Freedom to Read: Saving School Libraries–A Presentation at the Network for Public Education Conference

By Susan Polos, School Librarian, Mt. Kisco Elementary School, Mt. Kisco, NY; Sara Sayigh, School Librarian, DuSable Campus, Chicago, IL; and Sara Stevenson, School Librarian, O. Henry Middle School, Austin, TX

“It’s an awfully sad misconception that librarians simply check books in and out. The library is the heart of the school, and without a librarian, it is but an empty shell.”

–Jarett J. Krosoczka

On Saturday, April 16, we three school librarians met face-to-face for the first time as we set-up and prepared for our presentation about saving school libraries at the Network for Public Education Conference “And Justice for All” in Raleigh, North Carolina. The Network for Public Education is an advocacy group connecting teachers, parents, and others who seek to strengthen public education. Our leader is education historian, author, and activist Diane Ravitch. As school librarians, we wanted to emphasize the value of school library programs in public schools as the antidote to the current testing culture and to explain why we are viewed as a threat to the “reform” agenda.

All three of us have faced cuts during austerity budgets and shared our stories of advocacy and becoming radicalized into action. School librarians are often the canaries in the coalmine of public school layoffs. Because librarians are not considered “teachers of record” and don’t assign grades, we are most vulnerable to state and district budget cuts. Furthermore, in most states we are required to have Master’s degrees and years of teaching experience, making us more expensive than young newbie teachers. By cutting library programs, districts are harming the whole school experience since libraries provide a safe space for exploration and curious minds. Although our cuts are blamed on tight budgets, money seems more than adequate for testing, technology, expensive consultants, more administrators, and even 1:1 devices for students. A school without a library is a school with no heart.

Cutting library programs while simultaneously striving to improve student literacy defies common sense. How can children improve their reading skills if they have no access to books for reading, if they have no guidance? It’s as if a basketball coach didn’t allow his team to practice because there were no balls and then expected his team to win. Actually, it’s even worse. It’s as if a basketball team had no gym, no balls, no practice, and no coach, and yet still was expected to win. This is what happens to schools when library programs are cut. Schools lose the very foundation and support for literacy and information skills. For all students, but especially for our low-income children, we are the only source of books, the only ones to model a reading culture. And reading proficiency goes far beyond standardized test scores or even college and career. Studies cited in Donalyn Miller’s Reading in the Wild show that adults who are readers are more involved in their communities, volunteer more, vote more, and are better citizens in general.

For all three of us, unions (or “associations” as they are called in right-to-work states) played an important role in partnering with our struggles. Librarians are often actively involved in teachers’ unions because we share a school-wide perspective and serve as instructional leaders on our campuses, advising administrators, teachers, students, and parents.

We shared with our audience the details of our struggles to save school librarian positions in our cities. For example, in Austin, when 2/3 of all librarian positions were being cut in 2011, we solicited letters and school board speeches from community members, teachers, students, authors, booksellers, and parents. Because others spoke on our behalf, our superintendent couldn’t dismiss our arguments as self-interest. We also discovered that telling specific anecdotes about that one child finding the “hook book” or our successful library programs, from book clubs to makerspaces to author visits, had greater impact than studies and research. Our extensive use of social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, amplified our cause along with opinion pieces and letters appearing in the local press. In short, we shamed them into restoring our positions.

One of our audience members at NPE, Larry Lawrence, a teacher, shared his experiences working in tandem with a school librarian.

“Our overall literacy goal for all students was that they not only possess the skills of reading, but they would seek out reading for information and pleasure. Our librarian and our well-resourced library were essential in reaching these goals. She was a member of every team of teachers.

“For example, in our Upper Elementary (9-12 years old) team of students, we required students to have a book that they could and would read. The ‘could’ part fell mostly on the shoulders of the classroom teacher. The ‘would read’ part fell heavily with the domain of our librarian. Jack was interested in non-fiction, so the librarian worked with him to find books that he would like. Sharon loved historical fiction, so our librarian guided her to books, such as the Rosemary Sutcliff novels set in early England. Eddie just wasn’t ready for long text-heavy narratives, so she guided him to some graphic novels. Eddie is now a film producer.

“As opposed to teachers, who are mostly limited to one academic year, the librarian had worked with these students and built relationships from the time they entered the school. She had a sense of their interests and the books that fit them best as individual readers. Our school librarian was an invaluable, irreplaceable part of our school reading program!”

Knoxville, Tennessee elementary librarian Kerstin Sisco chose to attend our session because school librarians are threatened by current education “reforms” in her state as well.

She reflected,

“There is power between the bookshelves! There is power in information and information sharing! I felt the power in the Saving School Libraries session at the 2016 NPE Conference. Hearing the stories of three librarians, who lost their jobs, but were reinstated due to peaceful student protests, bolstered my core belief that school libraries and school librarians make a tremendous difference in a school. My district has dramatically reduced library support personnel but has not yet attempted to cut actual librarian positions. If the district should attempt this, I feel certain that many, many devoted students would demonstrate their civil rights and unite to prevent any reduction in their access to information. Saving School Libraries showed me how to fight the good fight—and win!”

New York City classroom teacher Katie Lapham, summarized our presentation:

“In this era of test prep and scripted curriculum, school librarians play a critical role in exposing students to a wide range of books and stories that inspire and activate imaginations. School libraries are safe havens where kids can read what they want on their terms.”

Coming together at the NPE Conference in Raleigh, we reached beyond our local fears to join in solidarity. We were encouraged by the support we gained from those who attended the conference and by our shared strategies for preserving our vital roles in our schools. One of us, Sara Sayigh, had her librarian position terminated in Chicago. Her high school students organized and participated in a mass read-in as a protest, and her position was re-instated.

We left the conference feeling empowered and renewed in our defense of our school library programs, ensuring that our children can continue to flourish and be nurtured as readers and thinkers in the safe spaces we create for them.

Knowing that current library school programs now include courses in advocacy, we finished our presentation with this quotation:

“I really didn’t realize the librarians were, you know, such a dangerous group. They are subversive. You think they’re just sitting there at the desk, all quiet and everything. They’re plotting the revolution, man. I wouldn’t mess with them.”

–Michael Moore


Author: Sara Stevenson

I’m a reader, writer, swimmer, and a public middle school librarian. I love all things Italian. I was honored to be Austin ISD’s first librarian of the year in 2013.

Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Blog Topics

1 reply

  1. Hi,

    Though my elementary school library is save for next school year, 2016-2017, at the last BOE budget meeting, there was a slide that indicated that the elementary school library and technology program would be considered for future cuts and “efficiencies.” I am starting to collect data and am preparing to speak at a meeting between the union and BOE members, but would love a letter/speech draft that other school librarians may have written to advocate before the BOE. Where might I find something like that? Thank you!

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