How to Become a School Librarian
March 10, 2021
How authoritative is your "shush"? If you can quiet a room of rowdy children, you may have what it takes to be a school librarian. You'll likely also need a master's in library science.
Quick, which is better: Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress? If you answered "Whaaaa?" or "Could not possibly care less," you are probably not cut out to become a school librarian. If, on the other hand, you responded, "Jeez, I don't know, there are so many compelling arguments for each," read on.
For many students, the school library is the best room in the school, and not just because it's the only one that's air-conditioned. From first grade through high school, the school library is the place where students can escape the persistent peer pressure, the bullying, the stress of trying to outperform their classmates, and the whizzing dodgeballs. They can disappear into a book, or a podcast, or an educational website, and learn—or not learn, if they choose—for the mere pleasure of it.
Impact studies demonstrate that well-staffed, well-equipped school libraries "contribute significantly to gains in student learning." The quality of a school library, the size of a library's budget, the size and currency of a school library's collection, and the frequency of student visits to the library all correlate to higher test scores on state, national, and international reading exams. Libraries, like the words they contain, have consequences.
As a school librarian, this repository of sanctuary and wisdom is your domain, your stately pleasure dome. Take that, Kubla Khan. Interested in learning how to take your place behind the checkout desk? In this article, we'll cover:
- What does a school librarian do?
- Kinds of school librarian careers
- Educational commitment to become a school librarian
- Licensure and accreditation for becoming a school librarian
- Typical advancement path for school librarians
- The pros and cons of becoming a school librarian
- Should you become a school librarian?
What does a school librarian do?
Once upon a time, the school library was a place for books. Fancy ones had magazines too, but that was about it because that's what people read: books and magazines. (They also read comic books, but most libraries didn't have them because they weren't called graphic novels yet.)
The modern librarian needs to master a much broader range of media. In addition to print materials, a contemporary school library also houses audiovisual resources (CDs, computer games, audiobooks, DVDs, and Blu-rays) and online resources (both subscription-based and those that can be accessed for free over the internet, databases). Librarians need to know all these resources well enough to assist teachers and students in using them effectively and efficiently.
School librarians do a lot more than check out books and teach people how to use resources. Their many responsibilities include:
- Advising faculty and administration on resources and curriculum development
- Administering and recording fines
- Assisting in deciding how to allocate the library budget
- Designing instructional materials and activities
- Formulating policies for the selection, circulation, use, and retirement of resources
- Gathering and analyzing data on instruction and library resource usage
- Keeping up-to-date on best practices in library science
- Keeping up-to-date on instructional technology and sharing that knowledge with faculty and administration
- Managing library staff
- Overseeing interlibrary loan and other cooperative endeavors
- Policing copyright, fair use, and licensing issues
- Promoting reading and other media usage
At the elementary school level, they also read to the kids.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, elementary and secondary school librarians earn an average annual income of $63,720. Glassdoor reports that school librarians earn a base salary of $51,024, while PayScale.com estimates annual income for school librarians at $50,113. According to the Library Journal, school libraries in the Pacific region pay the highest (22 percent above the national median) while school libraries in the South Central states paid the least (26 percent below the national median).
Kinds of school librarian careers
The term "school librarian" is typically applied to librarians who work in elementary or secondary school libraries. Although librarians at colleges and universities are also technically "school librarians," no one calls them that. They're just librarians.
School librarians can work in the public school system or for a private school. Although no data are available comparing public and private school library income, as a general rule, private schools do not pay as well as public schools. This is undoubtedly true for teachers and almost as undoubtedly true for librarians.
Educational commitment to become a school librarian
As in all hiring matters related to public education, professional requirements for school libraries are set by the individual states. Necessary qualifications for the school librarian position accordingly vary from state to state.
There are some constants, however. To be considered for a job as a public school librarian, you will need, at a bare minimum, a bachelor's degree. School systems that hire librarians whose highest degree is a bachelor's typically expect, or require, a degree in library science, library and information technology, information technology, or another related discipline.
Many school systems, however, require school librarians to hold a master's degree, and most of those require that the master's come from a program accredited by the American Library Association (ALA), the American Association of School Librarians-Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (AASL-CAEP), or by the appropriate state department of education. These degrees carry a variety of designations, including:
- Master of Library Science
- Master of Librarianship
- Master of Library and Information Studies
- Master of Library and Information Science
- Master of Information
- Master of Information Science
- Master of Arts in Library Science
- Master of Arts in Library and Information Science
- Master of Arts in Library and Information Studies
- Master of Science in Information Studies
- Master of Science in Information and Library Science
- Master of Science in Information
While the names of these programs vary, their content is similar. In all of these programs, you will study:
- Collection management
- Digital resources and technology
- Foundations of library and information studies
- Information sources and services
- Knowledge management
- Library administration and management
- Literacy programs
- Popular culture and young readers
- Reference materials
- Research and evaluation methods
- Resources for children and young adults
- Teaching and researching history
- Web design and management
- Youth literature
Many ALA-accredited programs offer this degree online, so you are not limited to local options, nor do you need to relocate to pursue this degree. 100 percent online library science programs offering a school library concentration include:
- Catholic University of America
- Chicago State University
- Clarion University of Pennsylvania
- Florida State University
- Louisiana State University - Shreveport
- North Carolina Central University
- University of South Florida - Main Campus
- SUNY Buffalo State
- Valdosta State University
Licensure and accreditation for becoming a school librarian
There is no official certification for school librarians. In most states, the primary requirement to qualify for a job as a school librarian is graduation from an appropriate accredited master's program. You may also need to obtain a teacher's license; according to the ALA, "many states first require certification or licensure as a teacher in another subject area before the librarian certification can be obtained."
Teaching licensure requirements vary by state, but typically include:
- Earning a bachelor's degree
- Completing a teacher education training program
- Passing one or more designated Praxis exams
- Passing a background check
Typical advancement path for school librarians
School libraries typically do not hire a large staff, so there isn't much in the way of hierarchy or advancement at most school libraries. You might start working in a school library as a page or assistant, in which role you would reshelve books and answer basic questions from students. Some school libraries hire a media specialist with expertise in digital media; this expert might also be responsible for managing the school's Internet and internal network.
The one way up the ladder is to advance to the district or state level. This would put you in a management role, in which you would oversee all the libraries and supervise all the librarians in a district or state. You would receive a pay raise in this role; you would also no longer work in an actual library, as your office would likely be at the district Board of Education office or in a state government office. If you aspire to this sort of job, you should focus your efforts on budgeting and personnel management, and on impressing supervisors with how well you handle these tasks.
The pros and cons of becoming a school librarian
Pros of becoming a school librarian
- Books: The author Jorge Luis Borges once said: "I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library." If your idea of heaven is to be surrounded by books, this job is your calling. Not only will you work with books all day, but you'll also get to talk about books, recommend books, and (at lower grade levels) read books aloud to students.
- Teaching and helping: As a school librarian, you'll spend much of your day teaching students how to use library resources, and helping them find the information they need. If you enjoy helping others, this job will give you plenty of opportunities to do what you love.
- Meeting nearly everyone in the school: Pretty much every teacher and every student visits the school library at some point, often repeatedly. Unlike other educators in your school—who may only get to know the students in their class or their grade level—you'll get to know everyone.
- Learning about new technologies: The library resource landscape changes rapidly, with new technologies and advances to existing technologies emerging at a rapid clip. You'll be in a position to know and learn about them all.
- Predictable, routine work: There are very few crises in the library. Your days will be fairly predictable and even-keeled. This is a good job for someone who enjoys calm.
Cons of becoming a school librarian
- Sedentary job: Working in a school library does not afford many opportunities for physical activity. You'll spend much of your day planted at a desk or seated alongside a student. If you like to get up and move, this job may make you a bit fidgety.
- High bar of entry: You'll likely need a master's degree to get this job. That means at least six years of undergraduate and graduate study, with the attendant student debt. That's a pretty high bar of entry for a job that may not pay much more than $50,000 a year.
- Not much room for advancement: Once you've been put in charge of the school library, what's the next step up the ladder? A few ambitious librarians may advance to district management roles, but for most, the library is the last stop on their career journey. If you aspire to something more, this may not be the job for you.
- Need to keep up-to-date: Learning about new technologies is one of our pros, but it can also be a con. Do you want to know about every new gadget and student-directed website? If not, the need to stay current may become more of a chore than a benefit.
- Work can get repetitive: We mentioned that the work is predictable and routine. That also means it can get redundant and boring.
Should you become a school librarian?
Hermione Granger, of Harry Potter fame, has a default solution to all her toughest challenges: "When in doubt, go to the library." Are you like Hermione? Do you believe that the answers to most problems can be found on bookshelves? If so, a career as a school librarian is probably a good fit. You'll spend your days surrounded by the resources you love and encouraging others to love them as much as you do. You'll help faculty and students enhance their school experience, and while you won't get rich, you will make a decent living. If all that sounds good to you, then school librarian is a career you ought to check out.
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