School Library: the Reality Show

One of the things my preservice school librarians see during their practicums is exactly what professional life is like for a school librarian.  Sure, we discuss the work in our university classes but I don’t think it really hits home for students until they are in the field actually involved in and participating in the reality show that is the school library.

What they learn in the comfort of their academic classes is rational, logical, purposeful, deliberate, visionary, and idealistic.  What they observe and participate in while completing the practicum can be messy, eye-opening, confusing, frustrating, perplexing, and realistic.  More often than not, what they see and do in the practicum does not line up with what they’ve learned is best practice from their university coursework.

I have had students report that their school librarian supervisors at their practicum sites don’t use the AASL standards to support lessons and aren’t familiar with Empowering Learners.  Some supervisors don’t teach K-12 students, don’t have budgets, aren’t involved on the school leadership team, have additional duties such as test coordinator, keeper of the fixed assets, or in-school suspension monitor, have no assistants or parent volunteers, are not observed or evaluated by the principal, have to substitute in classrooms for absent teachers, and the list goes on. Observing in one of my student’s libraries, in a failing Title I school, I overheard a maintenance worker refuse to help my student move carrels closer to outlets so her students could use the computers that were sitting unused because she needed a work order and her principal’s approval.

For all their preparation as teachers and instructional partners, my practicum students ask how are they supposed to co-teach when they are being used to give classroom teachers a break, when the “specialists” are used to cover classes so teachers can meet in grade levels, when their PLNs are only with specialists in their schools, when they have bus and carpool duty before and after school, and when they have 40 minute back-to-back, fixed classes all day, five days a week.  They ask how they deal with a surly maintenance worker so that they don’t seem disagreeable and confrontational with the administration and ultimately jeopardize their jobs.

Many of my students are hired before they finish the MLIS program and their experiences can also be disconcerting.  In cases where a student is hired before being licensed, s/he undertakes the practicum while employed.  There are advantages and disadvantages to this.  Students can ask questions and get support not only from the faculty but also from their classmates.  They also have access to a school library in which to do class assignments such as analyzing the collection or doing a demographic analysis.  The downside is the lack of a practiced, experienced supervisor mentor.  Rather than having a school librarian as supervisor, the principal or his/her designee serves in that role.  (I have had a coach and a 2nd grade teacher designated by the principal as the supervisor for some of my school library practicum students.)

The biggest challenge I have as the university supervisor is helping my preservice school librarians reconcile best practice with reality. The tendency for newbies employed in a school library is immediately to take up the role of resource person.  The idea is that if they demonstrate an inclination to support teachers, teachers should naturally want to work with them.  So, they offer themselves up as friendly, supportive resources, touting the many gems the library has available and offering to help in any nonspecific way they can.  They send teachers resource lists aligned with the curriculum.  They invite them to see a display of new books or to propose purchases for wish lists.  They alert them to new technology or apps and point them to websites.  Then they jump into the managing work of the library with both feet and go to work weeding, shelving, organizing, cataloging, and overall making the collection more accessible.

My practicum students are naturally starting with the “easier” and more obvious tasks, the comfortable and familiar library activities that they can effortlessly initiate to feel at home in their new space, to feel connected to and demonstrate knowledge of the profession.  They undertake tasks they know they can do with confidence and reassurance. However, it is the same old, same old wherein the school librarian offers support and resources and then waits for teachers to come.  The teachers still don’t have a clear idea of what the school librarian can help them with and so they don’t come.

My job is to disrupt this mindset and prompt my students to think, instead, of the reality which is that weeding, shelving, organizing, cataloging, and promoting resources is not the stuff of reality library that will win teachers and administrators over or help students.  It is how teachers and administrators will continue to see the work of the school librarian in the same old black and white sitcom setting where librarians shush and catalog and police the warehouse of books.  It is the perfect setup for being cast-off the school island.

Reality TV survives by viewers – those people who come back week after week to see what is going on with the characters.  To see how the characters will fare.  The audience is invested in what happens to the people in the show.  Shows continue only if they capture enough of the television viewing audience to be lucrative.  The reality for school librarians is that they will be cast off.  They will not continue in the school program lineup unless they keep their teachers active, involved and committed to working with them on a regular basis.  They will not continue unless they can evidence their value to student learning.  This means setting priorities that move administrative tasks and resource sharing to a lower priority and co-teaching/collaborating/partnering to the highest priority.  This means rather than sending out lists of resources or taking time shelving books, school librarians tell and involve teachers directly and specifically in what they can and will do working with them to support student learning

Blogger Jamie Poniewozik calls reality TV ‘discomfort TV’ and says its purpose is “to rattle viewers’ cages” –to provoke and offend.  If reality TV is ‘discomfort TV’ then the practicum could be considered “discomfort library” for school library students.  And like reality TV, I want students to be rattled, provoked, and offended by what they see, by what they are called upon to do, and by what they are prohibited from doing.  I want them to take up the gauntlet, develop persistence, exhibit resilience, demonstrate determination and grit, and then, I want them to become survivors.

Poniewozik, J. (2003, Feb. 12). Why reality TV is good for us [Web log post].  Retrieved from,9171,421047,00.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.

Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Blog Topics

2 replies

  1. I absolutely love this post. I even printed it out! I am a student who will be completing her practicum soon and I found this extremely insightful. Thanks for taking the time to share!

  2. So true. Library course work and actually putting all that learning to practice becomes nothing more than theory versus reality. The problem lies with the lack of appreciation and the lack of Education on the part of school administrators and teachers to best use the resources available to them. Ever wonder why young students fail, graduate as poor readers, below grade level, or worse drop out of school? The misuse and abuse of school librarians is one solid factor to blame. What a travesty! It’s an out right waste of valuable resource. Administrators are directly responsible for a schools assets and proper use of their resources. This article is but only one example of fraud, waste and abuse. I propose administrators salaries should be cut until they are able to demonstrate a working model for proper use of their librarians and libraries, furthermore, demonstrate that by doing such practice, student grades and skills improve and graduate students reading at grade level. This is one way the school system can ensure test scores improve and allow students to be collage ready.

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