Librarians return to school. Bookminders seek less silence, more student activity

At the beginning of each new school year, much attention is focused on the returning children and teachers. New clothes, new books, and new challenges of the coming year are often discussed. But little is said about the school librarian -- that often-overlooked resource for books, information, and media material. In recent discussions with three returning school librarians, four concerns surfaced:

How to encourage strong student participation in library activities -- getting them to check out books, to learn how to use the library -- or to listen attentively during book talks or story hours.

How to work with teachers to provide library materials that coordinate with classroom activities.

How to combat the threat of censorship.

How to ensure the placement of qualified librarians in school libraries.

Jan McOuat, librarian at the Alexander Fleming Junior High School in Lomita, Calif., says that ``atmosphere is the most important ingredient'' in any library. ``A child is [often] put off by the library because of `awe,' '' Ms. McOuat says. ``He may not feel smart enough [or] privileged enough'' to go into the library.

To combat this, McOuat tries to keep some books out at the library entrance, where students can browse through them without feeling intimidated. She has put up a display featuring a current copy of a magazine alongside a 15- to 20-year-old issue, inviting students to compare the two. She also has a sign on her desk that says ``no silence.'' With some of the barriers broken, the students are more willing to come into the library.

Carol Hurst, a librarian taking a leave of absence from the Juniper Park School in Westfield, Mass., teaches students the joy of reading by going into classrooms right after the teacher has finished teaching reading. ``This helps children make the connection between `how' to read and `what' to read,'' Ms. Hurst says.

When Carolyn Cain returned to LaFollette High School in Madison, Wis., this fall, one of the first things she intended to do was get in touch with the new teachers. She wanted to let them know what books and media materials were available, as well as what materials could be ordered.

Hurst also feels that ``one of the biggest jobs [a librarian has] is public relations with the teachers.'' Without teacher awareness and support, the librarian can do very little. To help teachers become more aware of the library, Hurst would ``accidentally'' leave books in classrooms, the teachers' lounge, and even the teacher restrooms. Once the teachers are aware of the library and the materials it has available, it's much easier to work with them.

In the 28 years McOuat has been at Fleming Junior High School she has never had to remove a book from her shelves because someone found it objectionable. One parent did ask about a certain book she felt was inappropriate, and McOuat discussed the subject of the book with her, but the book was not removed.

``Censorship is a real concern of thinking librarians,'' says Hurst. She notes that ``even choosing a book is a form of censorship,'' because in effect it denies the student the right to choose. She feels that the main problem with censorship, however, is that the book that is removed is seldom a good book, a book worth battling for.

During the 13 years that Ms. Cain has been at LaFollette, there has only been one instance of censorship, she says, because ``Madison is a fairly liberal community.''

One point that all three librarians were most emphatic about was the need for qualified, professional librarians in school systems. Although requirements for certification differ from state to state, in many states it is necessary for a school librarian to be certified, that is, to have had courses in education as well as library science. Not all states require such certification.

According to Hurst, ``Many librarians are faced with administrators who don't understand what a librarian ought to do. It can be a soft job, but if the job is done correctly -- organizing book festivals, giving book talks, etc. -- the job is very challenging.''

Cain also feels the librarian should be certified. The area of ``library media is very complex, [and the librarian] needs to have a good, solid background in teaching skills as well as library skills.'' This background is all very important when dealing with students.

Despite some of the problems confronting school librarians, Cain feels that now is an exciting time in school libraries. The ``new technology makes information from many different sources available,'' she says. ``It is possible to get information from outside the building, either through the computer or inter-library loan.''

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