Dr. Bernstein, you are mistaken…

For anyone who may not know, Dr. Marc Bernstein, the current Superintendent for the Valley Stream Central High School District in Nassau County, NY has some suggestions for Andrew Cuomo when it comes to budgeting education. The most important of these (as far as this blog is concerned) is that it would be in the state’s best interest to consider, “in this Internet age, eliminating the antiquated requirement that all high schools have at least one full-time librarian and a minimum number of books” (Bernstein, 2010).

There has been some backlash and responses to his article, most notably Joyce Valenza’s School Library Journal published (poetic) response. I think Ms. Valenza did a fantastic job articulately expressing what it is that makes school librarians so important to the education system, especially in “this Internet age,” as Dr. Bernstein puts it.

What I find exceptionally disheartening, however, is that while researching who Dr. Bernstein is and what his background has been, I found this old (from 1996) synopsis of an address on technology for public schools. In it, Bernstein is quoted as saying that “Libraries are great places for kids to gather; they’re open in the evening and all have technology. Since kids like to talk, they should plan space to accommodate them and encourage social interaction.”

Given this information, I am left wondering the following:
1) Was Dr. Bernstein suggesting that only public libraries are great places for kids to gather?
2) If this statement was meant to include all libraries, what has happened since 1996 that Dr. Bernstein’s opinion of the library profession has changed? Or, is it that his opinion of the profession hasn’t changed – does he believe we don’t need a certified librarian in the schools but the library itself is important to student life?
3) What, exactly, does Dr. Bernstein think librarians (public, school, academic, special, etc.) do?

Yes, libraries are a great place for kids to gather. They have resources, activities, and space that allows student to work collaboratively in both an academic and non-academic capacity. Libraries can give patrons social outlets that are live and in-person which, in an incredibly digital world, can be invaluable.

What is often left out, however, is that libraries have librarians.

In the past few months it seems I have increasingly come across people who believe that the work of a librarian does not require a master’s degree or certification of any kind. It should not even much matter if you have completed an undergraduate degree so long as you know your alphabet. In theory, a kindergarten student could do all that a librarian does. Why DO we need librarians in the school?

Here is the problem – school librarians live in two worlds. We are both teachers and librarians. This sounds incredibly obvious but the implications are greater than it would seem on the surface. To the average teacher whose time is spent teaching classes, planning for classes, and directly striving to complete curriculum goals and standards, shelving books and ordering materials seems out of place in a school environment. Here is the reality:

In order to provide the best possible services to the students (and staff) of a school, the librarian sometimes has to do “librarian things” like:

* shelve books. This helps the library to stay organized and ensures that access to desired information is not compromised. If the librarian at my practicum site did not shelve books daily, there would be well over 100 books a day piling up at the circulation desk. Putting it back on the shelf means that someone else who might want it can find it.

* order materials. This means that the library is current, that the collection continues to support curriculum, and that any requested materials from students or staff members can be brought into the collection. The “collection” is not just physical books but videos, music, games, and databases. Databases, by the way, provide access to scholarly journals, yes, but they also provide access to popular magazines, eBooks, and resources that would ordinarily cost the library hundreds of thousands of dollars to subscribe to. Plus, having digital access means not having to find physical space to store it all.

*weed. Retiring outdated and/or worn items is just as important as ordering new materials. It keeps the collection current, helps to maintain physical space, and helps to support any changes in the curriculum. Assessing whether or not to renew a subscription to a database means that money isn’t wasted on unused resources.

* check materials in and out. This is pretty self-explanatory but just in case someone needs clarification, the library can only operate well if materials are accounted for. So yes, when anyone in the school borrows something, we need to know. When that item comes back, again we need to know. Since the technology doesn’t yet exist for computers to be psychic, someone has to physically enter the information in the system.

* catalog and complete an inventory. When new materials come in, they have to be put in the system or else there is no record of their existence and no way to track there whereabouts. Completing an inventory helps to ensure that the library catalog accurately represents what is actually in the collection and doesn’t include lost items.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Why do you have to be certified to do these things? Well, it’s a matter of education and experience. I’m certainly not saying that library aides or clerks should be discounted, especially because they help tremendously with the day-to-day operations, but they simply haven’t had the experience of being trained by library professionals. There is a reason the community can’t agree on what to call ourselves – we are school media specialists, teacher librarians, school librarians, library specialists, and information specialists. How would you allocate your budget to best fit the needs of your patrons? What happens if the MARC record of an item is incorrect and it’s necessary to manually input it? How do you assess the success of the library program? How do you weed or order materials while remaining unbiased? How do you uphold the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights in an elementary school? All of these things (and much more) are an important part of a library education and training. We are highly trained and skilled professionals who have chosen to make it our life’s work to help people get the information they need.

On the other hand, school librarians are teachers. We plan lessons. We collaborate with teachers. We support the curriculum and goals of every class in the school. We teach information skills which, in the information age, is really a life skill that all students need in order to become productive and successful members of society. Teaching research skills for term papers is a mere fraction of what we do for our students.

During my practicum (student teaching) hours alone, I wrote lessons on Internet safety and privacy, cyber-bullying, evaluating websites, finding information Google won’t show you, organizing notes, using web 2.0 tools, using social networking sites, how to avoid plagiarism, and respecting copyright laws. I’ve read numerous books to students of all ages (which, sadly, some children don’t get at home even in early elementary school). I’ve helped students find that perfect book for them that not only encourages them to read but helps them gain confidence in their academic skills as a whole. I’ve booktalked titles that students never looked at before that suddenly flew off the shelves. I’ve helped students find the answers to hundreds of questions from “What time is it in London?” to “What do I do if I think my friend is gay?” to “How does a text message get sent?” I’ve tied shoes. I’ve shown students how to reset passwords. I’ve encouraged students to read, to think, to be curious, to be creative, to be outside of their comfort zone, to share, to work together, to make connections, to be original.

These information literacy skills – being able to find information and then having the ability to distinguish the “good” from the “bad” – these are not fluff. These are essential skills in a world where information is flying at students faster than they can send a text message. This knowledge is not innate and using Google to find every answer is not always going to lead to the right information. Someone has to teach students how to do these things and support them as they wade through the process of becoming successful information users.

Someone has to show students the right way to use the Internet because, while Dr. Bernstein implies that everything that used to be in a library can be found on the Internet, not everything is given public access. Not every student can afford to buy an e-book. Even if students have access to free e-books, outside of the confines of the school we can’t be sure that they have the proper technology available to view the material. We can’t even be sure that they have Internet access outside of school.We can’t be sure that every student learns the same way when reading on a screen versus reading on a page. How can we say that we no longer need physical books in the library?

So, while Dr. Bernstein is right in saying that this is “the Internet age,” librarians are far from an antiquated profession. The skills students needed in 1990 in order to find information have evolved into a much larger animal, full of digital pitfalls, virtual dead-ends, and strangers with candy who promise that they will save the tree octopus with your donation. What hasn’t changed is that the public school system serves the public as a whole and provides an education to those who want it. Why would you want anyone except a trained information professional teaching your children when we have no idea what the world will look like in another 20 years? Shouldn’t they, at the very least, have been given the building blocks that tomorrow’s skills are built on?

Sources:

Mepham Alumni Association (1996). Technology at Mepham. Retrieved from http://www.mepham.org/technol.html

Bernstein, M. (2010, November 24). Opinion: What Cuomo can do to improve schools. Retrieved from http://www.newsday.com/opinion/oped/opinion-what-cuomo-can-do-to-improve-schools-1.2492599

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