Collection Development, Pedagogy

Aspirational Librarianship

In the September/October issue of Knowledge Quest, Buffy and Kristin coauthored an article that suggested that there was a widening gap between the standards and expectations AASL promotes and the reality many of us face in our schools (even those of us in well-funded independent schools not tied into e-rate funding/filtering, with 1:1 iPad programs and not required to undergo state testing).  As I read it, my head nodded as I recognized challenges that I and others have experienced.

Let’s look at the first question they pose, “What does it mean to be great?”  By AASL’s standards, the programs I’ve worked with are failures.  Collaboration and co-teaching with every teacher hasn’t taken place.  Even worse, I don’t insist that teachers work with me on every project!  Of course I’m open – but if they can’t, or if a project gets cancelled (for example, due to too many snow days) or truncated, I do the best I can and move on.  Those projects may not be as deep and inquiry rich as they’re supposed to be.  Sometimes students graduate without having done any deep research at all.  And then there are the non-integrated information/research skills classes, ones that may tie in with an ongoing project but are fix-scheduled and year-long, so the content doesn’t always have a curricular match. I take on non-library related work (like overseeing the online bookstore set-up, or proctoring lunch in the cafeteria while leaving the library unattended).  Leadership in tech?  That might step on our computer science teachers and tech integrators toes, let alone the Director of IT’s position on where the school is going.

Do I feel like a failure? No.  I aspire to what AASL considers “excellence”, keeping that as a potential goal while looking at the reality of the situation on the ground.  Only one or two projects that go further than a 3-5 page paper with bibliography?  Great.  Bring it.  I can work with that and aspire to building a stronger connection with others in that department or in the school that lead to deeper inquiry.  Need me to take on a fixed scheduled class?  Ok.  Let’s see what I can do to bring skills into the class even if there’s nothing curricular to work with, like evaluating information about current events or finding credible resources on topics of personal interest.  I can aspire to moving to a flexible schedule, or to integrating (slowly) with what the classroom teachers are doing.

Then I read Judy Moreillon’s response to the article. I think she missed the point.  My reading of the article wasn’t, “let’s get rid of the standards and the expectations and the high bar, instead let’s focus on how to help librarians in schools do the best possible job with their situation.” She’s dead right about the fact that for some, meeting with every class, every student for deep inquiry-based projects is simply impossible due to the student/librarian ratio (at my school, it’s 160:1; at my cousin’s selective high school, it’s 450:1; and at another NYC highly selective high school, it’s 1506:1).  But this paragraph made me cringe:

Working with these educators and students should be a priority for school librarians who will continue to serve other students on an as needed basis and work with teachers who engage in cooperative planning and schedule the library in open times that are not being used for in-depth learning. (If the library is large enough, multiple classes can use the library space at one time, but only those teachers who have planned with the librarian and scheduled the librarian’s time as well will have the benefit of her/his expertise.)

Really?  Maybe in a public school where the union can protect you but at my school?  If I told teachers that they could come in, but I was only going to work with the ones who have collaborated with me beforehand on the project creation?  I’d be looking for a new job, not to mention having an incredibly empty library space as the teachers stayed away in droves.  Last year we had one week where we had 10-13 classes in every day (there are only 7 periods in a day) and we worked with every one of them as the teacher needed – none of them did the level of collaboration that I aspire to, but hey, maybe next year.  Let me build the relationship, slowly showing them how I can add value to their projects and becoming a partner with them.  I’d rather be overwhelmed with students asking me questions despite a lack of integration into the class than sitting there at the information desk listening to the crickets.

I could go on, but you get the point.

Here’s the thing about aspirational librarianship: we know where the goal posts are, and we hope to some day get there.  But for now, in the real world in which we work, we need help and guidance on how to do our jobs better without alienating teachers and without insisting that if we’re not adhering to what AASL says we should be doing/being we’re just not being valued or doing a good job.  To my mind, it feels like the equivalent of being the old-fashioned shh’er: my way and only my way in my library.   Thank you Buffy and Kristin for raising the question.

So, what answers do you have?  To what do you aspire?


10 thoughts on “Aspirational Librarianship”

  1. I agree completely with your philosophy of aspiring to work with as many teachers and students as possible. I love a full and busy library with students in classes checking out, individual students with passes, and whole classes in for research. Would I love to work closely with more teachers? Yes! But I am so grateful for the teachers who have opened their classrooms and lessons to new possibilities. I hold tightly to those high expectations and keep the bar high knowing I am aspiring to reach every teacher, every student, every day.
    Thank you for your article. Cynthia
    (School librarian for 2 buildings & 1200 students)

    1. You’re welcome. I think the bigger issue is how do we help each other with our aspirations? Can our national organization and state organizations offer practical advice rather than prescriptive standards?

  2. “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery

    Dear Laura Pearle,
    Thank you for sharing your perspective on “aspirational” library work. I have no doubt that your school values your service as a professional school librarian, but do they know what’s possible if you were given the time to coplan, coteach, and coassess deep learning? I hope so. I hope you have had the opportunity to show your learning community what is possible.

    To be clear, my blog post was about “effective” not “aspirational” librarianship. As a school librarian educator I see my role as helping future school librarians “long for the endless immensity of the sea.” As they prepare to enter the field, I hope they will learn why the old ways of “doing school librarianship,” which involved serving in the rotation and as planning time for teachers, providing superficial storytime lessons, drive-by information literacy lessons, such as teaching databases without having any input/knowledge/responsibility for the remainder of the student’s learning, are not “effective” practice for 21st-century school librarians. (Note: Yes, I served in public schools and I didn’t need a union to protect my right to teach effectively. Although serving as planning time was the tradition in the first district where I served, there has never been any language in my librarian teaching contracts in three different districts that said I was responsible for providing planning time for other educators.)

    To my way of thinking, which comes from thirteen years in the “real” world of school librarianship at all instructional levels, and from research in the field, effective librarians should be effective teachers first and foremost. The “sea that I long for” is one in which school librarians are seen as leaders because they are leaders—leaders whose work is integral to students’ and teachers’ success—not nice to have extras.

    I wish you the best in your service through the school library. I hope you will have more and more opportunities to coteach effective lessons for the benefit of your school community.

    Judi, @CactusWoman

    P.S. If you are looking for practical advice (and the research to back it up) from AASL on how to achieve instructional partnerships, I recommend The Best of KQ: Instructional Partnerships: A Pathway to Leadership editing by Susan Ballard and me (

    1. Judy, I invite you to come to my school, observe and then tell me (and my teachers, administrators and students) that I don’t have instructional partnerships and that I’m not “effective”. Many librarians don’t need how to manuals, or time (which I and the other librarian have plenty of, as we staff the library from 7:30am-10pm) to collaborate, or desire on the part of teachers. We have those. The problem – a HUGE problem – is this rabid insistence on “this is the only way to be effective” and not recognizing that there are many ways, as well as offering real advice and kudos to those who are working in schools now, often under less than ideal circumstances. Stop shaming, start helping.

      1. Laura, I am delighted you engage in instructional partnerships. That was my point. You asked, “Can our national organization and state organizations offer practical advice rather than prescriptive standards?” I offered it. I am sorry you do not perceive help from our national association in further developing your effectiveness as an instructional partner. There is no need to use terms such as “rabid” and “shaming.” I was willing to engage in a respectful dialogue. Since it seems that is not possible, I will not respond to further posts on this topic on your blog. Sincerely, Judi

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.