What’s All The Fuss? The Sidelined Role of School Librarians

“There is something so deeply visceral about libraries for me—rooms and rooms full of people dreaming and remembering. I think it’s hard to walk into a library and not have a sense of deep respect for all that they hold and stand for.”

~Jacqueline Woodson, American Libraries, March 2015)

As Elissa Brent Weissman points out in today’s concurrent blog post on the subject, Let’s Hear It For School Librarians, Unsung Heroes of the Kid Lit Food Chain, school librarians play, “a crucial role in the food chain of children’s literature.” Elissa hits the mark. School librarians are often sidelined, unacknowledged for the important work they do behind the scenes to ensure quality kidlit is making it into the hands of readers.

Many librarians show up to work sporting Banned Book pins and other bookish bling to capture students’ attention and provoke thoughtful discord. They read aloud like stage actors during morning meetings and even dress up as book characters on March 2nd. But does that make them less worthy of professional recognition because they meet their constituents—young readers—where they are?

As a field comprised mostly of women, too often the profession has been dismissed as peripheral or insubstantial. According to the American Library Association’s (ALA) office of Research and Statistics 2017 Demographic Study, 81% of librarians working in the field are women. And yet, according to an AFLCIO 2011 fact sheet, men continue to make more money than women with similar qualifications and, while men constitute 17.2% of the librarian profession, they hold 40% of the leadership in academic libraries. In fact, the study shows that across all library professions, men earn higher salaries than women.

So what’s all the fuss? It’s just kids’ books, right?

As Elissa notes in her essay, parent volunteers and interns are increasingly replacing librarians. In fact, without them, her own children would not have access to their school library’s book collection. School library budgets are already squeezed—according to the ALA, school libraries spend an average of just over $12 annually per child on library media. That’s less than the cost of one book.

And yet it’s vital to remember that one of the few quantifiable predictors of a child’s academic success is her access to books and reading. How many professionals have such an onerous responsibility with $12/head budgeting?

As a school librarian myself, I can tell you one thing for certain: There’s no such thing as ‘just a kids’ book.’ There are books that entertain and books that educate. There are books that are windows and books that are mirrors.

There are books that change lives. Irrevocably.

School librarians have enormous power. They are gatekeepers—professionals who read scholarly articles and publications before purchasing print materials and online resources. They allocate the library’s (often slim) budget in ways that best meets the needs of hundreds of students. They constantly analyze school curriculum across grade levels to find opportunities to engage learners with materials that expand a reader’s understanding of content, theory and, most importantly, alternative perspectives that challenge the status quo.

And, of course, there are the books. School librarians must decide which books are deserving of shelf space, which books will be talked up, and which books she’ll hand sell to that reader she sees on the cusp of expanding world views. Then there are book clubs, Battle of the Books competitions, and author visits programs that school librarians must squeeze into their budget to make sure stories and information are appealing and relevant.

And let’s not forget, especially on this National School Walkout Day, that librarians are also adamant protectors of free speech. They provide access to materials without judgment and guide readers to discovering materials that keep the fires burning. (*See Eboni Darnell’s exceptional posting, “Self Acceptance Despite the Stereotypes on this subject from March 8th.) Librarians provide a safe space for students when the wider school and world seem overwhelming.

By and large, librarians who serve children, free speech, and the power of story are women. Kidlit, and the young readers it serves, deserves passionate professionals, not women relegated to the sidelines. I’m incredibly fortunate to work in a school where my work is valued and recognized. It’s time for all school librarians to be celebrated. Join us in raising your voice to support them!