What If We Were “Just Book Slingers”?

An image of the Northridge Elementary School Library (Fair Oaks, CA), which offers "over 6,000 books and magazines for...students to choose from."

An image of the Northridge Elementary School Library (Fair Oaks, CA), which offers “over 6,000 books and magazines for…students to choose from.”

Perceptions versus Reality

Okay – WE all know that school librarians are the “Swiss Army knives of education.” (Thanks for that phrase, guest on School Librarians United!) But too many people are confused about the many diverse aspects of being a school librarian in a school setting. Too often, people believe school librarians’ central, and perhaps only, function is to check books in and out.

School librarians know that’s not even close to the truth. But imagine for a moment that it was. Even if the only thing school librarians focused on was the physical collection, school librarians would STILL provide some of the best return-on-investment a school could buy. 

“…Let Me Count the Ways!”

IF school librarians did nothing but mind the books in the library, what value would they add to the school? Let’s consider what’s involved in the physical management of the collection, and what benefits that management bestows. 

Task: Lending books

Benefit: Increases literacy

If this was literally the only task a school librarian carried out, it’s still incredibly powerful. As Dr. Stephen Krashen recently found in a longitudinal literacy study, “School libraries are the only thing that matters when it comes to closing the gap that exists in literacy levels when poverty comes into play” (EveryLibrary 2021). These findings echo those of Keith Curry Lance’s research on the effects of school libraries (ibid). Putting books into students’ hands increases not only students’ reading, but also helps to build up a culture of reading. Kids see peers carrying around books and reading and get curious. Books that start to circulate tend to keep circulating. So getting a book into a student’s hand is no small thing. 

Task: Maintaining records

Benefits: Identifies which materials are in use, how frequently, and where they are

What items are out? Which titles are due back? What has gone missing? Which volumes need repair? The physical collection represents a profound amount of money. School librarians’ record keeping when they lend out materials is equivalent to a bank’s record keeping on loans. Folks don’t expect a lot more out of that division of the bank, but they sure do expect a lot more out of librarians! 

Task: Reshelving books 

Benefits: Keeps materials accessible

They don’t get to where they’re going by themselves! And if they’re not where they belong, they’re lost, and therefore of no use to anyone. It takes time, energy, and knowledge to get items where they belong. It’s also important to be able to point people to where those materials are. Misplaced items might as well be destroyed for all the good they’re doing the staff and students. Reshelving borrowed books also increases the return on investment in that book, the more people who use it, the more cost-effective that book is! 

Task: Organizing materials

Benefits: Increases accessibility for students and staff

Whether you are a Dewey hold-out, an LCC user, or a genrefier, your library has to have some sort of overarching organizing principles. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter if items are in the right place on the shelves, because no one would know what shelves to look at!

Task: Ordering materials

Benefits: Addresses the specific needs of students and staff

What books need to be replaced? Which materials will supplement students’ classroom learning? What could prove helpful to classroom instructors? Which are the latest and greatest titles that will engage students? Answering these questions requires the school librarian to have a finger on the pulse of the school. It requires frequent communication with students and with staff. Keeping the collection current and connected to what students are doing both in and out of the classroom helps them expand their knowledge beyond the confines of the curricula. That’s the first stone on the path to self-directed inquiry learning–which should be the goal of any learning institution! 

Task: Curation 

Benefits: Maintains a sleek, high-quality collection

If there wasn’t careful selection of materials, the library would look like the home of a hoarder. Getting rid of outdated, damaged, or non-circulating materials is vital to maintaining the “health” of a school library. A bloated library is harmful to its users. It prevents them from quickly finding what they’re looking for. It turns them off from even wanting to try! Ensuring the best materials are available makes the library an essential tool in learners’ kits. Curation also makes sure teachers have helpful, useful professional development materials to hand–an invaluable service for educators! 

…But Wait: There’s More!!

The above list doesn’t even touch on making the library pretty! Building displays! Capturing attention! Getting kids excited about materials they didn’t know they wanted to read! Providing them with a safe space! 

These are also important parts of keeping the collection circulating. As with so many things, when they’re done well, they blend seamlessly into the background. But just as Simone Biles didn’t just jump into the air one day and magically find herself doing a double layout with a half turn, even though she makes it look as easy as breathing, so too do school librarians pull off amazing feats that seem very simple to those passing by.

These affect the entire school

All of the above tasks circulate thousands of dollars in materials, liberating them from a single classroom, or a particular subject area. They impact every student and every instructor. Studies show they improve student outcomes across multiple measures.

Which other teacher in the building works with every student in the building? What other teacher in the building works with every other teacher–across all departments? I’m having trouble coming up with any besides “School librarians.” 

…And That’s Just the Warm-Up!

All of the above tasks JUST focus on the book-minder aspects of school librarianship. They don’t scratch the surface of so many other important areas of knowledge school librarians provide:

  • Digital citizenship 
  • Information literacy skills
  • Research skills
  • Technology leadership and training
  • Makerspace initiatives
  • Digital materials curation
  • Curation of non-book materials

…as well as dozens of other skills, learning opportunities, and abilities. 

More Than a One-Trick Pony!

EVEN IF school libraries were stuck in a time-warp, trapped in the 1970s, the school library is still one of the most important spaces in the school. And school librarians would still be an incredible value for every school building. 

The next time someone calls you “just” a book-slinger, sling some knowledge their way. Point out the stunning return on investment school librarians provide to their schools! 

“Oh yeah? Prove it!”

Here are a few additional tools to help share knowledge about the many functions of school librarians: 

If you have other resources to share, please be sure to leave a comment! 

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Author: Steve Tetreault

Steve has been teaching for over 20 years, mostly middle school English Language Arts. He has earned an M.Ed. (2006) and an Ed.D. (2014) in Educational Administration and Supervision, and completed an M.I. degree in Library and Information Science (2019). He is certified as a teacher, school library media specialist, supervisor, and administrator. He is an old dog constantly learning new tricks!



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