This past summer, school librarians in Washington, D.C., scored an important victory. Faced with the prospect of another round of cuts, librarians and their supporters and allies in their communities (including my organization, EveryLibrary) mounted a vigorous advocacy campaign to show D.C. legislators exactly why school librarians are so vital—more vital than ever, in fact, in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis. And on August 11, the D.C. city council responded by passing a budget that will for the first time ensure that every D.C. public school has at least one librarian.
The victory was a rare piece of good news for school librarians. During the first wave of Covid-19 shutdowns, many administrators across the country used the pandemic as an excuse to cut school librarian positions altogether. And now, during the latest wave of Covid-19, many administrators are reassigning school librarians from their libraries to teach classes or to support other pandemic-impacted learning needs, supported with funding from the American Rescue Plan Act.
School librarians have long been under pressure, of course. But in the wake of Covid-19, the profession has reached an inflection point. After a generation-long, nationwide trend of cuts to school library positions, persistent deprofessionalization, and a drift away from dedicated school libraries toward so-called classroom libraries, it is vital that school librarians find new ways to engage not only the students and families they serve but the local decision-makers who will determine the future of school library positions and programs.
As the successful campaign in Washington D.C. illustrates, if we want to see certified librarians and classified support roles restored in schools across the country, it is time to act boldly. Specifically, I believe there are two big moves toward a new advocacy and activism framework that should be started immediately, and which I believe can be successful.
The first move is for school librarians to organize and act at the very local level. This move is inspired by the Fight for $15 minimum wage campaign and is, I believe, entirely practical. One thing the leaders of the minimum wage increase movement understand clearly is that positive change will not come from goodwill alone, such as beneficent employers inspiring other employers to become more generous. Rather, advocates for raising the minimum wage have recognized that success comes from pursuing real, defined policy changes such as local wage ordinances and state and federal legislative mandates. And by pursuing concrete policy changes at the most local level, advocates have been able to inspire and mobilize supporters, identify allies, and leverage this progress to advance key policy dialogues and to forge consensus for broader legislative propositions.
If school librarians can learn anything from the Fight for $15 campaign, it is that ambitious policy changes cannot happen without action first at the local level. Yet, according to a recent SLIDE (School Librarian Investigation—Decline or Evolution?) research project report by Debra Kachel and Keith Curry Lance on “Requirements for School Librarian Employment: A State-by-State Summary,” 23 states currently lack any state-level policy framework for school libraries, and 16 other states that have regulations on the books do not enforce them. For me, this much is clear: bringing more certified school librarians into our schools and improving the quality and recency of school library collections will only come about by using real-world pathways to power. And those pathways begin at the local level.
For example, last year, the Clark County, Nev., school district adopted a new policy pertaining to school library programs, school librarian and clerk roles, and a collection development approach that aims to support core values like diversity, equity, and inclusion. Their new policy, which came about through the advocacy and leadership of people like Susan Slykerman, a certified teacher-librarian at Liberty High School, could—and should—help set the tone for similar policies in school disrticts across Nevada, and should guide state law as well.
Further, I believe every school district in the country would benefit from a similar school library policy campaign, for three key reasons. First, because our experience shows that the dialogue about the roles and impact of school librarians needs to be frequently refreshed and featured prominently for school boards and administrations. Next, because the evidence suggests that the very act of discussing school library policies often helps to affirm the shared mission of all educators and stakeholders. And finally, because if enough school districts get on board with pro-library policies, it will pave the way for legislators to act.
The second big move is for school librarians—and the broader library sector as a whole—to become a lot more comfortable standing alongside the union community. The teachers’ unions are the legitimate representatives of their card-carrying members in local contract negotiations and bargaining. And I believe that school librarianship as a profession cannot succeed if school librarians are somehow set apart from the education unions.
The recent victory in Washington, D.C., is a prime example. The fact that the city council of our nation’s capital responded to a persistent advocacy campaign by reversing proposed cuts and pledging to hire more school librarians is a huge win. And that campaign succeeded because local school librarians like KC Boyd and Christopher Stewart helped to organize their colleagues within and alongside the Washington Teachers Union (Local 6). And without the decision of union leaders to align the WTU behind the fight to restore school librarians at every school, particularly the support of the late WTU president Elizabeth Davis, this victory would not have been possible.
At the same time, it is also true that school librarians’ advocacy efforts may first need to be undertaken with the unions themselves. Over time and in too many places the education unions have all but abandoned school librarians during tough contract negotiations or in the face of budget cuts.
School librarians may need to have a reckoning with union leaders in order to reacquaint them with their work and their shared mission. But a reckoning is surely in order, especially given all that we’ve learned during the pandemic. If we are to see positive change for the school library workforce, I believe that school librarians and library leaders must work to realign themselves with the education unions. And the education unions must align with the profession of librarianship. Likewise, our state and national library associations must also reconsider their own uneasy relationships with the union community.
And time is of the essence. As schools across the country resume in-person learning, and with significant, once-in-a-lifetime federal funding hanging in the balance, the time has come for school librarians and their allies to abandon their traditional advocacy toolkit and to start treating the fight for their future like the political campaign it truly is.
John Chrastka is executive director of EveryLibrary, a national political action committee dedicated to helping local libraries.