As I read the description of the new KQ website as “a vehicle for school librarians to transform learning,” the word vehicle called to mind Cadillac’s new slogan: “Dare Greatly,” taken from a Teddy Roosevelt speech and designed as part of a marketing ploy to get people to reevaluate the Cadillac brand. You may have noticed these evocative ads that celebrate underdogs who succeeded.
Cadillac CMO Elllinghaus, in an interview, explained that even though Cadillac was producing the best quality vehicles ever, U.S. sales had not responded ‘because the brand … [had] lapsed into an indistinct identity’ that hadn’t been able to seduce buyers from more traditional, ‘safe’ choices in rival brands (“Cadillac reveals”, 2015). Ellinghaus went on to say that the Cadillac brand had lost its relevance and that ‘we need to have a new point of view to show why we’re relevant …. You can’t just put product—even great product…in front of people. If the brand isn’t relevant, people don’t care (Buss, 2015).’
A point can be made that, like Cadillac, today’s school libraries are as good as they have ever been. Competent, resourceful, talented school librarians are the drivers behind libraries that are thriving, happening places for discovering, making, innovating, imagining, creating, and solving. School library spaces are evolving from static, print-based, time- and space-bound warehouses to learning commons and makerspaces with potentially unfettered virtual access. They are transliterate, organic, physical and virtual places ever evolving to meet the needs of the entire school community. School librarians are co-teaching, coaching, guiding, directing, leading, sharing, organizing, advocating, designing, planning, and more. School libraries and librarians are vital and more essential than ever before. And yet, like Cadillac, with all that school librarians have to offer, the brand, if you will, remains shadowed by an “indistinct identity.”
That our identity is imprecise is evident in the hodgepodge of names we are called: school librarian, teacher librarian, media specialists, media coordinator, school library media coordinator, etc. (What exactly is a “media specialist”?) It is evident in our varied and multiple roles described in Empowering Learners. (What exactly is the difference between teacher, instructional specialist, and instructional partner? Which role is more important, how is that determined, and by whom?) It is evident in the different ways we are licensed within our states. It is evident in our performance appraisals and the confusion and misunderstandings our administrators have both in evaluating us and in assigning us additional miscellaneous responsibilities (test coordinator, technology manager, substitute teacher, in-school suspension monitor, web page director, etc.). It is evident in our struggles to quantify our contribution to school improvement and to student success. (How do we demonstrate our value?) It is evident every time a paraprofessional is hired instead of a professional, when districts no longer require one school librarian per school, or, worse, no school librarian. It is evident with each new charter school that opens without a library. It is evident in the recurring questions we hear: “What do you do?” and “Do we really need libraries when we have the Internet?” Quite simply, we do suffer, like Cadillac, from an “indistinct identity.”
Adding to the confusion others may have about our profession are incongruities that we ourselves perpetuate. Fontichiaro and Hamilton (2014) concede to “an undercurrent to our public professional narrative, a silent but steady divide between what should happen and what does happen (p. 57).” The reality for school librarians does not always, if ever, mesh with the theory and best practice of our profession. So, when Fontichiaro and Hamilton ask what it means to be a “good” librarian, we ourselves are unclear. What’s a good school librarian to do? Work within the “existing culture,” or work to change it? Or, perhaps, do both?
Like Cadillac, we know we have a great product which we put in front of our school communities every day. But, like Ellinghaus says, that is not enough. It’s not enough that we offer ourselves up at staff or departmental meetings, in the hallways, at lunch, and after school to collaborate, or at the very least coordinate our lessons, with teachers. It’s not enough that we supplement our budgets with grants, bookfairs, and donations. It’s not enough that we offer extended hours and open circulation throughout the school day and after. It’s not enough that we sit on leadership teams, coordinate 1-to-1 tablets, troubleshoot technology, conduct staff development, promote reading, and integrate an information curriculum. It’s not enough that we adhere to best practice and the wisdom of library school. It’s not enough that we collaborate, instruct, provide, and lead if our school community doesn’t readily and definitively see our relevance. We know who we are and we know what we do but if others don’t know who we are and what we do, what good are we ultimately doing?
Ellinghaus’ idea is not about changing the consumer; it’s about changing Cadillac so the consumer can connect with the product. It’s not about Cadillac’s mission; it’s about consumer needs and wants and how Cadillac meets those needs and wants. It’s about relevancy. “We need to have a new point of view to show why we’re relevant and to get across how much Cadillac has changed (Buss, 2015).” Take out the reference to Cadillac and this sentence resonates for school librarians. If it is still unclear to any principal, teacher, parent, student, or superintendent about how school librarians meet their needs, then we have a problem similar to Cadillac. We have a great product that no one is buying.
Whether “daring greatly” will sell more cars for Cadillac remains to be seen. As school librarians, we always have and always will dare greatly. Now perhaps what we need to do is to consider our products and services from the perspective of our consumers, or, to borrow from another advertising campaign, “think different.”
Cadillac reveals dare greatly campaign: Five questions with CMO Uwe Ellinghaus (2015, Feb. 16). Brandchannel. Retrieved from http://barelegged4.rssing.com/chan-3543330/all_p226.html
Buss, D. (2015). Cadillac risks break from Detroit with new ‘Dare Greatly’ campaign. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/dalebuss/2015/02/16/with-dare-greatly-ads-cadillac-hopes-for-a-born-of-fire-moment/
American Association of School Librarians. (2009). Empowering learners: Guidelines for school library programs.
Fontichiaro, K., and Hamilton, B. (2014). Undercurrents. Knowledge Quest, 43(1), 56-59.
Apple Computer, Inc. (1997). Think different. Retrieved from http://www.thecrazyones.it/spot-en.html
Author: Anne Akers
Clinical assistant professor in the Department of Library and Information Studies at the University of NC at Greensboro working with school library candidates. Former elementary, middle, and high school librarian in Virginia, Mississippi, and North Carolina.