Librarians, Libraries, Serendipity And Passion

Our guest author today is Connie Williams, a National Board Certified Teacher librarian at Petaluma High School in Petaluma, CA, past president of the California School Library Association, and co-developer of the librarian and teacher 2.0 classroom tutorials.

Down the road from where I live, on the first-of-the month, a group of vintage car owners gather for a “cars and coffee” meet up. The cars that show up with their drivers cover many years and obsessions. Drivers park, open up the car hoods and take a few steps back and begin talking with other car owners and visitors who happen by. These are people who are interested in the way cars work, their history, and they all have stories to share.

How do they know so much about their cars? They work on them – gaining insight by hands-on practice and consultations with experts. If they’re wealthy enough, they pay someone else to do the work, yet they don’t just hand over their cars to them. They read about them, participate in on-line groups, ask for guidance, and they drive them. Most often, when they drive them, someone stops and asks questions about their cars and they teach what they know to others. 

This is an example of the kind of learning we would hope for, for all our students – a passion that is ignited and turns into knowledge that is grown, developed, and shared. In this sense, it is inquiry – asking questions and taking the required steps to answer them – that is at the heart of learning.

Inquiry moves us through a process to discover answers, some of which may change along the way as we encounter ideas we may not have thought of before. The first steps to inquiry don’t require much hardware beyond that of our own brains. Like the car owners above, we formulate a question from a passion or an interest that excites us and creates a desire to answer it and build upon it. We then search for the data; sorting it, analyzing it, mixing/matching it and turning it into new knowledge.

As teachers, we too have an essential question to ask ourselves: how can our students gain content knowledge while also gaining the skills necessary to not just complete tasks, but to transfer them into college, career and life-ready skills, as intended by the Common Core? In other words, how does the classroom teacher get support for inquiry teaching, which teaches students to turn information into knowledge in order to think critically? My modest proposal:

What if we used the library – the largest classroom in the school – to help us create a culture of inquiry in our schools?

The library itself – as a space – is an important center in a school where students can go to meet up, complete classroom assignments, find great reading, and get instruction on how to conduct research. A library is a kind of “third space," a bridge between the environments of the classroom and the world outside the school doors. In the school library, students can find the resources they need to answer the questions they create, while surrounded by an environment designed to pique their interest and give them the tools they need to satisfy their curiosity. We already know that libraries house books, but in well funded school libraries there are also computers, audio and video equipment and many other tools for students and faculty to use. There are areas in which to make things and design things, or to just read quietly. Such an environment allows for individual passion to grow because it provides that safe spot where instruction, practice, and serendipity merge. The library professional acts as a “nudge” to introduce new ideas, research, or tools. Librarians also provide this “nudge” to their classroom colleagues in the school, providing needed professional development and by collaborating on adding dynamic technology to lessons or team-teaching throughout a unit.

More generally, what librarians bring to a school is an expertise of systems, a knowledge of resource gathering, circulating, and administering and, most importantly, of the “big picture” of a school campus. This means that the librarian can connect some of the educational “dots” between disciplines, and work with their classroom colleagues to design articulated lessons that cross subjects. As teachers themselves (most states require school librarians to hold a subject matter credential along with their librarian credential), school librarians can partner up with classroom teachers to teach those important research and technology skills that allow inquiry to blossom.

We are, however, increasingly trying to provide this kind of learning environment in a vacuum. The teacher necessary for providing it—the credentialed school librarian—is missing from more and more schools. In far too many states, library doors are closing, school librarians are being replaced with classified personnel or parent volunteers. In my 25 years of working as a teacher librarian in California, I’ve seen the state slide to an all time low of 804 librarians, which, proportionally speaking, ranks at the bottom of the country. Many students attend schools in which there is no one to teach them how effectively to use the Internet, how to create proper citations, evaluate websites, or locate books. These schools lack the learning commons where students and faculty – and the community – can meet up to delve into the things that have meaning for them. The basic skills of inquiry – “how do I know that this information is useful, reliable, and relevant?" are difficult to answer when the teacher who is best able to assist them with this answer is missing. This void is expanding rapidly across the nation.

School librarians are currently the only credentialed teachers in a school who are routinely replaced with classified personnel and even volunteers. This alarming trend should be discussed now, with our union taking the lead on behalf of their school librarian members. We must ask ourselves what educational opportunities are lost when the school librarian disappears, as is the case in so many schools throughout the U.S.?

The typical answer, when a response is indeed proffered, is that librarians are not needed because “everything is on the internet now” or “you can do your research on Google." This is nonsense. Without librarians, students and educators lose the presence of faculty “at the point of need," the daily professional development and support, and access to valuable resources that cannot be located with simple web searches. And, most importantly, students receive little or no instruction in those skills that are specifically demanded by higher education institutions and the labor market, not to mention the equally important access to the encouragement and advice that a librarian can provide, and the serendipity of discovery that exists on those shelves, and within those books and tools.

It’s time for a national discussion about school libraries. Why are school administrators allowed to replace librarians with classified personnel? Why is there no union hue and cry over school libraries closing? Why are libraries considered “support programs” when over 21 state studies have confirmed that the presence of the library team raises student achievement (e.g., Lance and Hofschire 2012; Lance and Schwarz 2012; Achterman 2008)?

As the educational leadership organization that cares the most about reform and student achievement, teacher unions need to take leadership in two areas: 1) educate policymakers at all levels on the value and importance of the school librarian and 2) advocate for changes in law that will protect school librarian positions. These actions would require our union to build the coalitions necessary to create lasting change – and a positive future for all our students.

We know that a robust library program, properly staffed, is an important center for all students. Why are we letting the demise of the school library just….happen? Let’s put this on the union table for discussion today.

- Connie Williams


A call to action by someone who knows first-hand the needs of students to have access to a vibrant school library program.


As technology becomes more and more integrated into education, and less and less money is spent on not only IT but professional development for teachers and tech ed for students, who is left to pick up the slack? Teacher-Librarians are, at least for schools that are lucky enough to have them. The worst thing we as educators can do to ensure that our students are not prepared for the challenges of the 21st century is to perpetuate the myth that "kids are so good at technology". They aren't, and they need to be taught how to use technology for more than consumerism. In districts that can't afford computer programing or computer skills classes, Teacher-Librarians can bridge the gap between traditional education and the skills needed for the 21st century by providing professional development for teachers and skill lessons for students.


True words spoken eloquently by a woman who knows the struggles of teacher librarians and the challenges facing California schools.


Well written and well said. We should be protecting school libraries and public libraries with everything we have. It's not about money anymore, it's about protecting the our intellectual posterity.