Project S.L.I.D.E. provides national data on school library staffing and data tools to track the staffing of school libraries by state (see Forum Newsletter, Feb. 2023). Key state infrastructure supports for school libraries provide the context to understand staffing data. Supports include state laws requiring school librarians, the number of higher education institutions with preparation programs, state data on school librarians, state funding for E-resources, and school library standards. In Massachusetts, there is a steady decline in school librarian positions and the state only has two of those five key infrastructures components: higher education institutions and funding for E-resources, including the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioner’s state database program and Massachusetts Library System’s Commonwealth ebook collection (Kachel & Lance, State Profiles, 2020). Massachusetts does not have a law that requires a school librarian in each school, and therefore our state education agency, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) is not compelled to collect data on school librarian positions and has not created standards for school library programs.
In the most recent MSLA podcast, “Project S.L.I.D.E.: The School Librarian Investigation - Decline or Evolution” Luke Steere and I sat down with Kachel and Lance to talk about the project and what they have learned from the qualitative phase so far. Of specific interest to the project were the preliminary trends driving staffing decisions, and they have grouped them into three major categories:
- Structural decisions: Including the opening and closing of schools; budgetary or funding concerns.
- Pragmatic decisions: Based around the common occurrence of the term”coverage” gleaned from interviews as to why positions were cut or added. Examples include the need to open the library before or after school or the need to provide teacher planning time and use the library to house students.
- Personal decisions: When asked, what are the administrators priorities? The answer may be a cut or an addition of a library position based on one of these initiatives or ideas. As Lance explains “What is the focus? Are they data-driven to the point they hire to raise test scores? Is the attitude, of course we’ll have school librarians, no questions about that” (Steere & Ellis, 2023).
Even though these categories are only the initial ideas at how the data will be coded, this made me wonder about principals who, despite the realities of structural and pragmatic-driven decisions that may result in a librarian being cut, persevere to shape conversations and change that staffing decision. After recording the podcast, I returned to my principal study interview data that was presented at the 2023 MSLA Annual Conference (slide deck linked here) to find instances of principals with strong personal views of the value of a school librarian. I found three examples of principals from my data that strove to build and sustain library programs despite structural and pragmatic barriers in their districts. Their prior professional experiences shaped and solidified their view that librarians are drivers of student learning and a key component to the school culture they were creating.
Of the three principals are featured: one has a long-established school library program but cites post-pandemic challenges she is facing and the other two are advocating to reestablish a full-time licensed position in schools that have gone without for a number of years. Each was able to describe specifically what librarians do, how they do it, and the necessary collaborations to achieve success. They had a clear understanding of the role of a school librarian in instruction, as a leader, promoting reading, and as information specialist. How did they come to have this passion and clarity? What drives their desire to reinstate a librarian position? One factor was the experience of meaningful collaboration with a school librarian prior to becoming a principal.
Profiles of the Three Principals
P18 is a principal of an elementary school in a small town without a certified librarian. The principals and central office make staffing decisions. She currently has a paraprofessional who staffs the library. She appreciates her paraprofessional but wants to more fully develop the role of instructor, leader, information specialist, and collaborative partner. She started advocating for a full time librarian a year before the pandemic, then priorities shifted for the district toward hiring reading specialists. She said the district is planning to shift the paraprofessional position to a full-time certified librarian in about a year. She worries about finding qualified candidates.
The principal experienced the value of the position when working with a librarian as a literacy specialist earlier in her career. She also has followed the success of the middle school in her district that transformed their library program to be more relevant to students by making their programming and space focus on research, media and technology. She acknowledges that she needs to learn more of “that collaborative piece, that integration piece. How can librarians support what’s happening in the classroom and further develop the overarching skills that students need no matter what field they enter. Effective collaboration, effective integration of content. Recognizing a true scope and sequence of what can happen when the students are in the library.” [P18]
P9 is the principal of a small elementary suburban school who has a paraprofessional in her library. The district made staffing decisions and eliminated the librarian positions many years back. She and other new principals “have been taken aback at the fact we don’t have librarians and that our libraries have been neglected over the last years. Our task, and [we] are definitely on the same page, is how to make a case for the need.” The experience that drives her vision for a library program grew from being assistant principal in a neighboring town where she had a “certified librarian media specialist who was just exceptional.” She wants her current school to have a librarian who “was always looking for the right book for the right child, did a lot of collaborating with teachers, lessons on research skills, digital projects, and provided time during the library to work… on these skills.” This principal sees the library as an extension of the classroom with an up-to-date cared for collection and digital literacy and resources fully integrated. Reinstating librarians requires advocacy from the entire group of elementary principals to change the district’s decision.
P1 is high school principal with a full-time librarian and paraprofessional. She says her “district expects that I have a certified librarian in that space and that’s never come up as an issue, thankfully. In all the schools I’ve worked at, I've developed a close relationship with the librarian.” As an English teacher she collaborated with her school librarian. This experience sets her expectations as an administrator, such as asking her department chairs to encourage teachers to collaborate and invite librarians into their meetings. “Because I had those relationships as a teacher, I think it’s been valuable to me as I’ve moved into administration. I see the librarian as kind of the center of the web.” She continues to collaborate with the librarian by sharing leadership and planning ideas and tasks with them. “My librarian is fantastic about diversity, equity and inclusion, belonging… We’ve upped her funding so she can see what is there. How can we be more inclusive, more representative of different students?” She explained the challenges of the pandemic for the library. There are fewer teachers and students using the space: “There are days where it may look like there is nothing happening in there. I know, because I spend time in there, the work they are doing…but the perception, particularly when you are in the political side of schools, is something you’re up against all of the time. We’re having a lot of conversations about ‘are we moving back toward what it was or are we looking at something completely different for re-purposing the library’ - for how to increase traffic?”
The absence of key state infrastructure supports, including a law requiring a licensed school librarian, state library standards, and state data on school librarians, has created a landscape in which decision makers must be persuaded of the value of a school library program. As we advocate for the creation of key infrastructure, that current landscape means it often falls to school librarians to advocate, explain, teach, and persuade their school community of their roles. A key ally in advocacy is an administrator, and especially the school principal, who is at the table when staffing and budget decisions are being made. As we’ve seen in the examples above, some demonstrate a willingness to learn about the importance of a fully staffed library, others have seen the benefit of librarians from prior experience, and others recognize the benefits to DEI and leadership a fully-staffed library can provide. These are not the only local advocacy in roads we have, but they can help with the uneven development of school libraries in Massachusetts in powerful ways as we strive for making sustainable those key infrastructure supports. A principal’s ability to articulate a vision and a strategy for achieving a robust school library program is often rooted in prior experiences. Their personal vision alone is not enough to effect change but, as these principals demonstrate, it can move the needle by continued advocacy to enhance, build, and sustain school library programs.