I am about to embark on a new school year. It will be my 29th year in a school library. Moving from a classroom teacher to the library was the best thing that I ever did. First, I love working with every student in a school; next, I get to design a program that I know builds on the skills that I have taught the year before that the students were with me; and by the time that they leave my school, the students are prepared for their next step whatever that may be.
Writing about why a library program is critical to my students is not because I need to justify what I do everyday, but it is because not everyone in education believes that libraries serve a need. Some believe that since English teachers teach literature and literacy, it is not important for a librarian to do the same. Well, I was not a very good student in elementary school or high school. I loved literature and learning new things just not in the confines of a classroom. With access to a school library and a public library, I was able to read what intrigued me, find answers to the questions that I had, and find solace in a place that fed my soul. Being able to self select reading material and read about what the students think is important cannot happen without access to a good school library. Public libraries are great but not all of our students get a chance to visit the public library. In a school, the librarian will purchase materials that meet the needs of their specific patrons and know the students well enough to recommend the books that will appeal. The books read in English or reading class do not equal what it means being able to walk into a library and choose a book on the shelf that speaks to you.
Others say that students don't need to be taught how to research because they can just go to the Internet and google the answer. That is an absurd rationale to justify getting rid of a librarian or library program. My district subscribes to a number of databases. How will my students learn how to use these resources without instruction? They can't. For that matter, how will the teachers know that the databases are available for their students without being taught? We want our students to become critical thinkers. To do that we need to teach them how to evaluate the sources that they use for information. This is true whether we have databases for them to use or whether we are giving them free reign on the Internet. Once students find the information, there needs to be instruction on how to deal with it be it citing the sources or how to summarize and paraphrase and integrating the information into the end product. I just don't think that classroom teachers ever spend enough time on these particular skills. Though the way we access information is very different when I was in school, the skills that we need to evaluate and utilize that information is not different at all. These are skills that need to be taught, and one of the best persons in any building to do that is the librarian.
Now, I want to talk about safe spaces. In a classroom, students are constantly being evaluated and assessed. That is not true of the library. Yes, I am offering instruction and assistance with classroom assignments, but I am not the one who assigns grades. I can have a very different relationship with my students, and because I am there year after year, students know that I have an open ear and am willing to listen and share the library with them. I work very hard to make my library welcoming to all students whether they are readers or not. I do have expectations and treating each other with respect in the library is one of the major ones. The library can become a place where students who don't have a comfortable place to be in the school can be comfortable. Part of the reason I expand my offerings of games and makerspace materials every year is because those are materials that draw students to the library. If I hear students say that the library is their favorite place in the school, then I know that I have done my job right. I serve students in grades 6th-12th, and I have kids who have spent every lunch period in the library from the time that they enter Taylor until the time that they graduate.
Stake holders generally view test scores as an appropriate way to evaluate a school program. I don't exactly agree, but I do see test data as a way to paint a partial picture of whether a school is achieving its goals. When you look at the library program and test data in one particular school, it is very hard for the individual librarian to show correlation. That is because there is usually only one of us in the building, and our face to face time teaching the students is just a fraction of the time that a classroom teacher spends. I get to provide instruction to my students over seven years of their schooling. Over seven years, I think that I have made a huge impact. Unfortunately, it still is difficult to get data for that. I do hear from students after they graduate who tell me how what I had done for them helped them get through college. However, there have been many studies over the years that have evaluated the contribution of school libraries to our students' growth. These studies have compiled significant data across multiple schools in the U.S. that illustrate how school libraries and librarians contribute to student success.
If you don't believe my anecdotal evidence, here are some links that explain the results of these studies:
Why School Librarians Matter: what years of research tells us by Keith Curry Lance and Debra E. Kachel
Infographic from American Association of School Librarians explains how strong school libraries build strong students
Of course, we all want to matter, but I strongly believe that librarians have an impact in every school. Without them, our students are missing a major part of their education that cannot be replaced by a computer or e-reader full of books or someone who says libraries and librarians are old school and no longer necessary.