Monday, February 13, 2012

I'm not "just" anything

I have been kind of completely and totally overwhelmed at the response to my most recent post; it's amazing to me that something I wrote could resonate with so many people. What's been even more gratifying is the conversations I've been able to have with people about the role and perceptions of school librarians. 

In that post I hinted at--but did not make entirely clear--one of the two words that bothers me most when we talk about images of libraries and librarians.

That word: make.

The point I didn't make clearly enough in that post is that I have no problem at all with the doing what we can to help educators, administrators, and legislators understand what we do and why it's important. I think we should demonstrate, I think we should teach, I think we should share, I think we should tell. I think we should be very deliberate and purposeful about taking our lights out from under the bushel. But those are not the words I most often hear--the word I hear more often than not is "make"--and as a reader and recovering English teacher, I know that verbs matter.

I know, of course, that other parts of speech matter, too. Which brings me to the other word I hear again and again in these discussions, and that bothers me even more.


As in "more than just a librarian." Or "more than just books." That we need to "make" people see that we're more than "just" librarians.

I am often described by colleagues as being "more than just a librarian" and while I know they're trying to be complimentary, it always makes me cringe. Is there something wrong with being "just" a librarian?

It just seems so. . . dismissive. As if being a librarian isn't much to be impressed by.

It seems that people are looking for a term that encompasses more than traditional, stereotypical definitions of what a librarian is. In school libraries in particular, they seem to want a word that encompasses both teacher and librarian--and the term they most often go for seems to be "media specialist." For the record, I hate the term media specialist. I think it makes me sound like a PR consultant. Not that there's anything wrong with being a PR consultant--it's just not what I am. 
We seem to be in a bit of a "redefinition phase" and I think we need to be really thoughtful about the roles we're playing as people make up their minds about the terms they use to describe us, and the definitions attached to those terms. The dictionary definitions of librarian are vague enough that it's really up to us. And beyond the dictionary, it really is up to us as librarians to define who we are and what we do; we won't be able to "make" anyone have a particular definition of librarianship, but our actions will determine the limits of that defintion.

I really hope that the end result of these growing pains is not a new name for what I do, but a new definition of the term librarian. I don't want the idea of librarianship to be limited by "just"; I want to expand the limits of traditional definitions.

I worry, too, about the use of the word "just" when we talk about being about "more than just books." Even though what I do extends far beyond paper books, I don't think that the work I do with connecting readers and books (no matter their format) is anything to be dismissed; it's important work, and it's work I love.
I've heard other school librarians use the term "more than just a librarian" too (usually in the context of "how do we make them see we're more that just librarians). I always find this a little dispiriting--if we won't own the title, how can expect anyone else to?

I don't want a new name for what I do. I love being a school librarian, and I think that title fits perfectly for what I do and who I am.  Rather than looking for a term that means more than "just" a librarian and encompasses all that we do, I would love to see us broaden the definition of librarian to include all that we know librarians do.

I am not "just" anything. I am a school librarian. No more, no less.

Monday, February 6, 2012

"You're not really a librarian"

The other day I got into an "argument" with a student about whether or not I was really a librarian. His position was that I wasn't a librarian--I was actually a teacher who happened to have an office in the library.

It was a weird discussion to be having. As the conversation continued, it became clear that he was, in no small part, trying to annoy me. But I don't think the original statement was meant just to taunt me. We ended up trying to pull in other students to make our respective cases--his that I wasn't a librarian, mine that I really was. The general consensus seemed to be that I was definitely a librarian. And probably also a teacher.

I was thinking about the discussion I had with him, and with other students, in light of one of the phrases I so often hear when it comes to changing the perception/image of school librarians:

"how do we make them see that librarians [fill in the blank]"

This was not a student I know particularly well, nor have I worked with him a lot. He's new to the school this year. There's nothing I've done to try and "make" him see anything. I've just been doing my job the same way I've been doing it for years, and he came to his own conclusions.

We will never "make" anyone understand anything about school librarianship. We will do our jobs, and people will come to conclusions. It is frustrating that our colleagues, our administrators, and our legislators don't always understand our jobs. But there is no position statement or pamphlet that will truly change that. They are carrying with them perceptions of school librarians formed when they were in school.

If we concentrate on our students, our future colleagues, administrators and legislators won't need to be "made" to see anything. They will carry with them the perceptions of school librarians they are forming right now. Which is why we need to hold ourselves--and each other--to a high standard. Unfortunately, there are school librarians out there who are not doing us any favors when it comes to the perceptions of school librarians students will carry into the future.

I have met librarians who say, "this tech stuff is interesting, but it has nothing to do with my job." Or, "collaborating with teachers just takes too much time." Or librarians who express, in dozens of little ways, their general disinterest in students who don't come naturally motivated when it comes to reading and research.

We don't know which students in our library today are going to be future teachers, administrators, or legislators--but I guarantee their rosters are going to include today's unmotivated or struggling students who don't feel welcome in their school library. And by the time they're adults, there's nothing we will be able to do to "make" them change their perception. The only time we have for that is right now, with the students in our schools.

I don't know what to do about school librarians who are unconcerned with the perceptions their students are forming about libraries. It's a bigger issue than I feel equipped to address. So in the meantime I go to my library, and I do my job. And if my students graduate thinking of a school librarian as "a teacher who has an office in the library," I like to think I've done a pretty good job.