By: Jamie M. Gregory
Conversations about intellectual freedom frequently center on materials: books, magazines, newspapers, online content not chosen to be made available for distribution, typically based on a supervisor’s opinion. These are ways librarians can be censored, but we would do well to remember that downsizing the librarian profession itself violates intellectual freedom. Indeed, a democracy which only thrives if its citizenry is educated and informed depends not only on a free exchange of ideas, but also on a profession whose job it is to make those ideas available and accessible.
I recently reread the Office for Intellectual Freedom’s Freedom to Read statement and realized how important this position is. As stated, librarians and publishers are responsible for disseminating ideas. That’s no small task in a democracy, for a free people who wish to remain free. Even more so, “the freedom to read and write is almost the only means for making generally available ideas or manners of expression that can initially command only a small audience.” Librarians are trained in how to help others find the information they seek, and this is perhaps nowhere more important than in schools.
In recent news, lawmakers in states such as Iowa and Washington, have attempted to eliminate school librarian positions. Iowa bill SB 1109 changes wording from “a school district shall have a qualified teacher librarian” to “a school district may have a qualified teacher librarian.” The typical logic used to justify such changes is true in this case as well: giving local school districts options, unburdening a system from overreaching bureaucracy, doing what is best for each individual community. However, it is never the best option to seek to reduce educational expenditures by eliminating a school professional who is needed the most in the education system.
Jim Allen reported in the Spokesman-Review in April 2019 that school librarians working in Spokane Public Schools received termination notices. According to this article, the district will move some of those school librarians into the classroom, the school library will remain open but be overseen by classroom teachers, and the district spokesperson could not state how much money these layoffs would save the district.
But some school librarians are not certified in any area other than school library media, so it is unclear into which classrooms veteran school librarians would be moved. And don’t be placated by so-called reassurances that the school library will still remain open, staffed by non-certified people. This is not a permanent solution. Volunteers and classroom teachers are not professionally trained in the library science profession.
Tamara Cox, school librarian at Wren High School in Anderson, SC, is a top-five finalist for the 2020 South Carolina Teacher of the Year, the SC school librarian of the year, and a 2018 I Love My Librarian Award winner. She cites Keith Lance Curry’s 2014 study “The Impact of School Librarians and Library Programs on Academic Achievement of Students: The South Carolina Study:” “the loss of our school librarians is hurting the academic achievement of our students because numerous studies over the decades have shown that a school library staffed by a certified librarian has a positive impact on student learning.”
Pamela Williams, the 2019-2020 President of the South Carolina Association of School Librarians, testifies that as a former classroom teacher who has served as a school librarian for more than 15 years, “the library media center is the only facility in a school designed to serve students and staff providing physical resources as well as necessary instruction that complements standards-based teaching. How can future graduates explore challenging ideas and experience thinking, creating, and growing in a school library facility full of outdated materials and without professional staff to guide the learning process? The answer is simple: they can’t.”
While certified school librarians are irreplaceable, community organizations can help fill the void. Read more about WePAC, the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children, an organization providing trained volunteers for elementary schools which do not have school libraries and school librarians. It was awarded the 2019 Innovations in Reading Prize from the National Book Foundation. WePAC provides much-needed resources to a community in need, in schools which otherwise would not have those resources.
While school librarian positions can be eliminated due to monetary concerns, in South Carolina, Greenville County’s Five Forks Library’s branch manager, Jonathan Newton, was removed from his job in March 2019 after the library hosted a Drag Queen Story Hour. Another employee was also forced to resign, revealing ideological stances against the profession. View this Change.org petition as an attempt to reinstate their jobs.
As a solution, State Representative Gary Smith (R-Greenville) proposed an amendment punishing public libraries led by librarians who don’t fall into line:
“Libraries that receive aid to county or aid to city libraries funds from the state library must adhere to the South Carolina Standards for Health and Safety Education Act regulations adopted by the South Carolina Department of Education regarding the use of library facilities by the public.
“Each library that receives such funding shall submit quarterly reports to the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee that details quarterly activities and usage of library facilities. Libraries that fail to comply with the requirements of this provision after Jan. 1, 2020, shall be required to return their aid to county or aid to city libraries funding to the state library which shall deposit such funding into the general fund.”
Thankfully, this proposal failed to move forward. Rep. Todd Rutherford (D-Richland) responded in part by pointing out how this amendment would unfairly burden and limit the free speech rights of libraries and library patrons. But as of now, the two librarians remain fired. (For more resources about Drag Queen Story Hour, visit the American Library Association’s website.)
Whatever the context or circumstances for eliminating school librarian positions or firing public librarians, the library profession itself is critical to maintain.
Principles of intellectual freedom and teaching critical thinking skills remain important, which demands that librarians be free to fulfill their professional obligations to promote the free exchange of ideas and free access to information, even if that information constitutes a principle or idea with which a supervisor or citizen disagrees.
In a conversation with someone who thinks technology renders librarians obsolete? (note: not just library materials, but librarians themselves.) Know someone who wants to save money by eliminating school librarians? Have someone in mind who says students can find everything they need online? Here are some helpful talking points to use.
Eliminating school librarian positions opens the door to censorship in numerous ways:
- We teach many skills that all fit under the umbrella of intellectual freedom.
- Digital citizenship
- Finding and using credible information
- Giving credit to sources
- Open access to information and reading materials
- Valuing and respecting diversity through ideas and reading
- We bridge the socioeconomic gap by making information available to every student, not just those who can afford it.
- We ensure that students with disabilities can also access information freely and equitably.
- No other position in a school fulfills these obligations to students, society, and democracy.
- This is not a criticism of everyone else in the school building. I started my career as a high school English teacher. That was not synonymous with being a school librarian. Learning how information is stored and organized is a first step to then teaching others how to access that information: democracy.
Jamie M. Gregory is a National Board Certified Teacher in Library Media working in her 6th year as a school librarian at James F. Byrnes High School in Duncan, SC. Previously she taught high school English and French for 8 years. Her academic interests include book censorship and academic freedom in K-12 schools, inquiry-based learning, information literacy, and literacy in high school classrooms. She is an active member of the South Carolina Association of School Librarians serving as the 2019-2020 Chair of the South Carolina Book Award committees. When she is not reading or researching, she enjoys spending time with her husband and two sons cooking, traveling, playing board games, and going to Iron Maiden concerts. Find her on Twitter @gregorjm.