District Leaders Tackle the School Librarian Pipeline

This School Library Month, censorship and loss of library positions are once again hot topics of conversation. But district library leaders across the country are focused on something else as well—bringing qualified educators into the profession.



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April is School Library Month, and as we celebrate school librarians and the spaces they create, library leaders are working hard to bring more educators into the profession.

As library positions are lost in Texas districts and across the country, there is understandable concern about the impact on school librarians nationwide. Another pressing concern—having enough qualified people to fill existing vacancies, and expand the ranks over time. Priming the school librarian pipeline takes work and strategy.

In Columbia, MO, library media coordinator for Columbia Public Schools Kerry Townsend is looking no further than her own district classrooms.

“I definitely think the ‘grow your own’ programs are great,” says Townsend. “I’ve started having webinars and meetings [with district classroom teachers] to talk about the path to becoming a school librarian. I know a lot of other local coordinators are doing that in their own districts, feeling like growing your own is the best way to do this.”

Educators who already know what their districts’ library programs look like and who already take on a leadership role in their school will be easier to interest in the positions, she says. For those who aren’t sure, Townsend’s district allows classroom teachers to be summer school librarians. It’s only four weeks, and the first and last week largely is managing the distribution and return of devices, but “you can do a lot of really fun programming during the middle two weeks.”

The opportunity gives educators a sense of the possibilities of the position and whether they want to pursue it.

An MLIS degree isn’t enough to guarantee someone will be a good school librarian, Townsend says. “You need a strong leader to be in this role.”

New York City Public Schools director of library services Melissa Jacobs agrees.

“I’ve always looked at the school librarian as a type of administrator because you’re serving on a different level than classroom teachers. You’re developing programs [and] you’re serving on leadership teams,” says Jacobs. “You are one of the few people outside of the assistant principal or principal that knows and watches every single student [over] several years grow [into] someone who is then ready to succeed and leave for the next school or graduate and move on to college or a career.”

Then there is the complexity of the day-to-day job itself.

“You need someone who’s a master teacher, who’s good with tech integration, creative; you need to know a lot to be a really successful school librarian right now,” says Townsend.

“We talk a lot in our districts about the art and science of being a librarian. There is an art to putting the right book or the right tool in a kid’s hand. But there’s a science of being prepared to have that conversation before you get to the students. You have to have the books in your library. That’s a scientific process. You have to know literacy and literacy best practices.”

Townsend isn’t the only one trying to find the next school librarians in classrooms throughout her district. New York City has the Teacher2Librarian program, where classroom teachers earn a second certificate as a library media specialist over the course of a year.

“When you’re growing as a teacher, as an educator, you want to look for other opportunities,” says Jacobs. “Your career shouldn’t just stop at the classroom. You might think, ‘Okay, well, the only other direction for me to go is to become an assistant principal, and then a principal.’”

But some educators want to continue to teach without being locked into one classroom or content area. The common thread among candidates Jacobs interviewed was that the idea of being a school librarian re-energizes them about teaching again.

“I see it spark something in them that makes them excited to teach where they may have hit a wall,” says Jacobs.

Many classroom educators see becoming a school librarian as a chance to apply skills learned over the course of their careers in a new and more inventive way.

“There’s so much opportunity as a librarian to serve all different types of students, and to expand your knowledge base, and to apply yourself in new ways,” says Jacobs.

The Teacher2Librarian initiative was paid for through COVID-19 recovery funds. Three cohorts totaling 90 educators were filled before Jacobs lost the funding when the money got reallocated. She is now working on securing a grant to continue the program.



Power of partnerships

Townsend also believes districts could better “grow their own” school librarians through partnerships between districts and local colleges to help interested teachers receive their degrees and certifications to become school librarians. It’s been happening for years in some places. Townsend is “enamored” with a very successful collaboration between Baltimore County and Towson University that has staffed school libraries in Baltimore County Public Schools.

“I think that’s a great model,” she says. “I would love to get something like that going with the University of Missouri.”

In Detroit, an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant funded a program that enable six Detroit classroom teachers to become certified school librarians at Wayne State University.

“There are opportunities [there],” says Townsend.

Increasing the communication between district library leaders and local colleges and universities can help education undergrads and MLIS graduate students consider school librarianship as a profession. In South Carolina, School Librarian of the Year finalist Tamara Cox has partnered with the University of South Carolina, where she received her master’s degree, to recruit new librarians into the field. She regularly hosts informational meetings, speaks with student teachers and education majors, and brings on interns who are finishing their graduate degrees.

In DC Public Schools (DCPS), when advocacy efforts succeeded in putting a certified librarian position in every DCPS school, director of library programs Kevin Washburn had to fill the positions. The district hired people who were in the middle of getting their MLIS degrees. The process highlighted another pipeline issue—it’s not enough to get educators into the positions; they need to stay. The attrition after the first year of hires taught Washburn a valuable lesson about recruitment.

“We had to do a better job of making sure they understood the role that they were taking on,” he says. “It just simply wasn’t enough to list the job duties and provide some relevant insight into what the job is. We actually had to build a stronger system of, here’s what an experienced school librarian does, here’s what a model school library is. I basically built a toolkit for recruiting for the next cycle, which included some articles and videos that showcase what great school libraries are so that individuals who are hired would know what to expect in the job.”

Right now, the primary thing most library science students might know about school librarians is that they are in the news and facing harassment in a position that’s suddenly political and controversial. That may be influencing graduate students’ decisions.

“If you’re interested in being a librarian, and you hear about all of the tension in the community around book bans, that it might change your direction,” says Washburn.

As an adjunct professor at an accredited library science graduate program, Washburn hears students talk about becoming academic librarians or archivists instead of school librarians.

Jacobs, however, says that while NYC is facing book challenges, too, not one Teacher2Librarian applicant expressed concern or hesitation about the job because of the current national climate.

“I have not seen an impact or heard of it impacting people that are in the program, or going through the program, and it has not deterred people from applying and exploring this as another option,” she says. “When we interviewed people last year, for the latest cohort, we had to be about 50 or 60 individual teachers, and not one person brought up fear of banned books. If they did mention [banned books and challenges], it was mentioned in the sense of, ‘I want to be the person that connects kids with books, not the one that takes them away.’ ”


Educating at the top

California has its own unique set of circumstances when it comes to staffing its dwindling number of school librarian positions, including salary incentives that keep educators in their districts.

But California shares one struggle that is common across the country—decision-makers didn’t have a certified teacher librarian or media specialist when in school and/or never worked in a school with a teacher librarian. In short, they don’t know what the job is and don’t know the value of having it done well. California education leaders created instructional coach positions to replace teacher librarians.

“One of the biggest problems that we have is an educational leadership problem,” says Jonathan Hunt, coordinator of library media services at the San Diego County Office of Education. “Those in educational leadership don’t even know what they don’t know.”

There is also a cognitive bias, Hunt says, in which people take their library experience and believe from that, they know the job and value of a school librarian. They have used a public, school, or academic library, so they think they know what a school librarian does.

“But there’s a difference between using a library as a user, rather than being in the system as a designer, right?” says Hunt. “There’s a nuance there that’s lost on people.”

Any solution must involve all stakeholders. Smaller changes don’t actually move the needle, because of the lack of institutional knowledge, he says.

“We can try doing a lot of little things, but my concern is that it’s not going to have as big of an impact unless it’s paired with something that helps a superintendent or a policy maker really understand what’s going on.”

To move up on the salary scale or have a more marketable job skill, educators will often get a masters or a new teaching credential. Considering that, and the lack of librarian knowledge at the administrative levels, Hunt would like to see a new certifications that would allow educators to get their administrator certification and a school librarian certification.

“This is an idea that I’ve explored with a couple of my colleagues and some of the other preparatory programs—we really need a credential that would allow somebody to get a teacher librarian and an administrative services credential.”

Those who pursue the dual credential wouldn’t even have to work as school librarians. If the certification provides an understanding of the job and an appreciation of its value, they could advocate for librarians from their new leadership positions as principals, assistant superintendents, and superintendents.

“If we had people that were built-in allies from the beginning, it could start to mitigate some of the problems,” says Hunt.

As library leaders create and implement strategies, advocacy is needed as well. Washburn says it must come from current school librarians.

“I do worry about librarianship as a whole,” says Washburn. “If we who are in the job and love the job aren’t able to recruit and encourage a new generation of school librarians, that alone will kill the profession. We must step up. We must advocate and lead for the library profession.”

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is senior news editor at School Library Journal.

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