You Have to Make Choices Sometimes

“You have to make choices sometimes, and the importance of librarians is a bit less than it used to be,” said Ze’ev Wurman, a Silicon Valley executive who participated in the development of California education standards and served as a policy adviser for the U.S. Department of Education. “In the elementary grades especially, librarians are essentially teacher’s aides, doing a variety of things that have little to do with books or literacy, per se.”

I just re-read the statement in the January 2nd San Francisco Chronicle article, “Fewer California Schools have Trained Librarians.” that made me sigh in January and my school library advocacy hackles rise up then and now. In California, it is quite likely that Wurman has mostly observed elementary libraries staffed by teacher’s aides, not librarians. Connie Williams, advocacy activist and AASL Legislative Committee Chair posted in an AASLForum e-mail that California has 6,000,000 students, 9,000 schools, and 895 credentialed librarians in the 2010/2011 school year. No wonder Wurman does not see the real impact that school libraries have on students!

I have long believed that it is crucial for every school librarian to make a choice. That choice is not whether to have a strong program or not, it’s whether to make the effort to make that strong program visible. I’ve been sold on the AASL definitions  of Advocacy, Public Relations and Marketing since they were published about 2006. What is advocacy?  It’s the “on-going process of building partnerships so that others will act for and with you, turning passive support into educated action for the library program. It begins with a vision and a plan for the library program that is then matched to the agenda and priorities of stakeholders.” We need to convince decision-makers like Mr. Wurman of our worth but support for our programs and positions will only happen if we develop a cadre of supporters–advocates—who will speak for us.

It’s really easy to be involved in the day-to-day business of our libraries. We are busy. We work with teachers, select the best materials for our students and staff, and teach our students the 21st century skills they need to use. However, it’s budget preparation season in most schools right now and it’s going to be a touch year for budgets; it’s going to be a tough year for school library positions.

Everyone working in a school library needs to step back, reflect on what your program and you do for your students, how that relates to the needs of your school, and make a plan…a promotion and marketing plan.  It’s our job to market and promote our program, no one else’s. The resources there to help us are available from many sources, seven toolkits from AASL alone. But you must make it personal…your district or your school working together. Invite school advocates (students and staff) to help you plan.

Just make a choice.

Sara Kelly Johns About Sara Kelly Johns

Sara Kelly Johns ( is the school librarian at Lake Placid (NY) Middle/High School, and knows that she has the best job in the school. She is also an instructor for the Mansfield University School of Library and Information Technologies and speaks and writes about school librarian activism. Find her on Twitter as @skjohns or on Facebook.


  1. Doug Johnson says:

    We’ll all be expecting brilliance on a regular basis. But no pressure.

    I look forward to reading your thoughts,. Good luck with this project. I’m subscribed.


  2. I have to share this fun video we created for the Palm Beach County and Broward County School Library Programs. It was shown at the FAME (Florida Association of Media Educators) conference several years ago. It’s all about the MANY jobs of the school librarian!

    • Sara Kelly Johns Sara Kelly Johns says:

      I LOVE this video, Riley, and will share it tonight with my Mansfield school library students. Fun with a point….

      • Thank you, Sara! I hope your students enjoy it. The funny (um…sad) thing is we originally created it to show administrators the importance of the school librarian!

  3. As Doug said, no pressure… but we are expecting brilliance (even if on an irregular basis).
    Go, girl!

  4. Gary Hartzell says:

    All right, Sara! Best of luck with the project.

  5. Sara Kelly Johns Sara Kelly Johns says:

    Brilliance? Good thing I know some very smart people who don’t hesitate to speak their minds! Thanks for the good wishes.

  6. Nancy White says:

    Great post! So true. We all need to step up and accept the challenge to educate as many people as possible on the vital role school librarians play in developing student’s 21st century skills.

    Jefferson County School district in Colorado is considering eliminating library positions and the teacher librarians have done a tremendous job educating the community why this would be a mistake. Check out their school board presentation here:

    • Sara Kelly Johns Sara Kelly Johns says:

      I follow Support School Libraries on Facebook, Nancy, so shared the news of last Friday’s win. Jefferson County knows how to “Make Some Noise!” Thanks for sharing the school board presentation. I’m in for the fight….whatever I can do to help, that help is yours.

  7. Susan Polos says:

    Great news! I am following your blog, Sara, so happy and grateful. I am also making the choice to advocate every day – with a healthy dose of reflection tossed in as well.

  8. You are “making noise” is the best way possible! I look forward to the many conversations…
    I like your formula for advocacy. Let’s spread the word :)

  9. Wurman’s concluding statement in a “NY Times” article:

    “Our problem is not saving through cutting librarians. Our problem is the widely used ideological and inefficient teaching methods, and the large number of remedial classes that don’t remediate. No number of books or librarians will instill literacy in high school children who can’t read.”

    Too bad that Wurman doesn’t do a little more reading like the research that says:

    “Our research also indicates that these lower reading scores can’t be blamed on cuts to other school staff. Regardless of whether there were fewer classroom teachers schoolwide, students in states that lost librarians tended to have lower reading scores—or had a slower rise on standardized tests—than those in states that gained librarians.”

  10. Thank you for sharing this article and starting this blog. I was very disappointed to read Mr. Wurman’s quote. Whether or not he was actually meeting trained professionals while doing research for this statement (hopefully some research was done) his statement and his policy decisions affect the hiring and sustaining of professional school librarians across the country.

    I currently work as a Children’s Library Associate in the DC Public Library system. Although I have training as a Reading Specialist, a Master’s degree in Reading Education, and experience as a classroom teacher, I really do believe a good children’s librarian, and in particular, a good elementary school librarian can do the most to improve a public school’s reading culture, and reading test scores if he or she is given a chance.

    I believe in this so much that I have co-founded a 501(c)(3) nonprofit called EnjoyReading which is dedicated to bringing circulating books to low-income public schools without school libraries in DC. (More at And I may eventually become one of those school librarians Mr. Wurman believes are so unnecessary to improving literacy…

  11. Gary Hartzell says:

    Above, Rachel Scheer wrote: “…I really do believe a good children’s librarian, and in particular, a good elementary school librarian can do the most to improve a public school’s reading culture, and reading test scores if he or she is given a chance.”

    Here’s the rub: “……if he or she is given a chance.” That is the impetus of a deadly cycle that stymies library promotion. Because they are under-funded, under-staffed, or wrongly-staffed, school libraries cannot fulfill their potential. Because they can’t fulfill their potential, educational decision-makers don’t perceive their full value. Because decision-makers don’t perceive libraries and librarians to be as valuable as (let alone more valuable than) some other personnel or programs, and because they live in a financially limited zero sum world where they must make choices, they choose to commit their resources to those other programs and people that they perceive as showing more promise. Because they do that, the library remains under-supported and unable to fulfill its potential.

    And on it goes. I think this helps explain why, despite more than twenty years of intensive advocacy efforts primarily aimed at administrators and school boards, school libraries and librarians are no better off than they were in the early 1990s.

    Perceptions predispose choices – and social psychology research long ago demonstrated that perceptions, like relationships, are more easily created than changed. District and school administrators think in LOCAL terms. They already have imbedded perceptions of libraries and librarians. Evidence that libraries make a difference SOMEWHERE ELSE seems unlikely to make an impression on them sufficient to change those perceptions.

    Worse, even if local administrators are convinced of the library’s value, administrators are transient. Unless their support is captured early in their tenure at a given school or district, AND unless they stay as many years as it takes for the library’s and librarian’s impact to be felt – and thereby generate the local evidence that libraries make a difference – whatever support they provide is likely to be lost when they move on. Then the whole campaign to convince a new superintendent or principal must begin again.

    It doesn’t seem to me that this cycle can be broken by trying to convince only in-place locally-focused decision-makers that there is evidence out there that libraries can make a difference. It seems to me that library advocacy efforts need to target the people who prepare administrators for their positions. If, because of the cycle outlined above (and a combination of other powerful forces), administrators are unlikely to become convinced of the library’s value while on the job, then it may make sense to try to create a situation where administrators are already convinced of library potential when they arrive.

    As far as I can see, this means a concerted effort is needed to influence the professors who teach educational administration at the university; the professors who do much to shape a beginning administrator’s professional perceptions. Because they are not tied to a single K-12 school or district – and because research production and consumption are facets of their jobs – professors tend to accept and use more broad-based research than do locally-focused administrators. If EdAd professors can be convinced that libraries can make a difference, they will probably teach their students that libraries and librarians can make a difference, and that may well produce a cadre of administrators who begin their careers with positive perceptions. Perceptions predispose choices.

    Sara’s right: we all have to make choices. But that notion should not be limited to discussions of the resource-commitment choices administrators have to make in trying to identify the people and programs most likely to affect student achievement in the long run. It should also include discussions of the resource-commitment choices librarians have to make in trying to identify the people and programs most likely to promote library support in the long run.

    It seems to me that some librarians may be making the same kind of mistake that some administrators are making. Perhaps both are suffering from limited perceptions: administrators are limited by their perceptions of what libraries can offer; library advocates are limited by their perceptions of who influences administrator perceptions.

    (Please forgive the CAPITALIZATION above. I don’t want it to seem like I’m shouting. It’s just that the site won’t support italic, bold, or underline formatting)

    • Thanks so much for starting this blog, Sara. And, thanks to Gary Hartzell for encouraging us to think outside our usual sphere in considering where to target our advocacy efforts. It is sadly so true in California, especially, that most observers like Wurman and most school administrators have no personal experience with the work of a credentialed teacher librarian and therefore have no concept of what students are really losing in those many schools without them. Let’s all make a commitment to work to spread our message to school administrator programs and others outside our normal sphere as we, of course, also continue to advocate on the local level.

  12. Doug Achterman says:

    Thank you for the provocative quote from Mr. Wurman. It was Connie Williams’ idea to invite him to a meeting of the minds focusing on ICT and its impact on teaching and learning. Perhaps he will change his mind about the importance of school libraries. Perhaps not. But at least we can hear the perspective, understand it, and respond to it.

    Looking forward to your posts, Sara!

  13. Gary Hartzell says:

    Jane Lofton writes above: “ …work to spread our message to school administrator programs and others outside our normal sphere as we, of course, also continue to advocate on the local level.”

    I think that Jane is right on the mark. Changing the thinking patterns of the people who train administrators will take years. Most educational administration professors are former school administrators and they bring their field perceptions of libraries into the university with them. The first step will be to expose them to the library impact research results and convince them that libraries really are the underutilized tools librarians know them to be. Once that is accomplished, more time will be required for them to integrate that into administrator training curricula.

    Assuming these professors will be successful in persuading their aspiring administrative students that libraries are valuable, it will take several more years before a critical number of those students actually become administrators.

    Unlike most teacher education graduates, many administration program graduates have to – or choose to – wait some period of time before assuming their first administrative positions. Virtually no brand new administrator becomes a superintendent. Some newly minted elementary administrators may move into a principalship as their first job, but most won’t. In secondary schools, most new administrators begin their careers as assistant principals, and only about a third of those ever actually become principals.

    One of the difficult forces to muster in an expanded advocacy strategy will be patience. If universities began turning out library-literate supportive administrators tomorrow, it still would be a decade and more before anything approaching a critical number of them occupy senior authority positions. This kind of advocacy shift might not produce discernable results for fifteen to twenty years. But if it isn’t begun now, positive results will still be fifteen or twenty years more in the coming whenever it is begun.

    In the meanwhile, local level advocacy will play a dual role in an expanded advocacy environment – the one it does now to improve immediate conditions in schools and another in influencing administrators who work part time at universities. Many currently practicing administrators also serve as adjunct instructors and professors in EdAd degree and credentialing programs at administrator training institutions. Spending their days out in the schools, they are not available to the university-grounded library media and library science professors who probably will have to become the primary advocates working on Ed Ad professors. Bringing adjuncts around may take longer and continuing in-house advocacy efforts will contribute to achieving that goal.

    Throughout all this – and, indeed, even after a new perspective evolves in administrative thinking – building collaborative working relationships and advocating for campus and district level support will continue to be crucial. There are few things more important to a local school librarian’s professional well-being and effectiveness (actually, to ANY working professional educator’s well-being and effectiveness) than commanding respect and maintaining strong professional relationships. Until enough new library-valuing administrators come into the field to make the critical difference, influential relationships with local principals and superintendents will remain the leading edge of advocacy.

    The bottom line here, it seems to me, is that librarians need to continue what they are doing now, but accept the reality that by itself it is insufficient to achieve their long range goals.

  14. Beverly Choltco-Devlin says:

    Has this man ever stepped foot in a vibrant school library. It says he helped develop the California Education standards. Has he ever even looked at the number of research studies that show that having an effective school library and is one of the single biggest indicators of success….”the importance of librarians is a little less than what it used to be” – this statement alone clearly indicates how out of touch this man is with what is happening in school libraries these days and the crucial role that school librarians play in teaching information literacy skills. In most schools with a dynamic trained school librarian, the other faculty members are also taught information literacy skills by the school librarian teacher. The administrators and school board members also need to be brought up to speed. Finally the selection a Silicon Valley executive to help develop educational standards shows a complete and utter disregard for the professional expertise of those trained in education rather than business. Yes, businesses should provide input but should NOT be developing standards. Though of course related (ostensibly for the purposes of making sure today’s students are ready for tomorrow’s jobs), it is a huge mistake to equate and envision education solely as a means to create a workforce. Finally as it seems firmly established that we have moved from an industrial age to an information age, I would argue that the school librarian (trained in teaching students how to find and more importantly evaluate information) is the single most important teacher role in any school.