It seems that Cassondra Owens Moore was born to be a school librarian—though it took her a couple of decades to get there. She says she served “18 wonderful years” as an English language arts teacher first.
“I was so determined about encouraging my students to read, it became a running joke with them: ’If you want to get Ms. Moore off topic, just ask her about a book!’” She had 11 bookshelves in her South Carolina classroom, holding at least 1,000 books that she would lend not only to her students, but to students in other grades, too.
“In the back of my head, I thought, ‘I should have become a librarian, but I’ve already got my master’s degree, and I can’t go back to school.’” But she did go back, and in 2020, she finished her school librarian certification. She’s now in her second year as the school’s librarian.
“It’s truly my dream job,” Moore says. “I get to teach pretty much everyone in the building and have these wonderful one-on-one conversations with students.”
The school librarians that NEA Today checked in with for this story are rattled by recent efforts in some states to ban books and restrict what librarians and other educators can talk about and what materials they can provide. But they are determined to continue serving their students andspeaking up for the job they were trained to do.
“Being a school librarian requires advocacy,” says Nathan Sekinger, a middle school librarian and president-elect of the Virginia Association of School Librarians. “We must look for partners that share our passions and purpose,” he adds.
“We must connect with each other, support each other, and rely on each other. … It can only make our libraries, our classrooms, and our schools all the better.”
Read on to learn about the thoughtful work that these and other school librarians do—and how you can help support them.
‘I’m Everyone’s Librarian’
Cassondra Owens Moore, South Carolina
The student body at Seneca Middle School, where Moore works, is racially and socioeconomically diverse. “When I became the librarian, I made a pledge that I was going to be everyone’s librarian,” Moore says. She made a point of approaching a teacher who works with students who have autism.
Many of her students weren’t able to spend time in the library. When Moore asked if she could come visit the students regularly instead, the teacher just about cried, Moore recalls.
Last year, Moore launched a Strive for 25 program that challenged students to read 25 different books over the course of the school year. A number of students who signed up and reached the goal were from the self-contained classrooms.
At the end of the challenge, the school sponsored a party for all of the readers, with a bouncy house, food truck, and DJ.
“The local paper came out and covered it,” Moore says. “With the help of the teachers and the administrators, we’ve really fostered a culture of reading.”
Part of being everyone’s librarian means listening to students about what books they want added to the library.
“One student I knew as a sixth grader came back after the summer with a different name and pronouns,” Moore says. “He asked, ‘How come there aren’t books that represent me?’ I sat down that very day to research and order titles he recommended.”
“When … I showed him the books, he said, ‘You listened!’ He brought in six other friends, and now they come by almost every morning.” A few people have asked if she’s worried abou “being controversial” in her conservative county.
“I tell them I’m not doing anything to be controversial,” Moore explains. “I’m a librarian, and I work to serve all of my students. That’s all.”
‘We’re Teaching Life Skills’
Susan Yutzey, Retired Librarian, Ohio
Yutzey became head librarian at Upper Arlington High School after earning a doctorate and working in higher education. It was the early 2000s, and she oversaw the library’s “digital revolution,” replacing outdated books with vast databases, and developing lessons on evaluating the credibility of online sources.
“I have to credit the teachers with integrating what we were doing with all of the students’ research projects,” Yutzey says. “By the time the students were juniors, they were pretty proficient in using databases and understanding and citing sources. The research they were doing was pretty inspiring by the time I left, in 2012.”
“I’ve had so many students come back and say that the things they learned from us in high school made it so much easier for them in college. We’re teaching life skills here.”
She knew they were fortunate to have a licensed school librarian/media specialist in every building. And that’s why she was willing to stand up and testify before local and state policymakers to keep those positions when they were on the chopping block.
“The Ohio Education Association has been so supportive of school librarians. They were with us every step of the way to keep certified positions. I’ve always been thankful for that.”
‘School Libraries Cannot be Battlegrounds’
Kathleen Daniels, Florida
In January, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law forbidding school media specialists from making materials available to students that suggest that people are inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive; that anyone bears responsibility for past actions of their race or sex; and that anyone should feel “guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress” for actions committed in the past by members of the same race or sex.
Now any given book can be pulled from the shelves if just one person objects to it. School librarians have to seek parental approval before adding any new titles to the library.
“Our school libraries cannot be battlegrounds, because ultimately the ones who lose are the kids, and especially our most vulnerable kids,” says Daniels, a librarian at Barrington Middle School, in Lithia, and president of the Florida Association for Media in Education.
Seventeen other states have passed similar laws. “Denying students material about the history of race and racism in America and the lives of LGBTQ people, or books with characters who survive sexual assault, does them a huge disservice,” Daniels says.
“Denying students material about the history of race and racism in America and the lives of LGBTQ people, or books with characters who survive sexual assault, does them a huge disservice,” Daniels says.
While she respects that parents have a say in what their children read, she says, “They should not decide what all children read.”
‘We Are Connectors’
Nathan Sekinger, Virginia
A school library is both, “a refuge and a resource,” says Sekinger, who heads up the library at Gayle Middle School, in Stafford County. “And an amazing one can be the heart of a school.”
He wants the library to be a place where each of his school’s 1,000 students feel supported— where they can explore new worlds, make connections with classroom learning, and start to figure out their trajectory.
But school librarians are there as teachers, too.
“Last school year, I taught over 700 lessons in more than 25 content areas, reaching all students in my school,” Sekinger says.
“To do this well meant working as an instructional partner with teachers,” he explains. “Librarians make excellent collaborators. I’m always working to stay in step with what is happening in a teacher’s classroom.”
As an information specialist, Sekinger strives to give every student a robust understanding of how to conduct research that includes diverse opinions and resources. But wonder and inspiration are critical, and his lessons take many forms.
“We may start the week with video game design and microcontrollers … and end with hosting manga fans for a reading trivia challenge,” he says “I always look for ways to inspire my students and connect them to literature, the library, and each other.”