Adjusting to being back in school has obviously been a huge focus of this school year, but it’s not the only challenge librarians have been dealing with. “The greatest concern I have about school librarianship today is the misconceptions surrounding the work we do, which have led to incredibly detrimental decisions for libraries and librarians at the cost of our students,” says Andrea Trudeau, library information specialist at Alan B. Shepard Middle School in Deerfield, Ill.
Trudeau has observed a steady stream of librarian jobs being cut back or eliminated, including in her own district, where the library assistants in all six local schools were reduced to half-time without any input from the library information specialists. “This has seriously impacted the critical work I do in my library and the immense support I work to provide my school community,” she says. “And it steals so many powerful learning opportunities—both academically and socially/emotionally—from our students in a time when they need these supports and offerings more than ever.”
Trudeau has become a strong advocate for school libraries through a variety of efforts in her school, her district, and beyond. “I do not hesitate to share the incredible work we do in our school’s library via various platforms,” she notes. “Twitter has been instrumental for me. I am able to connect with others who are addressing this immense challenge. There’s strength in numbers, and I appreciate having fellow librarians to lament with and problem-solve.”
Advocacy has similarly been a critical issue for K.C. Boyd, librarian at Jefferson Middle School Academy in Washington, D.C., who has been nationally recognized for some of her recent efforts. When school librarian positions in her district were under threat, she was an instrumental leader in a multiyear campaign partnering DCPS school librarians; the Washington, D.C., teachers’ union; and the Black Caucus of ALA with support from AASL, Save School Librarians/EveryLibrary, and others. Their work led to the D.C. City Council passing a budget in August 2021 that ensured that every District school has at least one librarian.
Pointing to another bright note, Boyd says that during the pandemic, “what has shifted is that people are starting to really see what school librarians do, and to be a little more appreciative of the work that we’re doing. And that has been nice.”
Librarian Blake Hopper at Tazewell–New Tazewell Primary School in New Tazewell, Tenn., has succeeded in navigating a few hurdles as the year went on. “My biggest challenge at first was making sure our kids had access to books,” he says. “That is no longer a problem. We now have open library times all day and circulation has increased drastically. One of the largest problems I have now is getting students to work collaboratively. We couldn’t do collaborative work for so long that I think they forgot how. Slowly this has improved, and it is something that should only get better as we start a new year.”
Faith Huff, librarian at Albermarle Road Middle School in Charlotte, N.C., shares her experience grappling with a situation that’s deeply affecting educators and getting national media attention. “As a librarian in North Carolina, one of the biggest issues right now is book challenges and what is considered appropriate for a public school library,” she says. “There are a lot of groups actively working together to pull books out of libraries. I’m in Charlotte, and as a big system, the district is very outspoken about its anti-racist and diverse initiatives. I haven’t had any challenges aimed directly at me, but all the smaller districts have. I have a friend who’s currently trying to work out how to keep people from just walking into her library and taking books. And these are people in the community who do not have children in the school.”
Huff believes that in this type of scenario, “public schools as a whole are being held to an expectation of one type of person. But those aren’t the only people we serve. As a librarian, I have books for every student in my building, and that means that they need to reflect every student in my school. Taking away a book about a queer kid is not going to take away the queer kids; it’s just going to make them feel attacked.”
In D.C. public schools, Boyd says, “we have not received a formal challenge as of today, but it’s not if it’s going to happen, it’s when. We feel that it’s better to be proactive than reactive. We want to have all of our ducks in a row, in the event we receive a challenge, so we will be able to deal with it appropriately, and in accordance with the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom.”
Boyd does this work as part of her district’s Librarian Corps, a coalition of 12 fellow librarians. When she recently spoke in South Carolina, she recalls, “I heard some of the horror stories down there from the librarians and what they’re experiencing and how education policy reform is being shifted to lean towards these book bans. When you look at a more liberal city like ours, we’re not experiencing it, but I know it’s coming.”
The current culture war on books and libraries in our nation is also top of mind for Elissa Malespina, a teacher librarian at Verona High School in Verona, N.J. “Censorship takes many different forms, from challenging books to questioning book displays to librarians’ self-censoring,” she says. “We are all scared as to what will happen next. Our biggest, most pressing issue should be finding ways to make sure all students have a place where they feel safe and secure and that they have access to books and material.”
Huff also faces the obstacle of trying to achieve safety and security for everyone in the school community. “I would say another big challenge is figuring out how to kind of reshape the library, to try and make it a social-emotional space, where kids can come to feel peace, to play a game, to interact with each other,” she explains. “I don’t remember where I first heard the term ‘third space’ in regard to libraries and schools, but I want to make the library a space for kids who are in a million different places, because of the pandemic or because of whatever. There are so many things happening in the world and nationally right now that the kids probably don’t fully understand but are still being affected by. How do I make this a space that is safe for everybody, always, even if I’m not standing right here? I think that’s the biggest challenge: how can the library be a third space for kids who need it, in any way that they need it?”
After a particularly difficult year, Steve Tetreault, co-librarian at the William R. Satz Middle School/Holmdel High School complex library in Holmdel, N.J., echoes the sentiments expressed by many of his colleagues across the country. “Teachers are feeling beaten down, and there doesn’t seem to be any relief on the horizon,” he says. “Every day there seems to be another video of a small group of adults shouting at meetings about how schools are corrupting children. Being called ‘groomers’ and ‘pedophiles’ and all sorts of other names is demoralizing. Although the folks saying these kinds of things are a small minority, the lack of response from the majority to say, ‘Hey, we know that’s not true, so knock it off’ is rough; the silence is deafening.”