On March 13, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker announced that schools would be closed for three weeks beginning March 17. Immediately educators, including certified school librarians, realized the enormous loss of learning that could result from the school closures. Members of the Massachusetts School Library Association (MSLA) Advocacy Committee, along with board leadership, immediately considered how the school closures would prevent students, educators, administrators, and parents from receiving direct information and literacy access points and instructional supports. MSLA jumped into action, developing the Massachusetts Virtual School Librarian (VSL). VSL combined database resources and a school library inquiry form on a Libguides webpage. The goal of VSL was to fill the anticipated information and reading literacy needs of all Massachusetts students, educators, administrators, and families.
The MSLA Advocacy Committee asked how MSLA could directly provide informational and reading literacy sources, along with instructional supports, to all Massachusetts students, educators, administrators, and families. Committee members’ efforts began by creating a simple Google Form intended to offer support and answer questions. The form asked for simple demographics to better tailor the answer to a particular school district and grade level. For better organization, the form was designed to section questions between elementary, middle, or high school. We originally opted to post the form on MSLA’s website but soon realized our reach was limited to existing Massachusetts certified school librarians. To be a value to the state, our reach had to be wider to include those districts without a certified school librarian.
To reach a broader audience, MSLA entered into a partnership with the Massachusetts Library System (MLS) and the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC). The MLS offered to host the Virtual School Librarian website. The original Google Form became the “Ask a School Librarian” portion of the site. Because MSLA committed to answering questions within 24 hours, there was a need for many volunteers. Nineteen members volunteered and were quickly organized to support those within the three grade levels (elementary school, middle school, and high school). Three librarians, one at each grade level, monitor the form for incoming questions and provide a comprehensive answer. Volunteers work together using one Google Sheets workbook. The process begins when a Massachusetts user posts a question in the “Ask a Librarian” Google form. The question as well as a bit of contact information is recorded on a Google Sheet. The assigned librarians are responsible to the question. Originally, answers were directly e-mailed. We later transitioned to e-mailing a shared Google Document with open permissions that allowed other librarian volunteers to add to the reply. As a result, those assisted received the benefit of more than one certified school librarian.
In addition to the “Ask the Librarian” portion of the Virtual School Librarian site, the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners added direct links to state-funded databases to the site. Traditionally, statewide database links have been provided through a school, public, or university library. In addition, MBLC offered expertise in web development. Together the three library organizations negotiated and posted additional date-limited free access to educational sources, such as Infobase and Tumblebooks.
VSL’s Usage Stats
The VSL data collected, while small and not generalizable, may offer some insight into remote needs. Most questions come from educators and administrators. Their questions center on information curriculum support, source use instruction, and virtual access. The questions related to online reading literacy access and curriculum support questions have come from administrators, educators, and students. MSLA’s Advocacy Committee will be comparing database usage statistics, noting usage by districts without school librarians. MSLA was encouraged when the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Commissioner mentioned the Virtual School Librarian in his April 21, 2020, issue of his Weekly Update e-newsletter.
The creation of the VSL was not without concern. A few MSLA members wondered if a district would rely on VSL for school library support, leading to an elimination of school librarian positions. The MSLA Advocacy Committee responded by pointing out past research that concludes face-to-face education, rather than virtual instruction, best supports learning. This conclusion extends to school librarians. We recommended concerned school librarians strengthen existing community relationships and offered an editable version of the “Ask the Librarian” form. By incorporating the editable “Ask the Librarian” form into a district’s teaching and learning offerings, it emphasized that their own certified school librarian is available to provide support. Those who planned to use the editable “Ask the Librarian” form commented that both a single or team of collaborating school librarians could better support their entire district’s K-12 community, no matter their assigned school.
VSL’s Advocacy Connection
While the VSL began as a service to our Massachusetts students, educators, and families, the potential for advocacy was not lost on the developers. In the past our attempts to reach out to legislators and education officials to influence the need for school librarians resulted in little change. By offering VSL we can supply not only a product but data that confirms the need for school librarians.
The MSLA Advocacy Committee has always looked for new avenues to communicate the value of school librarians. Historically advocacy has sought to improve educational equity by providing access to information, technology, and reading literacy resources as well as instructional support to all Massachusetts students. Without equitable access, our most vulnerable populations are left without the opportunity for full learning and knowledge-building capacity. Ultimately the question of equity is the choice of each district as many face educational and budgetary challenges. However, given the opportunity, certified school librarians know they can provide evidence to justify their value within a school district’s efforts.
The MSLA Advocacy Committee learned a lot throughout the building of the VSL website. Through our conversations, future considerations for better statewide library organization collaboration emerged. Simply put, the statewide library organizations need to better understand each other’s library role. Those in MSLA need to better inform MBLC and MLS of the curriculum and safety considerations school librarians must take into account when managing and supporting a student population. We all realized better understanding our differences will help collectively strengthen future petitions for state and federal funding.
Predictably, we reaffirmed that, while districts have public library access to state-funded databases, they are inefficacious without instructional support and proper curriculum connections. This begs the question in light of the current school closures and the emerging awareness of disparities between communities: Does access to resources without instruction widen education inequities? Without the capacity for proper instruction and information and reading literacy access are we not placing some educators and students at a greater disadvantage? These questions must be considered as all invested in education must plan for a new normal.
MSLA does not know the future of the Virtual School Librarian site past the COVID-19 experience and a return to face-to-face learning. For now, we remain optimistic. We certainly hope VSL helps our Massachusetts community, but it is really only a band-aid for the larger issue of the need for a certified school librarian in each K-12 school library setting.