You are here

Primary Source Acting Director's Message -- August 2010

Image Caption: 
Thursday, August 19, 2010

In my son's personal archives is a school library license, a tiny cardboard rectangle that states that the bearer "knows how to use the library carefully and courteously and is welcome to be there." David received his ‘license to learn’ from Bernice Williams, the school librarian at Barcroft Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia, back in 1984 when he was just nine years old. His elementary school experience included regular library visits to study the Dewey Decimal system, conduct research as a cub reporter on the "Barcroft Newsbag," and receive Mrs. Williams? helpful advice and guidance on all his subjects.

When he entered H B. Woodlawn Secondary Program in Arlington, Virginia, in the seventh grade, school librarian Judy Mayeux joined the ranks of MIP (most important people) in David?s education. "You could ask her anything," he says about this universally-beloved member of the Woodlawn faculty. She fostered David's love of learning and encouraged him to apply for a summer job at the Arlington Central Library. In high school, he worked in the county library's talking book program for the blind and manned the central library's reference desk during summers and on weekends. David's information-seeking and information-finding skills, fostered at the school and public libraries, were complemented by his passion for geography and his acumen with foreign languages. Today, he uses this portfolio of skills (fully supplemented with a raft of more recently-acquired digital competencies) as an advanced information specialist, cataloguing and digitizing maps and atlases from around the world. He absolutely loves his job.

I?m reminded of my son?s school library experience because it?s August and ‘back to school’ time. Just as school librarians played pivotal roles in my son's education, today's school librarians are indispensable resources for students, teachers, and parents. They hone young people?s reading abilities and instill an appreciation for books. They serve as invaluable partners to teachers and school administrators, working to integrate and provide resources across the entire curriculum. In today?s media- and information-rich global knowledge society, it?s not only about the Dewey Decimal system: today?s school librarians are the experts in the all-important 21st century skills of information, media, and digital literacy. They help students and teachers navigate the full spectrum of printed, online, and digital resources, teach students how to find, analyze, and evaluate trusted sources of information regardless of media, and move fluidly across disciplines and subjects. Many of today's school libraries are sophisticated learning environments that foster the knowledge-seeking, knowledge-sharing, and knowledge-understanding skills that serve young people throughout their lifetimes.

Despite their increased importance, many school librarians face tough times. In Oregon, for example, the number of library and media specialists across the state has dwindled from 818 in 1980 to 376 in 2008. The number of students per library and media specialist has correspondingly grown from 547 in 1980 to 1,500 in 2008. [Source: Oregon School Directory, Oregon Department of Education.] Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that, nationwide, there is just one FTE librarian per 906 pupils in US public schools.

These cutbacks are occurring just when our nation is being urged to "integrate digital and media literacy as critical elements for education at all levels" [The Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age, Washington, D.C.: The Aspen Institute, October 2009]. At a time when finding trusted information sources and digital and media competencies are "new forms of foundational learning," we need our school librarians more than ever [The Knight Commission report].

The look, feel, and experiences of the school library have changed significantly in the 24 years since my son was a child. At the vanguard of these changes is the American Association of School Librarians, which last year issued Standards for the 21st-Century Learner to help school library media specialists bring 21st-century skills into the heart of the learning process. School librarians today continue to provide vital connections across all grades and subjects, foster a love of learning, and nurture a set of skills that stay with students for the rest of their lives. As my own son's experience indicates, school librarians can make all the difference in a child's life.

—Marsha L. Semmel, Acting Director, IMLS

Click here to read the full August 2010 issue of the Primary Source e-newsletter.

      IMLS Press Contacts
Jeannine Mjoseth,
Mamie Bittner,

About the Institute of Museum and Library Services
The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation's 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute's mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas. The Institute works at the national level and in coordination with state and local organizations to sustain heritage, culture, and knowledge; enhance learning and innovation; and support professional development. To learn more about the Institute, please visit