Friday, November 3, 2017

A School Without A Librarian - My Story by Cathy Sutton

I was an Indiana high school librarian for twenty-three years. I always knew I’d never get rich as an educator, but I loved my job and felt I was making a positive contribution to the world. I’d finally reached that point on the salary scale where I was no longer living paycheck to paycheck. Then in April 2010, what I later came to consider the “Perfect Storm” hit. I was part of a Reduction In Force (RIF) and was told my contract would not be renewed.

Indiana only requires one licensed librarian per school district and we had three. Our contract required that the librarian with the most seniority would be retained. She was just two years away from retirement and since I had the next highest years of experience, I should have been called back when she left. Unfortunately, the Indiana legislature passed a series of bills attacking public educators and our unions. Indiana teacher unions now can only bargain for salaries and benefits. Any language regarding RIFs was removed. I would NOT be called back.

After two years of unemployment, I finally found a position as a middle school library media specialist. I considered myself lucky despite the fact that my new school district did not have to pay me for my years of experience (I was now making fifteen thousand dollars LESS than I had in 2010). I thought I was finally going to be able to use my library training and expertise again.

I was wrong.

Many Indiana school corporations who had been forced to RIF educators were making “creative staffing” choices that were NOT in our students best interests. At my new school I was assigned to teach a nine-week Keyboarding/Research class that all fifth and sixth-grade students had to take. My teaching duties kept me out of the media center the majority of the day, yet I was still responsible for its operations. Fortunately I had a great assistant that ran the library in my absence…when she wasn’t being pulled to sub, that is.

This kind of “creative staffing” continues to happen not only in Indiana but many other states as well. School librarians are being especially hard hit because let’s face it, administrators don’t consider us crucial in raising test scores or improving academic achievement. This despite the over sixty studies showing that school libraries staffed by qualified school librarians have a positive impact on student achievement. (

Additionally, administrators (and even many teachers) really have no idea what librarians actually do. Yes, we check books in and out—a job that anyone can be trained to do—but our Masters in Library Science courses teach us how to do so much more. My library science coursework served me well twenty years ago when I inherited a musty old book collection that desperately needed outdated titles removed while preserving lesser-known classics like Indiana’s own The Magnificent Ambersons (Booth Tarkington). Using numerous selection tools I then updated that collection with fresh new titles that got my students excited about reading again and ultimately tripled our circulation.

Still, the best school libraries are also centers for the newest information technologies. I’m continually learning how to use the latest technology and sharing that knowledge with teachers and students alike. I’ve taught my students how to evaluate online sources so they can weed out fake or biased information. I’ve collaborated with teachers to teach students Standards for the 21st Century Learner information literacy skills. I model lifelong learning by continuing to learn about and apply innovative educational practices. For example, last year I applied for and received a grant to create a makerspace in an unused classroom off of my library. 

Most importantly though, I’ve connected with children and made a difference in their lives. I still remember the first high school student to hug me. She got an A on her term paper and said she never could have done it without my help. Then there’s Joseph, a student with Asperger’s, who initially drove me crazy by constantly asking “Do you have any books on magic, coins, swords…” until I finally taught him how to use the online card catalog effectively. Also Jeff, the computer geek who initially came to the media center to play on the computers and ended up fixing them. He now owns his own computer repair shop. And there was Sara, who admitted to me years later that she came to the library because it was her safe spot, a place to hide from the mean girls. Then I shared some good books with her and she became a lifelong reader.

For many young people, their first and often only exposure to libraries is at school. It’s a safe space where they can go to learn all kinds of things--not just the stuff the teacher expects them to know for the tests—and they become better people for it. Certified school librarians don’t just circulate materials and teach library skills, they help to create lifelong learners. We need to reverse the effects of “creative staffing” and find the funds to make sure that every student has access to a quality school library run by a highly effective certified school librarian every period of the day, every day of the week.

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