10 Traits of Successful School Librarians



By Doug Johnson
From The Blue Skunk Blog

Colter Elementary School Library

I’ve been a school librarian or school library supervisor since 1979. In the nearly 40 years since I’ve had the pleasure of working with many outstanding individuals. Librarians who make a huge difference in the lives of both the kids and adults with whom they work. Librarians who have a passion for books, for technology, and for ideas and, by sharing those passions, imbue other with them. Librarians whose jobs never seem to be on the cutting block.

The librarians I most respect for their success share many of these traits:

  1. They value people more than stuff. It’s funny how the best librarians don’t seem to worry much about lost, broken, or overdue materials. They worry about the people they serve and in caring for patrons, those lost, broken, and overdue things seem to simply not be a problem. Good relationships, not lots of rules, are effective for these individuals.
  2. They own the responsibility for the effectiveness of the library program, but not the library itself.The librarians I respect most understand that the whole school “owns” the library, not them. They are the custodians of this jointly-owned resource. All advocacy efforts have at their core WIIFMS (What’s In IT For My Students/Staff) They will never refer to where they work as “my library.”
  3. They over communicate. Respected librarians understand that those in schools with discretionary time and discretionary budgets need to be very transparent about how their time and budgets are spent. They understand that others cannot advocate for a program if they don’t know what that program does. Administrators, teachers, and parents all know the exciting things happening in the libraries of the best librarians.
  4. They understand the long view and are critical to the over arching mission of their parent organizations. Collaboration is not just between themselves and classroom teachers. They are also collaborative leaders, serving on building committees – curriculum, building, planning, etc. The role of the library becomes deeply embedded in making other individuals, programs and the school itself successful.
  5. They don’t evaluate their programs based on arbitrary standards. Effective librarians know and understand state and national library standards, but they tailor them – selecting some, rejecting others – to meet the specific needs of their buildings, staff, and students. They take on jobs and acquire resources that may not have been covered in library school but are mission critical in their work environment. They are flexible about everything but their values.
  6. They create safe and welcoming environments. For students, the libraries created by these librarians  become Oldenburg’s “third place” – a space of comfort, welcome, and safety. Great librarians take pride not in collections, technology, or furniture within the library walls, but in the groups of students, especially those who may not “fit” in the regular school societies, working and playing in the space. It seems these folks libraries are rarely empty.
  7. They know that empowering others is the source of their own power and security. Too often people believe job security comes for having knowledge that no one else has. But as my dad liked to say, “The graveyard is filled with indispensable people.” The librarians I know who are critical to their organizations are not knowledge and skill hoarders, but natural teachers who help others develop life-long skills in technology use, information evaluation, communication, problem-solving.
  8. They swing both ways: lit and tech. The bifurcation of the profession started just as I entered it in the early 1980s. Yet the best school librarians retained interest, knowledge, and skills in both children’s and YA literature as they learned how to use technology to find and communicate information. Most of us in the profession have a preference – lit or tech – but the best support both and find powerful ways to combine them.
  9. They put the needs of kids before the wants of adults. ‘nuf said.
  10. They are mission driven.  Angela Falkenberg writes “…my mission is to guide students’ development towards a love of reading and passion to use their knowledge to achieve their dreams as they learn to navigate the world. …  I simply want students to believe in their possibility.” It was Angela’s words that were the impetus for this post. She reminded me that truly great librarians let a greater purpose drive them, give them courage, blunt criticism, let them sleep well at night. For many years, one of my keynote talks addressed courage as a vital technology skill. But I have since come to realize that courage is a necessity for all successful individuals.

I suspect there is little in this list you’ve not heard or read before. I am sure I have missed some attributes of the best librarians I’ve known. Pat yourself on the back a bit for the qualities from this list that you display. Work on those you don’t. I am sure as heck working on a lot of them myself.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

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