The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Without a Librarian a School is Incomplete

on January 10, 2017

Although I miss the sun, the sand, and the swimming I just left, I am also happy to be back writing to all of you. If only the ice in front of my house would melt and it wouldn’t snow tomorrow, I’d be completely satisfied. 

A few years ago when I was visiting elementary schools regularly in order to do research on the teaching of reading and writing in mixed language classrooms, I often passed a school library and peeked in. Almost always, the library was well stocked and orderly but also empty of students and a librarian. Although I was saddened to see libraries that way, I was not surprised. Back in 1998, when I was still a school principal in Oregon, our school district eliminated elementary school librarians because of the tight budget situation, but also I suspect, because of officials’ ignorance about the important role of libraries in students’ learning.

Fortunately, at our school we were able to replace the librarian with an instructional aide who had worked with her for quite a while. She knew how to manage books, computers, and children, and I gave her full reign. But I wasn’t able to pay her a librarian’s salary or have her work full time. A couple of years after I retired in 2000, I heard that she was leaving her job to continue her education and become a certified librarian. I am sure she is still doing a great job at a fortunate school somewhere.

Over my 12 years at that school, and the previous 13 years when I was a school principal in Wisconsin, the library was the heart of our school. In those times all elementary schools had librarians, and all classes were scheduled to visit the library for a full period once a week. Traditionally, a librarian would introduce students to high quality new books or classics by reading aloud or spend time teaching students how to use the library to find whatever materials they wanted. At my school teachers could also sign up to have small groups visit the library at open periods to find materials to support the topics they were studying or explore new interests with the librarian’s help. Also, once a month teacher teams from each grade would meet with the librarian to identify the materials and assistance they needed for the units students would be working on next. They might also suggest new materials for the library that would help students with their learning.

In addition, our school libraries were open for thirty minutes during the noon hour so students could exchange a book or just browse instead of being on the playground. We felt that this extra opportunity was important because most students came and went on school busses and could not visit the library before or after school.

Although our library spending was high at both schools, we had no budget problems because our spending for classroom materials was very low. We did not buy textbooks or workbooks for students. The only classroom materials we purchased were paperback books, matched as far as possible to the units teachers would be teaching. Surprisingly, those paperbacks usually lasted several years, needing only a little scotch tape to hold their covers together.

As far as I know, our devotion to making the library the heart of our schools was—and still is–exceptional. Yet, because it worked in so many ways, not only for students but also for teachers and our budget, I recommend something similar to current schools, even though I doubt their freedom to make it happen in these times of one-size-fits–all learning and high stakes testing. At the very least, however, all elementary schools should have a strong library and a wise librarian.

3 responses to “Without a Librarian a School is Incomplete

  1. Randy Hitz says:

    Thanks for this Joanne. It was timely for me as we struggle at PSU to keep our Library Media Endorsement program alive.


  2. Don Bellairs says:

    An “old-school” librarian could add a lot to a school. I’ve worked with many who were really helpful, but the job has evolved. Today, many schools have a “media center” and some librarians are untrained for the type of work that takes place there. I have seen people in media/tech centers who made schools function better, but I have seen sycophants who were not teachers whose only avenue to influence was by being gatekeeper of technology. You hope these people are fair and supportive of the work that takes place in the classroom, but that is sometimes not the case. All of the support staff in the building should be focused on making what happens in the classroom more meaningful–librarians/tech center managers should be teachers, not pseudo-administrators.


  3. Thank you, Joanne, for sharing your experience and knowledge of the potential of school librarians to serve the literacy learning needs of students and support for classroom teachers through the library program, “the heart of the school.” School librarians especially appreciate educators such as you who speak out regarding the importance of our role in education. Here are some other principal testimonials that might inspire your readers:

    Liked by 1 person

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