Reporter’s Notebook

April 16, 1997 4 min read

Portland, Ore.

Librarians Urged To Stand Up, Speak Out About Key Role in Schools

Despite their reputation, they were anything but quiet.

When more than 2,000 school librarians came here for the 8th National Conference of the American Association of School Librarians earlier this month, they were determined to make their presence--and their contributions--known.

The participants responded loudly to speakers who challenged them to assert themselves.

“It is up to us to become advocates for the importance of school librarians,” Martha Gould, the vice chairwoman of the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, told the cheering crowd at the opening general session of the conference that was held April 2-5.

“Stand up, speak out, and raise a little hell,” she exhorted them. “We’ve got to let people know how essential school libraries are as the core of a quality education.”

The theme has become a rallying cry for the Chicago-based AASL, which is embarking on more intensive efforts to promote the potential of school libraries to aid the learning process and boost student achievement.

Librarians, it seems, are not very good at tooting their own horns, said association President Barbara Stripling.

“We have been pretty quiet about the role of the library in the education process,” Ms. Stripling said. “We need to advocate more for what we can do for kids.”

A new animated program under development for public television to address the nation’s reading woes easily won the endorsement of the librarians’ association. “Between the Lions,” planned for a first-season start late next year, will promote early reading skills through illustrated stories and skills exercises that are intended to encourage children to read along.

The series is based in a library whose entrance is flanked by two large lions resting on pedestals, … la some of the nation’s oldest libraries, such as the main branch in New York City.

“At the very least, we hope to show children how fun and exciting libraries are and get more children reading,” said Christopher B. Cerf, a former writer and composer for the long-running children’s TV program “Sesame Street.”

Mr. Cerf is a co-founder of Sirius Thinking, a New York City-based production company that received a $4.5 million grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to create the series. He has teamed up with longtime contributors to “Sesame Street” and other public-television programs and reading experts to design the curriculum for the series.

Using animation, puppets, and live-action film, the series will promote a balanced approach to reading instruction for children ages 4 to 7.

Some of the material for the series will be a new take on an old theme. The producers of “Between the Lions” will attempt to weave humor and adventure into the traditionally dull Dick and Jane stories from the 1950s basal readers to foster children’s interest in basic reading lessons. One story will feature the traditional characters in the face of danger.

“Look. Look, an elephant,” Dick and Jane say as an elephant charges toward them. “See the elephant run.” Their faithful dog, Spot, manages to get them out of harm’s way.

The series will also feature new characters. Cliff Hanger, a resourceful but unlucky adventurer, always finds himself dangling off a cliff from a rope or tree branch after a wild series of phonetically related physical challenges.

A long-necked dinosaur, Heath the Thesaurus, runs the library reference section and offers synonyms for every word.

The Internet could be a librarian’s dream: immediate access to millions of documents and resources from around the world, unlimited possibilities for research on almost any topic, on-line discussions with thousands of experts and enthusiasts.

But, despite its potential, many librarians are wary of the power of the globe-spanning computer network. “I’ve heard administrators say, ‘What do we need a library for when we can find anything we need on the Internet?’” said AASL President Stripling.

But if students don’t have the information-literacy skills to access the information they need in a reasonable amount of time, it will be useless to them, she said. “We are all used to having library collections that are well organized, that are planned for school use, are age appropriate and curriculum appropriate,” Ms. Stripling added. “Now the selection is the world. Without guidance, most people will be lost.”

Librarians are trying to tame the tangled information web. By teaching students searching skills, how the information on the Internet’s World Wide Web is organized, and how to evaluate the value of the information they find, “cybrarians,” as many are now referring to themselves, are hoping to bring order and reason to the latest information sources.

Anyone who has spent hours clicking through irrelevant lists, links, and documents before finding what he or she needs can verify that the librarian is anything but obsolete.