Kathy Lester, school librarian at East Middle School in Plymouth, Mich., will step into her role as the 2022–2023 president of the American Association of School Librarians at the conclusion of the ALA Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. on June 28. She will happily mark this occasion in person following two years of virtual ALA Annual conferences due to Covid restrictions. PW spoke with Lester about what it’s been like for her and her fellow librarians to navigate the latest phase of the pandemic and her plans to lead the AASL as the profession faces significant and seemingly ever-mounting stressors.

Could you talk about what you have chosen as your presidential initiative?

What I’m trying to do is have a focus tied to our strategic plan. If I were to put a name around it, it’s “strengthening relationships to support equity.” I really have a passion for the AASL vision statement, which is “every school librarian is a leader; every learner has a school librarian.” As part of that, AASL has already started to build some really great relationships and partnerships, within ALA, outside of ALA, and with our members, as well. I want to continue that and strengthen that.

As some detail, we’ve had a partnership with ASCD [Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development] and we’ve just published an AASL Standards crosswalk [an approach for comparing and aligning two sets of standards to achieve common goals] with the ASCD Whole Child Tenets, trying to advocate for the fact that school librarians support the whole child. We’ve had a good relationship with the National Media Literacy Alliance and through that the National Association for Media Literacy Education. We want to continue to build up that relationship and AASL will be presenting at their conference this summer.

And we also have a partnership with Project THRIVE, which is an organization designed to increase awareness and provide resources to address needs of LGBTQ youth. We feel that it’s important to continue that relationship, especially right now. In fact, in February, AASL signed on to a national letter with other organizations to come out publicly against some of these legislative bills that would be harmful to our LGBTQ youth.

We’ve also just announced another [cohort] of administrators for our School Leader Collaborative, which helps us build partnerships with national administrator groups to make sure they understand the role of the school librarian. We’ll continue to have new rounds of administrators joining the Collaborative and we're hoping to leverage them.

Inside ALA, we’re trying to work with the ALA Public Policy and Advocacy Office. They have an ALA policy corps, and they have been adding school librarians to it. Part of my initiative is to strengthen that relationship and make sure that we’re aligning some of the AASL goals, and those school librarians on the policy corps can help us advocate for those things. And tied to that is our relationship with our state chapters, and with AASL members, building up their leadership capacity. The thing about education is a lot of decisions are made locally. There’s only so much that the federal government can do in terms of defining certain educational policy. So, we really want to make sure AASL is supporting our state chapters and our advocates in states and in their local districts. I’ve been very involved in a lot of work here in Michigan and there are great advocates from different states as well. I’m hoping that we can create a new space for a group within the ALA Connect Space where we can share resources, have periodic meetings, and we can leverage the strengths of our members to advocate and help each other.

This has been an atypical academic year in many ways, with a majority of schools across the country returning to in-person learning. Has that made for an unusual year as AASL president-elect? What was this year like for you gearing up for your presidential term?

We were able to gather at the AASL national conference in Salt Lake City. It was wonderful to meet there in-person as a board. And at the conference itself, there was a lot of excitement about being able to connect in person and learn. We had on masks and we tried to be really safe. Fortunately, it was in October where it was at one of the lull points of the pandemic, so we were lucky in that regard. Jennisen Lucas [AASL past president], Laura Hicks [former AASL board member], and [AASL executive director] Sylvia Norton all went to the ASCD conference in person to roll out our crosswalk and talk to people. I also went to one state chapter conference—New Hampshire—in person so far. Little by little we’re getting back to normal.

But gearing up for a new year has had some challenges. Because of the pandemic, the budgets of ALA and AASL have been impacted. It’s not that they’re in bad shape by any stretch, but I feel like we have a slim kind of year moving forward. So, thinking ahead, in terms of planning and trying to make decisions on what we can and can’t do, we have to always keep that in mind. The conference in Salt Lake City was a moneymaker, it was successful. But would it have been more successful without the pandemic? Yes. I don’t think there’s any question. And it’s the same with ALA—it’s been two years where their annual conference has been virtual.

How has the political climate affected your planning for your coming term?

This is one of the things that falls under the educational policy part of AASL’s strategic plan. In some of the states, attacks on school libraries and school librarians are coming from legislatures. This is a case where a partnership with ALA is really important, because they have a larger reach and more impact. For example, school librarians have been involved in helping to conceive the new ALA initiative Unite Against Book Bans. We need to make sure that the voice of the school librarian continues to be heard in those groups

We need to make sure that the voice of the school librarian continues to be heard.

What are some of the biggest challenges school librarians are facing today, and how can you help your members navigate those?

There are different challenges facing the school library profession overall as well as school librarians who have positions within schools. If you look at the research project being conducted by Deb Kachel and Keith Curry Lance—I’m actually one of the advisers on that project—you’ll see that not all schools are losing school librarians. But what’s disheartening is that the kids who need school librarians the most face the biggest loss of librarians. It’s in low-income communities, in districts with Spanish-speaking students and different marginalized groups. That is a challenge for our profession, and we hope that some of our efforts can help state and local advocates try to turn some of those trends around.

Within schools, now that our libraries are reopened, we have the challenge and the opportunity to support our students’ social-emotional health. I do think that’s something that school librarians are equipped to do. Partnering with our teachers, and partnering with our counselors in our schools, there are a variety of ways school librarians can support that. I’m at a middle school and teachers are saying that there are more behavior issues than there have been in the past. I’m on some of the leadership committees in my school, and I can help provide resources and be part of the overall school team to help mitigate some of those things.

I still see the learning loss issue as something that we’re going to have to pay attention to. I don’t think in going back to school this year that the kids have regained all that they’ve lost yet. We can help provide enrichment opportunities and support our teachers and our students.

And, of course, the book challenges are an ever-present problem. There’s this big issue about parent rights. But from my point of view, parents have always had rights. A parent can come in at any time and talk to me about what they want or don’t want their child to read. I think it’s a bigger issue when they come in and want to say what all children can’t have access to. It’s the same thing with curriculum. Teachers always send home information, and our curriculum is on our website. We have an open house night where parents can come in and see what’s going on at the school. I do think that having that in-person event gives parents more of a sense of comfort, and they can get their questions answered.

At AASL we’re going to continue our monthly town hall format because we feel like there has been some success where we get a feel for current issues and we can make sure we’re getting input from members and getting support for members. That’s one way we can help them navigate various challenges.

What keeps you hopeful about your profession in these challenging times?

I think there are a couple of things. Number one is the students, our youth⁠—I think there is a lot of hope in them. They’re really passionate, and we’ve seen different youth groups standing up against challenges. I also see that there is hope in that there are more people realizing the importance and impact of school librarians and the need for school libraries. I’ve seen that in my own state where, according to Keith Curry Lance’s data, Michigan is one of the states where we hit [back]? bottom in terms of losing librarians, but then we started increasing our numbers a little bit because people are like, “Whoa, well, maybe we do need this.” Recently, the International Literacy Association put out a brief about the essential leadership role of school librarians in literacy. And they put it out during School Library Month specifically. I see different groups like that standing up for the need for school librarians, so that keeps me hopeful as well.

Is there a key piece of advice that you’ve received from your predecessor, Jennisen Lucas?

Jennisen is a wonderful storyteller and I’m not so sure that I’m as good at that as she is. But she’s been really helpful in reviewing ideas and giving her input and reminding me to just keep an eye on the big picture, too. Sometimes you can get caught up in one thing that’s negative, and get bogged down, but you have to try to maintain that whole picture and keep a positive attitude moving forward. I’m also expecting when we get to Annual to get a little bit more advice from Jennisen in person.

I feel so fortunate that this year’s board has been such a great group of people to work with. But I’m also looking forward to working with new people coming onto the board as well. We’ve had such great people with professional experience who have agreed to run for these positions and volunteer their time. For next year’s operational plan, I’m trying to make sure that everyone’s ideas and expertise are included. That’s a hopeful thing, too, that people are sticking with it. As I am working on committee appointments, there has been a great response from both experienced people and people volunteering for the first time. We’re stronger when we come together. That’s one of the really great benefits of being part of a professional organization, that camaraderie, and working together to have a common voice and try to support each other.