At the ALA annual conference in Chicago later this week, Audrey Church’s term as president of the American Association of School Librarians will officially come to a close. Over the past year, Church, professor of school librarianship at Longwood University in Farmville, Va., focused on helping school librarians advocate for themselves and spread the message about the key role that school libraries and school librarians play in student learning. We recently asked her to look back at some of the standout moments from her time in office, and to forecast what may lie ahead for AASL members.
Can you talk about a couple of the highlights during your term as AASL president?
Oh, there were so many. Certainly among the highlights were our visits to our state affiliates. The president, president-elect, and immediate past president are on a rotation, so that once every five years our affiliates receive a visit from one of those three, which includes attendance at their state-level conference and the opportunity to present information about AASL at the conference, but also to hear about what is going on in those states—that was a wonderful experience. This year I was able to attend the Indiana state conference in the fall, the Texas Library Association Conference in April, I just got back a couple of weeks ago from the Vermont conference, and I’m leaving this Sunday [June 11] for Georgia.
Another highlight this year would be the workshops we sponsored across the country through our state affiliates for the Every Student Succeeds Act implementation. We’re very excited that effective school library programs are mentioned in the language of that act in many places. So we offered, through our state affiliates, advocacy workshops for our members so they can be ready to put forth their request for their library when the state and local implementation plans are put in place.
We also had an initiative where we invited federal legislators to school libraries across the country in April, during their congressional recess. Reports of invitations are still trickling in, but I think we’re up to maybe 45 members in 17 or 18 states who invited their senators or representatives, and we had four actually take us up on it. We had representatives in Maryland, Indiana, Michigan, and Tennessee—either senators or representatives or a member of their staff—in to visit the school library to see how it’s different today than it was perhaps when they were in school.
The last thing I’d highlight would be my presidential initiative. My task force has developed resources that building-level librarians can use with their administrators to inform them of the important role school librarians play in student learning. The task force has created an infographic and an annotated resource guide that will be unveiled at our affiliate assembly meeting at the [ALA] annual conference. It contains resources that librarians on the ground can use with their principals to share the important role that we play in student learning. I’m very excited about that, too.
What are some of the ways you have helped to shine the spotlight on your profession during this past year?
I have a couple of themes that I stand by, and one of those is that advocacy begins with each of us. I think that we’ve been able to demonstrate that this year in multiple ways. We have to build partnerships and bring stakeholders on board, but that initiative starts with each of us for our school libraries. The ESSA workshops, the inviting legislators to the school library effort, and the presidential initiative work all feed into that. Advocacy begins with each of us just getting the message out that school librarians transform student learning, which has kind of been my hashtag for the year. I joked for a long time that I couldn’t go on Twitter because I can’t say anything in 140 characters or less and that’s evident in the really long hashtag, which takes up half of a tweet.
What were some of the biggest challenges that your membership faced during your term?
We continue to see school librarian positions cut across the country when budget issues arise. I have worked very closely this year with the ALA and with the [ALA’s] Office for Library Advocacy, and they have been very supportive; ALA president Julie Todaro has been extremely supportive of our efforts. We’ve gotten frequent calls or emails asking for help and support from the national organization about the importance of having certified school librarians in every school. And we know that that is not the norm perhaps even in the country anymore. We’ve seen so many positions cut and so many schools where paraprofessionals are being called upon to keep the libraries open. And we know that in doing that, all children are not getting the library services they should, because it’s that certified school librarian who’s in that position full-time who can really make a difference in student learning. When we don’t have certified school librarians in place, children are not getting those critical information literacy and digital literacy skills that they so need today. It was said a few years ago, “Why do we need school librarians when we have the Internet?” And my response to that has always been, “We need school librarians more than ever.” And that has certainly been evident this year. So if it’s one challenge that I think we’ve faced, it’s those cuts in positions of certified school librarians.
How were you able to address that challenge?
Frequently we’ll send a letter out on behalf of those school librarians. AASL works very closely with the Office of Library Advocacy to write those letters. This year we’ve done letters for superintendents and school boards in Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, and most recently, Washington state. We work with our state affiliate organizations to gather data and speak to the importance of school librarians not in general terms but in that community or school district where the cuts are happening. We try very hard to make the letters relevant.
What are some of the issues you see school librarians facing going forward?
So many people still have that stereotypical perception of the school librarian as just one who checks out books, and that’s not true. Certainly we still have print materials, but we curate digital resources, we collaborate with classroom teachers, we teach those information literacy skills, we have makerspaces in our libraries so that we are engaging the children in innovative activities and sparking their curiosity. Beyond the ongoing advocacy issues, there is a challenge for each of us professionally to keep up, to make sure we continue to grow as school librarians, because it’s a profession that’s changed so much. I became a librarian in 1980, and it was very different back then.
Another challenge that is very exciting is we have new national school library standards coming out in November. They’ll be unveiled at our national conference in Phoenix. That presents a wonderful and exciting challenge to people in the field to embrace those new standards and move forward with them. They’ve been several years in the making, and lots of research and much thought has gone into them, so I’m looking forward to having the actual release.
Do you have any advice for your successor, Steven Yates?
Steven and I have worked together this year very closely, since he was president-elect. I guess the lofty advice I would give him would be to embrace every opportunity, and I know that he will. He has a wonderful initiative in the works, and he has state affiliate visits already scheduled.
My more lighthearted, personal advice would be to take his vitamins, eat his Wheaties, and get ready for a very busy year. Be sure your email inbox is clear when you start, because it won’t be on any day between now and next June.
What will you be doing at ALA Annual? What are you most looking forward to?
It’s going to be a great conference. I am looking forward to our awards ceremony and president’s program; those are going to recognize best practices in our field. The speaker for my presidential program is Dr. Scott Beck, a high school principal from Norman, Okla., who, following the advocacy theme, will be addressing what principals and administrators look for in a school librarian and the acknowledgment of the important role that we play in student learning.
I’m also looking forward to a panel that we’re having on Sunday afternoon [June 25]. We’re cosponsoring with the Office for Library Advocacy and the Chapter Relations Office, and it’s a panel on partnerships to strengthen school libraries. Three people will be on the panel, and I’ll facilitate. Cynthia Czesak, legislative chair of the New Jersey Library Association; Kelly Miller, president of the Virginia Association of School Librarians; and Nora Wiltse, co-chair of the Chicago Teachers Union’s Chicago School Librarians committee, will be talking about successful advocacy efforts and partnerships that have worked well for them.
In addition, we have the annual reveal of the best apps and best websites. We’ve had to put those awards in larger rooms each year, and yet the session still seems to overfill because the crowd just gets larger and larger. We are going to share them with you and show you how to use them in your schools and in your libraries.
There are so many sessions I won’t be able to attend because I’ll be doing other things. Some of the other topics include inquiry-based learning, collaboration, personalized learning, and makerspaces. There’s just a great array of professional opportunities for anyone attending the conference.
Do you have a final reflection about your time as AASL president?
This year I have seen firsthand the power of our national organization and how we can speak as a unified voice for school librarians. What a privilege it has been to serve as president and to have the opportunity to represent the school librarians from across the county.
It’s an exciting time for school libraries. It’s a challenging time, as I mentioned, because of the loss of positions across the country. But I think we’re on the cusp of something really great with these new national standards and with the acknowledgment that information literacy is critical for our children and for the future of our country. I think the potential is there, and it’s exciting.