM next month. I was even without the internet for five whole days last week whilst I waited to have broadband installed, and it may have been the longest five days of my life!

Since getting back online, I have been doing quite a bit of reading on the current state of public libraries in the UK, reacquainting myself with New Zealand libraries, and developing some ideas for future blog posts. I have also been revisiting my Chartership portfolio, which I sort of abandoned when my sponsorship fell through, and searching for and applying for part time jobs. I love doing all of this as I sit in my new flat overlooking the Kilpatrick Hills, idly watching the sheep grazing as I collect my thoughts.

With regards to new blog posts, I have some ideas kicking around that involve information literacy models, new arrangements in Scottish school libraries, library orientations, and “non-traditional” information careers. Hopefully, I will get some new posts out soon, but in the meantime, I am off to register with my local public library! 🙂


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Will the Grass be Greener?

I am currently packing my bags as I prepare to return to the UK on Wednesday. Funnily, I always seem to do my best blogging/emailing/Facebook updating when I’m meant to be doing some other chore.

As I get ready to begin the LLM in International Law and Sustainable Development, I find myself wondering whether the grass will be greener on the other side. You may have already picked up on the fact that I did not intend to leave the library and information field at this early stage in my career, but had to leave my position in Scotland due to a series of misunderstandings regarding the nature of my previous work permit and changes in immigration regulations.

So, I did want any single, newly unemployed twenty-something would have done and moved to Syria (this seemed like a much better idea back in December 2010).  I quickly found work as a teacher there, which gave me some time to decide my next career move. Looking through the job advertisements at the time, I didn’t see too many jobs for early career professionals that really interested me. I felt I was too experienced to go into a truly entry level position (if indeed such a thing exists for librarians), but knew that I did not have enough experience for the mid-career positions I saw advertised. In fact, looking through the academic library positions in my native US, it seemed as though all the interesting positions had one feature in common: they all “strongly preferred” a candidate with an additional advanced subject degree.

I decided that since I did not have a permanent job anyway, this would be a good time for me to return to higher education for an advanced subject degree. It is something I had always considered, but wasn’t sure whether I would ever be able to do it full-time. I considered a number of courses in disciplines such as education, sociology, politics, history, economics, and law. Partially inspired by my experiences in Syria, I narrowed my options down to three courses. I applied for the MRes in Equality in Human Rights, LLM Human Rights Law, and LLM International Law and Sustainable Development. As luck would have it, I was accepted onto all three courses and spent considerable time weighing up the merits of each one before finally deciding on the LLM International Law and Sustainable Development.

I am excited about being a full-time student again, even though I have mixed feelings about being away from frontline library services for another year. Of course, I plan to maintain my academic interests in the information profession, and it will be interesting to see how my experiences as a librarian and teacher inform my understanding of the upcoming course material. With universal access to primary education and government transparency firmly on the development agenda, it will be interesting to see the connections between education, access to information, international development, and sustainability.

We all know the past few years have been really tough for librarians, info pros, and library supporters. Although I don’t want to turn my back on the challenges, I think it will be really helpful for me to step back a bit and gain a different perspective. I’m not sure whether the grass will be any greener,  but I hope this experience challenges me to think about libraries, education, and information services in different ways, as well as introducing me to other issues I know little about.

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Not Getting It

Okay, I admit it. I myself have uttered the defeatist phrase, “They just don’t get it!” They, in this case, usually refers to senior management (SMT). I am aware that it is entirely unhelpful and reflects poorly on me, but it felt good at the time!

It seems as though school librarians in Scotland have struggled with getting the support of administration, even more so than their American colleagues. Of course, I have met some wonderful head teachers who are very supportive of their librarians and library programmes. More often than not, though, it seems as though heads are indifferent to school libraries, or even likely to question the need for school libraries at all. There doesn’t seem to be a good explanation for this inconsistency, except perhaps that the success of a school library programme is largely down to the personalities of individual librarians and members of SMT.

I struggled in a previous school librarian post to try to convince SMT of the role of a modern school library and librarians. As I’ve stated before, I had a somewhat unusual experience as I worked in a school in which the professional librarian had been seconded for another position for several years, after which point she retired and the school was unable to find a replacement for two years. During this time, the library was staffed by a rotation of auxiliaries and even a recent school leaver towards the end. Although the “non-qualified” (for lack of a better phrase) staff were very dedicated and succeeded in managing the day-to-day tasks necessary to keep the library open for pupils, the library was never really seen as an integral part of learning and teaching. When I first took up the post, I was treated as another member of the clerical staff and really had to work at being included in committees, staff meetings, and CPD, which is not something I had anticipated when I accepted the job offer.

In fact, I found myself discouraged and even questioned whether I should continue working in a place where certain powers that be didn’t “get it.” Instead of giving up, however, I looked to Buffy Hamilton, Doug Johnson, Joe Bower, and Joyce Valenza (among others) for inspiration. They made me realise that there was no such thing as the “perfect” school library job and that it was up to me to create it.

When it was announced that the school’s October CPD session would focus on CfE Building the Curriculum 5: Assessment, I told my line manager that I was interested in attending and explained why. However, I did not wait for permission and simply attended. During the event, I made sure that I participated fully in small group discussions and even responded to a question during the large lecture portion of the event. Although it was slightly daunting to speak in front of 120+ teachers from all schools in the catchment area, I think I made a fairly good point regarding the danger of using summative assessment disguised as formative assessment.

I spoke up not to get attention, but primarily because I was genuinely interested in the topic matter. Nevertheless, my comment did get me noticed and several teachers complimented me on my input. A close teaching friend even said, “Well done. Maybe now people will start to realise you’re an educator, and not just, you know.” I’m not entirely certain what was meant by “you know,” but I think we can all guess where that comment was going.

And guess what? Several weeks later, another CPD event was planned, and the head teacher herself came to the library to personally ask me whether I wanted to be involved. It turns out she hadn’t “got it” all along! She hadn’t been excluding me from previous events intentionally, but simply because she didn’t understand that my input would be valuable or that I would even be interested in attending. As soon as I demonstrated why librarians should have the same grounding in the curriculum as teachers, and what librarians could bring to the discussion, she “got it.”

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School Libraries: A View from Both Sides of the Pond

Much has been written about the differences in quality between North American and British school libraries. The majority of this writing seems to be anecdotal and informal, but there have been some recent scholarly attempts to study this issue.

North American, especially those in the United States, school libraries are often considered to be a model for other countries. There, school librarians are often dually qualified teachers and librarians. Exact qualification requirements vary by state, but it is generally understood that a school librarian should have knowledge of pedagogy as well as information management. This enables the librarian to create a library programme that is fully integrated into the curriculum, rather than an ancillary book lending service.

US school libraries are often noted for their funding and staffing levels. Even though this has been under threat due to the recession, school libraries in the US still fare better than their counterparts in the UK. There seems to be more of an agreement in the US that library assistants or part-time clerical assistants are needed to allow librarians to concentrate on professional duties. Library budgets in the US also tend to be much higher than library budgets in the UK, where spending per pupil is often as low as £2, despite CILIP recommendations that secondary school libraries be funded at £14 per pupil.

Of course, it is important to note that the American school libraries I praise are typically those found in middle class or affluent public school districts and private schools. Poorer, inner city schools suffer from poor quality or an absence of school libraries, and that is an issue that I would like to explore in greater detail another day.

The question I would like to address today is “Why are there such glaring differences in the quality of UK school libraries in comparison to US school libraries?” Whilst there may be some UK school libraries that perform better than US school libraries (and vice versa), the general consensus seems to be that, on the whole, US school libraries are “better.” Some say this is down to funding, others claim it is to do with the level of training US school librarians/teacher-librarians receive, but I argue that curriculum is a major factor.

Despite the recent education reform debates and the standardized exam crisis that has resulted from the No Child Left Behind legislation, educational achievement in the US is still largely measured by individual schools (again, this is more true of affluent public schools and private schools). Assessments are done internally, and although university-bound students do take standardized exams such as the SAT or ACT, their college admissions are largely based on their high school grades, which are awarded by their class teachers. Although US educators understand that part of the purpose of school is to prepare students for university and employment, most are appalled by the idea that education be reduced to a mere sorting mechanism for higher education or the workforce.

UK schools, on the other hand, are quite clearly a sorting mechanism, although dedicated teachers understand that their role goes beyond this. Acceptance to most British universities is based largely on external exam results (Highers or Advanced Highers in Scotland or A-levels in England). The rationale behind this is that it leads to a more straightforward, equitable university admissions process. The downside, of course, is that many schools spend the bulk of their time preparing senior pupils for these exams. The lower a school’s record of exam achievement, the more likely a school is to spend the majority of class time on exam preparation.

The purpose of this post is not to determine whether the British system of assessment is any better or worse than the American system, but I wanted to acknowledge the differences in the way school achievement is measured as I believe this has a tremendous impact on the way school libraries are used and measured. Whereas school librarians in the US might work closely with class teachers to design, implement, and assess rigorous research projects for 11th or 12th grade students, a school librarian in the UK is less likely to have this opportunity. UK school librarians are more likely to be asked to provide quiet places for exam revision or revision guides. In a slightly better scenario, they might be asked to provide some research instruction for Advanced Higher investigations or essays, but like classroom teachers, they are still at the mercy of the qualifications authorities. They simply do not have the flexibility of their US colleagues, which is an important aspect to keep in mind when doing comparative studies.

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“You’re Too Hot to be a Librarian!”

In my last post, I alluded to the reactions I get when I tell people I am a librarian. Now, over the past several years, I have had many conversations and read countless blog posts regarding librarian stereotypes, so I am not going to go into too much detail about that right now. However, I did think it might be fun to reflect on some of the comments I’ve received regarding my profession over the past few years.

The response I hear most frequently is “You need a degree to be a librarian?!” In this case, my reaction depends upon the context. For example, I was asked this question by a stranger in an airport bar last week, and in that case I responded by laughing and saying something like “Haha. Yup, it turns out there’s actually more to it than stamping books and saying Shhhhh!” By making a joke out of it, I was able to keep the conversation light and he ended up asking some pretty thoughtful questions about libraries. Result!

However, even though I don’t mind it when some random guy in a bar is surprised that one needs to be educated in order to become a librarian, it does annoy me when teaching colleagues ask me the same question. In the school I worked in recently, many of the teachers seemed surprised to learn that there is a specific academic qualification for becoming a librarian, and some teachers were even surprised to learn that one needs a degree at all! Again, I tried to smile and explain the qualification process politely and succinctly, but we need to start thinking of serious ways to reach pre-service teachers so that they are aware of what librarians actually do.

On a similar note, I frequently am asked the question, “Is that what you really want to do?” Again, my reaction tends to be based on context; it’s one thing if I am asked this question by a stranger, but another when asked by teaching colleagues or former Smith classmates. Of course, I try not to let it get to me, and I remind myself that I am secure enough not to care what others think of my career choices. Still, I find it somewhat worrying when professionals in other fields cannot understand why highly educated, intelligent people would want to work as librarians. I think this is a larger issue, however, and it is not just limited to librarians. I know that some other Smithies have received similar reactions when telling people that they had chosen to go into teaching, so maybe it has more to do with the perceptions of “pink collar” professions as a whole.

A comment that I only received once, but nevertheless made me stop and think was, “It’s so nice to meet a school librarian who actually likes children!” This odd compliment was paid to me by an English teacher at my former school, and I can’t even remember how I responded. I think I just smiled and giggled awkwardly as I was so surprised by what she said. I remember thinking, “What kind of schools has she been in?! How can someone go into school librarianship and not like children?” Granted, this was only one opinion, but if there are other teachers out there thinking the same thing, then it’s time for school librarians to address this issue.

I’m getting too serious now, so back to random, sleazy guys in bars. I think my favourite response to my career revelation has to be, “But you’re too hot to be a librarian!” or “You must be the sexiest librarian ever!”* Although I do think I’m pretty cute, I must admit that I never heard the words “hot” or “sexy” very often until becoming a librarian. I guess it’s all relative.

As much as I laugh at these stupid chat-up lines, they do reveal that the librarian stereotypes are alive and well. Somehow, I can’t imagine dancers, actresses, or PR executives getting the same response. Oh well, at least it’s self-esteem boost! 🙂

* And no guys, this does not work!

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Public Libraries: The Envy of the World

When I lived in Syria and told people I was a librarian, some people were confused. Universities in Syria have libraries, of course, and there is a large national library, but there is no extensive system of public libraries and many people are unfamiliar with libraries or librarians. With the exception of an initiative by the Syria Trust for Development, libraries are viewed mainly as the domain of the elite.

I’m used to be confusion or disbelief when I tell people I am a librarian, so that reaction did not surprise me. What I did find surprising, however, was the reaction from people who admired the North American and British public library systems. I met a man who had travelled in Canada, and he spoke with great admiration for the public library system there. He said the libraries were one of the most striking aspect of his visit to Canada; he couldn’t believe that anyone could just go to a library and borrow books for free! He told me that he was an avid book collector and ran a small lending library of sorts out of his own home, but he expressed regret that his country did not offer anything like it for their citizens.

At the gym where I went most days to work off my falafel weight gain, I met a young cleaner from the Philippines. Despite working 50+ hours per week, she was trying to teach herself English in her spare time. One day, she asked me if I had any old English books she could have. I scoured my bookshelves looking for appropriate books and magazines that I could give her, and even picked up a Jenny Valentine young adult novel at a local book shop. I was moved by her desire to educate herself, and only wished I could do more to help young women like her.

It’s experiences like these that make me so angry about what is happening to public libraries in the United States and particularly the United Kingdom. Although I am not a public librarian, I have always supported their mission. In fact, it is the ideals of social justice and universal access to information that attracted me to librarianship in the first place. With public library systems that are the envy of the world, I can’t understand why the US and UK would just throw their libraries away.

Yes, I understand that the world has changed considerably since the 1964 Public Libraries Act, but so have libraries! I also understand that with the global economic crisis we cannot afford to overspend and overconsume as we have been in recent years. However, I also understand that essential public services such as education, including the informal education that comes from public libraries, are necessary for economic growth. If I find myself running out of money, then I need to cut back on the nights out and shoe shopping, but the global economy does not work like that. Investment in public services is necessary for economic growth, and retaining properly staffed public and school libraries is vital.

The Syrian population has its own worries at the moment, so I doubt many of the friends and acquaintances I made there are paying much attention to our public service concerns. Nevertheless, I am certain that many of the people who admire our enlightened public library systems would be shocked and saddened to hear of the demise of so many library services.

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