Every school needs a certified school library media specialist

By Beth Thomas

The digital divide has been an issue in education for years. It’s been magnified during the pandemic. A lot of conversation about closing this divide centers on ensuring that all New Jersey students have access to a device and reliable Wi-Fi. This is an important step. However, it will not close the divide. While devices and Wi-Fi will give students access to the internet, many students are lacking the educator who is uniquely qualified to teach them how to navigate the deluge of information they will encounter: a certified school library media specialist (SLMS).

Certified SLMSs instruct students on information literacy: how to search for, evaluate and synthesize information, how to use digital resources to create their own content, and how to do all of this ethically and responsibly. The revised New Jersey Student Learning Standards now include a standard for Information and Media Literacy, a subject and skill set that SLMSs are certified to teach.

SLMSs go beyond the walls, literally and figuratively, to teach students how to be insightful and critical users of information. They guide students in becoming responsible digital citizens, they foster a love of reading in students because they know the perfect books to put in their hands at just the right time, and they provide students access to enrichment experiences such as maker activities. SLMSs also support their colleagues’ professional development and the curricula of the entire school.

SLMSs are certified, via accredited graduate programs, to do all of the above and their expertise is integral in developing career-and-college-ready students. Furthermore, the instruction they provide contributes to creating an informed electorate, something that is more vital than ever given the impact of information illiteracy we have seen in the last four years.

After reading about all of the roles SLMSs fill, one would think that every school would be staffed with a certified SLMS. Unfortunately, too many students in New Jersey do not have access to this educator. There are many districts with either no SLMS or just one who is assigned to thousands of students and several school buildings, making it nearly impossible for them to be effective in working with students and staff. This is the case in many low-economy districts.

Additionally, a number of districts hire consultants, enlist parent volunteers, or have other noncertified staff run their libraries. Many have shuttered the library completely or reconfigured it into classrooms or labs. Districts are hiring educators for positions that do not have New Jersey Department of Education-endorsed certification, and NJASL has been hearing from members who have been forced to abandon their programs to cover classes, cover duty periods or monitor study halls.

Library budgets are being cut and money is being reallocated to add to classroom libraries—libraries that do not have the breadth or depth of a school library and that are available to only the students in that classroom. Furthermore, the books in these collections are typically sold by vendors as classroom sets and, in my own experience, I have seen collections that included nonfiction books about the solar system that were published in the early 1990s.

SLMSs work with every student and teacher in their building and provide access to a current and diverse, professionally-curated collection of resources that supports the entire curricula of the school and every level of learner, from English language learners to striving readers to students who read years beyond their grade levels. They utilize professional journals to ensure that the highest quality resources are purchased, and I can assure you that any book on the solar system published in the 1990s would have been weeded from the collection after Pluto lost its designation as a planet.

The essential tools of computer devices and internet access will be of little value if students do not understand how to best navigate, locate and evaluate information. The internet is more than Google.

Furthermore, the lack of instruction on how to use information contributes to what researcher Johannes J. Britz calls “information poverty.” To break this cycle of information poverty and achieve full information equity, students deserve more than simple access to devices and internet connectivity. They deserve to have the services of a certified school library media specialist. Then real information equity can be achieved.

Sources:  Hall, Tracie. “Necessary Trouble: Eradicating Information Poverty.” American Libraries. Sept. 1, 2020. https://bit.ly/3crFt2P