When the ALA Annual Conference concludes on June 29, Jennisen Lucas, district librarian for Park County School District #6 in Cody, Wyo., will officially take the reins as the 2021–2022 president of the American Association of School Librarians. She was elected to the position in April 2020 and has served as president-elect in a most unusual year when pandemic restrictions prevented a traditional period of traveling and meeting with school librarians around the country. Like her predecessor, Kathy Carroll, Lucas won’t be celebrating this leadership transition in person with friends and colleagues, as ALA Annual is once again a virtual event. But there have also been bright spots over these past months as Lucas and fellow AASL leaders worked together to address the needs and concerns of their organization’s members. PW spoke with Lucas about how school librarians have fared through it all, and what it will take to meet the challenges that lie ahead.
How have school librarians and AASL weathered the pandemic so far?
There’ve been a lot of good things and some not-so-good things. I think the importance of school libraries has definitely come through in a lot of places. People are starting to see that we aren’t just books, but that we are curators of digital content. It is more about the information—it doesn’t matter how it’s packaged, librarians can help access information and curate it.
A flood of information was shared at the beginning of the shutdown last March. So then [for educators] it became, “I don’t even know what resources to pick.” Librarians were able to step in and say, “These are the ones that are pretty good, and I can take on that role of finding things that might work for you.” That has been really good and has definitely helped our image.
Unfortunately, we are still facing budget cuts related to the pandemic and the economy is still slow. We are starting to see legislation in Michigan, Tennessee, and a few other states requiring a certified librarian in every school. But not everyone recognizes the huge positive impact that a school librarian has on every child, not to mention teacher, in the school.
I like the fact that school libraries are a safe space. Now, as we start to talk about social-emotional learning and coming out of the pandemic, I think that librarians collaborating with counselors and creating those safe spaces, whether virtual or in person, is going to become more and more important. Libraries are not just about the resources that we have for learning; they are also the place where students can come to find a friend in the pages of a book, a friend who is like them or has gone through what they’re going through. Libraries can even be a place to just sit quietly when needed, or a social place to talk to people—something that we really need right now.
AASL has been working very hard through this past year or so to provide a collection of resources and tools through its Pandemic Resources website, and we have done several surveys about how different libraries are coping with these challenging times. To help librarians stay connected, we have also started monthly town hall meetings where we can gather and discuss topics of the times, which, as we know, [encompass] so much more than the pandemic this year! There have been several articles in Knowledge Quest, the AASL publication, and posts on the KQ blog throughout the past year discussing SEL resources and equity, diversity and inclusion.
I personally work in a district that has actually been back in the classroom since the beginning of the school year, but that is not the case for most people across the country. The learners in my district have come back to us with all kinds of needs, and I can hardly imagine the lives of learners in other places who have not had the anchor of school for the past 18 months. After being out of school for only three months during the shutdown, our students are still struggling with how to get organized and how to learn. I think we still have a couple of years that we’re going to be trying to do more after-school activities and offer different tutoring options. I see this as an area where librarians, both school and public, can help.
Around the country, learners are going to be all over the place in terms of what they are able to do academically and socially, because some kids are really good at virtual learning and some are just not. It could take many years to get everyone back on track and recover what we have lost. My son is eight, and he is not good with Mom as his teacher. (I was not a great teacher for him, either.) On top of that, he is an only child, so he missed out on several months of social interactions with peers that we can never really get back. I’m glad we only had to do that for a couple of months, and I worry about the young people who have been virtual for that much longer.
Could you share a bit about what you have chosen for your presidential initiative, and some goals that you have for your upcoming term?
One of my great loves is storytelling. I call myself a pseudo professional storyteller because I don’t always charge for storytelling—it’s a bit of a hobby. I think that now, when there hopefully are going be a lot of conversations about changing the way that we think about education, telling the stories of school librarianship is going to be greatly important. So, what I would like to do with my presidential initiative is to open conversations about what stories we tell and how we tell them in ways that are going to get people to hear and understand the real value that libraries with certified school librarians bring to a school.
Administrators in schools always want to tie things to test scores, and there are many studies that show links between quality school libraries with certified librarians and test scores. I think, however, that there is a new focus on cultural literacies, inclusion and diversity, social-emotional learning, and true equity coming out of the pandemic and all of the other social developments of the past 18 months. It is important to tell the human part of our stories, as often this is the part that will get people to stop and listen. Storytelling plays a leading role in our advocacy efforts—to be able to say, “This is what we do in our library.” I don’t think it’s going to be the data that sells us nearly as much as the story of why school libraries are important, and how we matter to our learners.
What are some of the biggest challenges that school librarians are facing at the moment?
I think that the biggest challenge is still the misunderstanding of our positions and exactly what it is that we do. The idea that we work with information and not necessarily just books still needs to be promoted. We worry about the budgets across the country and the librarian positions being cut, but the challenge is really about how we can advocate and make sure that people know what it is that we do without coming across as sounding like we’re disgruntled. Because most school librarians absolutely love their job; it is a calling in some ways, and we really care about that and we want other people to care about it.
How can you help AASL members facing some of these obstacles?
We have been talking as an AASL board about different ways to help increase our membership engagement. I know for me, the more involved I get in a professional organization, the more I get out of it. AASL used to be a professional organization that I joined to put on my resume. Once I started to volunteer for committees, attend conferences, and even run for office, the organization turned into the network that I turn to for help. AASL is made of those friends and colleagues with whom you can bounce ideas and practice your story because it is about having these conversations and relationships with people who “get it.” We want to increase our membership engagement so that all of our members can experience the network of connections. We’ve been doing town halls that allow people to have a chance to share and talk about what’s going on in their environment and I think that’s been hugely helpful. We are going to continue to do them. It really is all about who you know, the relationships that you build, and knowing that you can contact those people and get some advice.
Learning loss or interrupted learning has been discussed as a big concern for educators and for students and their families. How are you—and your fellow school librarians—responding?
Libraries, especially school libraries, have always been part of intervention and enrichment opportunities. The library is often the place that we have study hall students working to catch up, or dual enrolled students who take college classes. I think that school librarians have been stepping up in the last year, especially, to support and coach teachers about online experiences so our learners are more engaged with virtual lessons. As a culture, we are so used to just consuming media that creating it and making it interactive can be challenging.
From sharing ways to use technology to be more interactive, or providing ideas for constructive off-line brain breaks that continue learning, school librarians have had a chance to show off what they know about versatility, online resources, and how children learn. Because of this chance to gain attention, school librarians have been doing and sharing a lot of research about how we engage students, how students learn, and what we can do to keep them going with summer reading to prevent summer slide.
This is a great time for us to look at how we collaborate with our public libraries, which are open in the evening, to be able to reach some of our learners. It is also a great time to consider other outreach activities that we’re doing with kids in the summer. I know that across the country school librarians have been creating bookmobiles and bike trips and building on the idea of “we’re delivering lunches, so we’re going to deliver books at the same time.” There have been many different services just to try to keep kids engaged and learning. I think these are other ways that we’ve been starting to become more visible in the community as well.
How was your president-elect year, and has Kathy Carroll given you any tips or advice on what to expect?
You know, there’s just been nothing normal about this last year, for anybody in the entire world—that is one thing we can agree on. It has definitely been an interesting year as president-elect because we haven’t had those face-to-face meetings that we normally would have. I’ve done a couple of presentations for virtual conferences, but it’s not the same as getting to sit in a room with people and talk about experiences. You miss out on a lot of great conversations and chances to build relationships, which is a huge part of AASL’s advocacy initiative, because sometimes it’s that going and talking to other people and letting them hear from our leadership that really helps with member engagement. In some ways, being president-elect is just another piece of the year.
Kathy Carroll has been fantastic about working with me. Every time that we talk she says, “Okay, write these down, here’s a couple more things that I need to tell you are coming.” Typically the president-elect year tends to be one in which there’s a lot of waiting because the president is doing most of the visible work. It has just been in the past couple of months that I have felt like I have important tasks. When I have asked Kathy how I can help, she says, “Just organize. This is your year to organize.” It has been really good that she’s given me those lists and her insights. For example, she has told me to keep a running list of blog ideas or things that I would like to be writing about later. Or she has said, “This is what I wish somebody had told me to get ready for,” and she’s very specific about some of it. I’ve been taking really good notes to pass them on to Kathy Lester, who will follow me.
What makes you hopeful about the year ahead?
One of the things that really makes me hopeful about the upcoming year is that there may be some exciting things happening in education. I think that there’s a kind of shift that’s happening nationwide with the new leadership, and there is a feeling that change is in the air. Anytime that there’s a change in federal level leadership, or the state or local level, you get a new opportunity to step forward and start talking and looking at the way that we interact with other people. Though education can be a slow-moving machine, I think we’re going to start to have some really exciting conversations about what we actually want our students to know and be able to do. So, there may be some good changes on the horizon for how we engage with our students and get them to be those lifelong learners that we keep hoping they’re going to be. And yet we need to be a little bit more strategic about making sure that they can do some of those things. In my district, for example, we’ve been doing a lot more talking with local stakeholders about what they are going to want from our students when they graduate and go into the workforce. And the answers that are coming back are that they’re going to need people who can problem solve. Well, guess where they can practice that? The school library. It’s being able to notice those opportunities and get involved. We’re at a turning point and we may be able to offer the table for the meetings instead of just having to pull our seat up to their table.