In April 2019, Kathy Carroll, lead library media specialist at Westwood High School in Columbia, S.C., was elected as the 2020–2021 president of the American Association of School Librarians. Though she wasn’t able to mark the beginning of her term by celebrating in person with colleagues at the 2020 ALA Annual Conference (which was canceled due to the pandemic), Carroll officially transitioned to her new leadership role in late June. Following AASL’s tradition, Carroll has been an active participant in the association’s work as president-elect for the past year, which entailed visiting a number of state chapters. She’s stepping up as president in an unprecedented time, when it seems the school librarian profession has simultaneously never been more vital or more threatened. She spoke with PW about how she is trying to envision the year ahead.
How have things been going for you with all that has been happening this summer?
For the first time ever, I didn’t have a summer break. Of course, some of that is being newly installed as president, but also just because of my day job. I have been continuously getting updates, seeing what needs to be done and how we’re going to pivot for the fall. It’s something that I didn’t anticipate—there has been no downtime.
I’ve worked more in the last few months than I have in quite a while just trying to keep up—to keep up with technology, attending webinars and meetings, and preparing for our reopening. I’ve also been working on AASL president responsibilities including pandemic resources and facilitating town halls. I’m just tired. And maybe some people think that I’m too upbeat, but I just feel that everyone’s under so much stress right now, we have to be kind to each other. We know what the baseline of the stress is because we’re all experiencing it, but we don’t know what other things people have on top of that. So, being as generous as we can be toward each other is what we need to exhibit right now.
I understand that we all handle stress and uncertainty differently. Still, it’s sad that a lot of times people mistake kindness for weakness, and I’m thinking no, it takes more strength to be kind and upbeat and optimistic in this darkness than it does to just grumble and be mean and complain.
Can you talk about your presidential initiative and your goals for your presidential term?
Ironically, my presidential initiative is cultural sensitivity. That was what I had thought of last year as president-elect. This focus is now more important than ever, considering recent events in our country and around the world. I’m glad I chose this as my presidential focus, but I am now revamping how I plan to address this throughout the upcoming year. I’m not certain how this will look, but I think not having all of the answers is the world’s new reality. But I’m very excited to explore the possibilities. Cultural sensitivity last June  and cultural sensitivity in August 2020 are very different.
In light of the Covid-19 crisis, how will your initiative look different than you imagined?
I’m reaching out to others, to experts in the field. People who understand the necessity of [cultural sensitivity] have already laid the groundwork in implementing it, and those are people I’m currently talking to, to devise a strategy to move forward that will be most effective for our members. I have great thinkers helping me figure this out, and I’m excited to begin implementing this initiative in the near future.
There have been many discussions in the media lately about how librarians and teachers are addressing the Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality, and social justice marches with students. Is this something that would have been under your umbrella of cultural sensitivity originally?
I was going to cover several topics, but all of these issues have recently come to the forefront, so my focus has definitely shifted. We’re the only national professional membership organization focused on school librarians and the school library community. Moving forward we have to appreciate and embrace the diversity of our membership and our learners. These last few months have shown me that my presidential initiative is extremely important, and I have made adjustments as the national conversation has changed. Ultimately, I just think it would be irresponsible for us to deny our reality, so through my initiative I hope to provide resources and have conversations that will benefit all of our members and the profession.
How have you seen school librarians respond to the pandemic so far?
I’ve always been proud to be a librarian, but never felt more so than during this time. Librarians have always been at the forefront of teaching and learning. I still cannot believe how quickly everything changed. For example, I’m a high school librarian and, at my school, on a Friday we were told that when we went home we would be out for maybe a week or two. That was my assumption, that we would be out for a short period of time. But we never returned for the rest of the school year! Seemingly overnight, librarians across the country pivoted to embrace the virtual space and developed ways to continue teaching and learning. Research projects continued, book clubs went virtual, teacher collaborations were ongoing. We also looked for new ways to supplement this new learning platform, by reaching out to vendors who were especially generous during this time. We took to social media to share resources; we wrote blogs and articles. With the public libraries, we had partnerships, but more importantly we united in support of each other.
And AASL continues to provide resources. We held town halls throughout the spring, and we’re going to continue into the fall. Also, because so many of us were overwhelmed by the massive shifts in our world and the sudden isolation for so many of our learners, we also addressed their social emotional learning and gave them a safe place to visit. I heard about teachers who had daily readalouds, virtual craft classes. One librarian even played Trivial Pursuit with her learners every day at a specific time, so they would know that there’s somebody out there that they could depend on every day. This experience has highlighted librarians’ flexibility, resilience, and importance to education.
What are some of the biggest challenges school librarians are facing now? How can you help your membership address these in your role as AASL president?
I think librarians are like everyone else in the world right now in that we are operating in a space that has many questions and not many absolutes. For example, many educators are still in limbo as to how they will return at the start of this new school year. It’s the uncertainty that makes it challenging to move forward to make definitive plans. Still, we’re flexible, and fortunately there are many resources available to assist us in preparing, regardless of the final decisions. For example, librarians have been closely following the CDC’s recommendations for school openings, and states and districts have been feverishly working on plans customized for their learning communities. And I’m especially proud of the resources available through AASL. Our Pandemic Resources for School Librarians page is an evolving resource that provides information that will help librarians circumvent some of the many challenges that we will have going forward. I think by relying on our colleagues and our association, and adhering to national, state, and local guidelines, we’re going to continue making a difference in our learning communities.
Did AASL past president Mary Keeling share any tips or advice with you as you came into the presidency?
First of all, Mary is a very organized person. She’s ridiculously intelligent, competent, an expert in the field, but she’s a methodical person as well. And so, she said keep a schedule—keep a schedule and pace yourself. She also talked about self-care. But, finally, she said that when you are in the midst of something, you often forget to enjoy the journey. She said it’s a lot of work, but it’s fulfilling and it’s going to have an impact. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience and it’s an honor. Enjoy it, try to have fun. And I thought, “Wow, that never occurred to me, enjoy it! What a novel thought. I guess I can.” That was a good takeaway.
What makes you hopeful about the school librarian profession?
Well, some people are still not aware of the role of school librarians, so they may underestimate how integral we are to education. They underestimate our contributions. Yet I know who we are and what we do, and so we have the ongoing responsibility to advocate for our profession. But in the midst of all of that, we’re just going to persevere, because that’s what we do. I think this pandemic is going to highlight who we are, because I never cease to be amazed by how adaptable and how professional and creative librarians are. We do whatever it takes to accomplish our task to work with our learners and teachers.
I feel hopeful about our future because of who’s in our profession. We have such hard workers, great thinkers, innovators. I feel hopeful because, while during this crisis we are facing many uncertainties, our contributions are apparent. Librarians are persistent, and we’re not going to give up, and we’re going to do everything possible to help our learners and teachers. Right now, our circumstances may be somewhat uncertain, but that’s true for the rest of the world. But ultimately, I have to believe that people will see what we bring to the table and that it’s going to work out. And AASL will be there for school librarians every step of the way to help.