Opinion: What’s in a Name?

2.23.16 –  What’s in a Name…

Sarah P’s comments:  This blog is mainly devoted to helping librarians everywhere find ways to work and travel outside of their own countries so I generally don’t use it as way to talk about myself, my experience, or my professional opinions.  However, I do really enjoy receiving comments, especially where they open a discussion which might be helpful to others.  Thus, I am including below a recent comment and my response in the hopes that it will cause some thought and perhaps more discussion…

Hi Sarah,

I have been following your blog for a while with an interest in moving in to the international arena. I read above you dislike the term Teacher Librarian which I found surprising. I am a very proud Teacher Librarian. I hold a dual qualification and am required to use both in my role. I teach (in the library) and manage a primary school library. The primary positions I have looked at require both as well. In my opinion a Teacher Librarian and Librarian are two different positions. Would you agree?


What’s In a Name?

I am so glad you have written to express your opinion because I believe open dialogue is the key to good solutions and that this discussion points to a large problem for school librarians and libraries.

First of all, I agree that having both qualifications and, thus, an educated foot in both worlds is the best. And, just by your writing the question, I suspect that you are already a good teacher and librarian as well. Sadly, however, that is not always the case and thus I do not support the title of ‘teacher librarian’ because I think it adds to the confusion concerning what our role should be within a school.

Let me explain how I arrived at this conclusion as I did not always think this was true.   (My work experience includes: 2 public libraries and 2 school libraries in the US, 5 schools and 2 colleges internationally.)

I was raised and educated in the US and began my library work experience there. This meant I was initially working with a population that basically understood the premise of libraries and the concept of information sharing, etc. However even in the US, there is great confusion as to what the role of a school librarian should be and the advent of technology has added to this dilemma: hence librarians became school librarians, then media specialists then, in some cases, technology integrationists as well as literacy integrationists. So, there been much confusion as well as conflicting directives about how best to support teachers and students while still operating an open library. This was debated and discussed in my graduate program as well.

I then ventured overseas and here is where I really began to question things. I began to work with faculty, staff, and students who had no concept of the ‘western idea’ of librarianship. Almost immediately I revised my library curriculum (this name has also changed over the years, first research skills, then bibliographic instruction, then information literacy – more confusion!) I realized I needed to begin with the basics: what is a library? What is the purpose of a library? How and why are library staff there to help patrons?

The real surprise was that I found that, often, international teachers as well as admin had no clue as to what the role of the library was in their school or what it should be. I found myself needing to educate them first in order to gain support for developing an integrated and effective program. Tricky because these folks considered themselves knowledgeable and well-educated. (The better of these educators did admit there was very little time devoted in their training to understanding school libraries.) And, to be fair, librarians themselves as well as ALA are continually out mixed signals about this subject in an attempt to convince everyone how central libraries are.

Here are some stories to illustrate my point:

In my career, I was often hired just before an impending accreditation visit and only after the library had been allowed to languish having been being run either by untrained local hires or untrained teachers (meaning not trained in library and information science), who, only seeing the ‘outside’ of the library program, thought they knew what they were doing. This may not be everyone’s experience, it just happened to end up being mine.

In one country, I walked into the library and immediately had to duck. From the ceiling hung huge signs declaring all the PYP and MYP concepts. The information literally hit everyone in the face when they came in and obstructed the view and flow of the library. What the heck? I immediately made plans to remove them but my assistants warned me against this as the Elementary Principal thought they were wonderful and necessary. It took some time to unravel the mystery. What had happened was that in a recent IB accreditation visit, the report had noted that the library lacked ‘signage’. Now, of course, any librarian knows that means there aren’t enough navigational aids displayed to allow a user to find what they need in the library, be it space or materials. However, because there was only a local teacher and assistants running the library, there was no one to tactfully inform the principal that his interpretation of ‘lack of signage’ did not mean PYP/MYP criteria! And, as a further complication, neither did the PYP or MYP Coordinators, who also loved this ridiculous as well as hazardous display. I had to say that I had a very good laugh behind closed doors but then I carefully and tactfully approached these well-educated people and negotiated relocating this information to the walls.

In another library in another country, I arrived and all looked well. The library needed some re-organizing but it had a reputable database, a good-size collection, and an experienced assistant. For my first 40-minute session with a class of second graders, I planned a 20-minute intro/storytime session and then 20 minutes for book browsing and checkout. Just before my class came in, I shared this plan with my assistant and said I would assist with reader advisory while she checked books out for students.

“Um…I don’t think that will leave enough time for book checkout,” she said hesitantly.

I assumed, and here made a huge mistake, that she didn’t really know what she was doing and didn’t listen to her. Storytime went as planned and I began the process of getting to know my students by helping them find books. I soon noticed a huge line had formed at the circulation desk. I came over and was absolutely gobsmacked by what I saw. Each student told the assistant their name which she carefully and slowly typed in the computer, often checking spelling as English was not her first language. Then she slowly picked up a hand scanner and held it over the book’s barcode for EIGHT seconds ( I know because I counted!) before the program beeped and checked the book out. I tried to help speed up the process but needless to say, we did not finish checkout on time and I had to apologize to the teacher. Not a great way to begin.

I then sat down for an immediate chat with my assistant and this time I LISTENED. The poor woman had no idea why it was happening , had received almost no training from the previous person in-charge who had been…yes, a teacher who had transferred from the classroom to the library. I sighed then dug into the database and soon discovered that the reason why the checkout time was so slow was that the system had never been purged. Every transaction from the six years they had operated the program was still stored and this backlog (supposed to be eliminated at the end of every school year according to the manual) was clogging up the system. So, I immediately created a back-up, then purged the system, contacted tech support and did SIX updates to the outdated program. I set up the hands-free holder for the scanner, printed out a notebook with students’ names, barcode and number and then taught every student their number. I made sure my assistant sat and learned all this and understood what I was doing. Checkout time then whizzed along as it was supposed to and my assistant was far less stressed as well as I.

I would like to say that admin was grateful and impressed both by my knowledge as well as ability to fix the problem but in truth they were rather apathetic. This was due to their being qualified educators but not understanding that a lot of library management is unseen and so to them unimportant.

Hence the following scene: they wanted to give me recess duty. This despite my supporting every class in the school as well as sign-up research sessions and being open before school, during lunch, and after school. I carefully explained that I also had to manage a database as well as order and process books and manage the media room. Their reply: they would assign a volunteer to help with cataloguing and database management. I did my best to educate them that this was a very bad idea. But that is how the last librarian did it they said in surprise. I then had to share what a mess the catalog was. The former librarian had imported some records by CD (this was before downloading) but had not checked any of the records and there were many errors. All other material was originally catalogued and she had shunted this job off to untrained volunteers: one had decided to type records in ALL CAPS BECAUSE SHE LIKED THEM, another spelled English as best she could because it was not her first language, another skipped fields she didn’t understand. Lord-of-the-Flies cataloguing! I had a mega-job to try and correct all these errors and no time to do it and they were suggesting more volunteers! I painstakingly explained that handing off the database to inexperienced people was the LAST thing to do because the catalog is the backbone of the program. If it doesn’t function correctly then there is no point having books in the library or teaching students how to use it. And it is a critical skill. As I often share when educating IT staff, the catalog is often a student’s first use of a database.

This position was a challenge because the administrators had to be open to admitting they did not really know all this and that they had made a mistake assigning a teacher to the position. Please understand I have great respect for teachers and many of my friends are teachers. But there is a fundamental lack of understanding that a librarian has to have another complete set of skills in addition to a teacher. And we are often working with administrators and teachers who do not understand all that is involved.

Therefore, the name of the position is crucial in that it ‘starts as you mean to go on’. If you call yourself a teacher-librarian you are reinforcing the idea you are a teacher and therefore are viewed as a teacher which means you will be reviewed as a teacher and your time assigned as a teacher. I have had many discussions with administrators about ‘student contact time’ and reviews which assessed only my information literacy or storytime sessions. One administrator actually told me I had the easiest job in the school because I had the least scheduled contact time with students.

I therefore believe the term ‘teaching librarian’ is far better in inferring the true role. However, the best title overall is ‘librarian’. It is simple, is a name understood in various languages the world over (it’s the second oldest profession!), and clearly represents what we do. Because aren’t ALL librarians teaching librarians? In every setting and situation we are always helping by informing, teaching and demonstrating.

Just because a library operates in a school does not make it less a library or you less a librarian. In fact, school libraries are crucial in introducing the concept of the library and encouraging life-long library users which, in my opinion, is the best way to help support the development of life-long learners. When explaining this to teachers I like to use a Venn diagram:

Venn Diagram

It is an easy and visual way of showing how you have a foot in both camps. I find that once teachers understand this basic concept that we are able to forge better working relationships. If teachers believe you are only a fellow teacher, or worse that you are only there to support them, then mutual respect does not develop.

Interestingly, my students don’t normally have a problem with this concept. However, that might be because I always begin information literacy classes with a discussion of why the library is an important cultural institution. It is also one of the reasons I always seek out all librarians around me. I find it very helpful to develop relationships with other librarians (as you will often be the only one in a school) and, whenever possible, try to arrange a field trip to a local public or academic library. When students can see another library and understand the role it can/will play in their life (be it physically or virtually) then I feel I am truly fulfilling the mission. (Note: library mission which is a subset of the school mission.)

That is not to say that supporting curricula or teachers is not important and much of my time is devoted to that goal as well.

If this all sounds not very positive, please know that I have worked with administrators who do understand the library as a separate entity and have worked cooperatively with me to create/upgrade the library. There has also been movement toward a more accurate review process for specialists including librarians.

I have lots more stories…but that is why I call myself a librarian and the place I work a library.





8 thoughts on “Opinion: What’s in a Name?

  1. Interesting points, but arguments for Teacher Librarian are equally valid. Using only librarian can be interpreted that the role is administrative only, and there is no place for them in the curriculum or teaching. I look to examples of school ‘librarians’ in England, who are employed only term time and are not involved in teaching. This is definitely the challenge in my current role – admin and teachers have a clear idea of an admin style librarian but it took my whole first year to reveal the possibilities of the librarian in a teaching role.

    Loved reading about your challenges – think I’ve experienced nearly all of them or something close lol. I’m leaving school libraries for the foreseeable future as I have never met a school where admin understood the role and were positive about it, and I’m so tired of the fight and being treated like my position has no value or purpose. I prefer working in public libraries – less demeaning, more opportunity!


    • Hello Gypsy Librarian (a great name),
      Your point about admin only is, yes, particularly relevant for UK schools. I did experience this attitude when I was a librarian for a British school in Saudi Arabia. However I will say that my British faculty, while admitting they did not quite know what to do with me as most of them have never before had a school librarian on staff, proved more willing to collaborate than my US faculty. I also appreciate your honesty about why you are leaving schools and which, I believe, is the experience for the majority. My goal is to speak at an Administrator’s Conference where I might be able to knock some heads together (tactfully of course) and perhaps enlighten them a bit. Yes, I know, I am a dreamer…


      • I think administrators should have compulsory training in the roles of support staff before assuming their helm. Similar to those reality shows where the boss swaps roles with floor staff? You see, I am also a dreamer.

        In my meeting with Principal yesterday, I was told a) I shouldn’t use awards (eg Carnegie, CILIP) when choosing books. That they are the last thing the Principal would advise, as just because a book is popular doesn’t make it good. And b) The difference between the principal and the librarian is that he cares about students and feels responsibility for them (!), and c) it is preferable that some of our students do not read, than for other students (i.e. His children) to accidentally stumble upon something ‘scary’

        Admittedly, I am working for somebody whose professionalism is questionable, and whose freedom to make ludicrous judgements of staff goes unchecked by our organization (i.e. I am not the only one), but I have had equally unfathomable statements and instructions given by most managers I’ve worked for. And heard similar ignorance from teaching staff.

        I’ve heard a suggestion all teachers should undertake a placement in the library as part of their training – this is a super idea.

        Best of luck with the conference presentation!


      • Spot-on comments…and yes, training and placement in all specialist areas including the library should be part of it for both admin and teachers. I usually like to ask the question: what purpose do you believe the library serves in a school? And if I hear ‘to support the curriculum and/or the teachers’ I know I am in for an uphill battle. Which is why former teachers have to be careful about knowing whom they represent and their purpose, hence my stance on ‘librarians’ being the formal name.

        I wonder if I asked to attend an admin conference whether anyone would even sign up for a session? Although…when I worked in Oman I once spoke to a group of Indian School Administrators and they were great – very open to discussion and new ideas.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the explanation. I feel one reason some might use the term Teacher Librarian, is they want to differentiate themselves from the ‘old school’ librarians who would only do read aloud stories as lessons. I doubt the issue will be resolved before another tag is attached to the profession. 🙂


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