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Posted at 06:00 AM ET, 07/22/2011

What is literacy today? The Daring Librarian explains

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This was written by M.E. Steele-Pierce, who works at the intersection of policy and practice as a district superintendent for West Clermont Schools in Pennsylvania where, she says, it’s all personal. She is an alum of the Harvard Change Leadership Group and currently a member of Powerful Learning Practice, a professional development company that works with educators and that has a blog on which this post appeared. She considers herself a creative bureaucrat in terested in how individuals and systems change.

Below is an edited version of an interview Steele-Pierce did with The Daring Libarian, otherwise known as Gwyneth Anne Jones, who works as a teacher-librarian in Laurel, Md., and who writes a daring blog.

By M.E. Steele-Pierce

One of my favorite voices from the literacy revolution is The Daring Librarian, self-proclaimed goofball, geek, and “EdTech teaching ninja.” As schools around the country (including my district) pink slip librarians because of budget cuts, I began my own ninja quest to better understand the shift from library-as-sacred-institution to library-on-the-chopping-block. What’s going on? Are libraries facing extinction or entering a shift? Who are the library change agents championing affordable, sustainable alternatives to the old school library model?

I turned to The Daring Librarian for insights and had the opportunity to interview her alter ego, Gwyneth Anne Jones, one of the Library Journal’s Movers & Shakers of 2011. Gwyneth works as teacher-librarian in Laurel, Maryland, and serves on the ISTE Board of Directors. Widely recognized in the Web 2.0 circuit, Gwyneth is known for her outgoing presence and professional generosity. She calls herself an “enthusiastic champion of transliteracy, creative commons, open source, shameless sharing” and “fearless fighter of filters!”

Gwyneth’s trademarks include her quirky humor, engaging graphics, and comic tutorials. Listen in to our conversation from her library office at Murray Hill Middle School.

Q) Do your friends call you Gwyneth or Gwyneth Anne, or do they call you Daring?

A) Gwyneth, never Gwyn, or they call me Goofball. Or Red.

Q) For starters, how would you define literacy in 2011?

A) Transliteracy. It’s transliteracy. Thinking beyond the format. Literacy has evolved, to not be defined or confined by container or format. It’s not just reading words on a page. It might be decoding graphic novels, it might be decoding video. It will be literacy in forms we haven’t even dreamed yet. We should encourage kids now to get their literary riches in formats that appeal to them and that they are comfortable with, whatever it may be. That is the future. The literacy of the future is finding meaning in many forms.

Q) I’m wondering then if the library of the future might be about finding meaning in different forms. There’s been such a bubble of news and tension right now about libraries and librarians. What is your advice to teacher librarians?

A) ... My advice to librarians who are going through some sort of transition or downsizing is to step up their web presence. You can’t easily get rid of what you see. The more visible librarians are in their community or school or district, the less likely that they’ll be taken away. Those teacher librarians who are hiding their brilliant programs under a bushel, that’s when they’re most likely to get cut because their program is not visible to the community. When libraries get cut, people say, “So what are they doing? They’re just checking out books.” That’s what we have to fight – that perception!

Show yourself in a positive way –I believe in free speech and in saying what’s on your mind (I’m the Daring Librarian after all!) and believe me, my big mouth has gotten me into trouble. But I also realize that though there may be a time to criticize your district or your school, right now is not the time to do that in a haphazard manner. Rather, I try to be on the positive side. We must never give anybody ammunition to use against us. And there is never a right place or time to criticize our customers – our students. That’s just wrong. I’m not saying you can’t be controversial or you cannot say your mind. Just know that prudence and balance are important to support why you are needed in the community [so] always be professional.

Q) You’ve had a web presence for quite a while. I can imagine that maybe your tech skills and artistic flair might intimidate people just venturing out digitally. What advice would you give library staff who are just beginning a web presence?

A) Starting is easy. The whole ReadWriteWeb concept changes the way we do things. Back in the day when I started my web presence – and yeah I’ve been designing pages since 1995 – I created early, ugly pages with old html. But now it’s so much easier. This day of WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) has really changed the game. You don’t have to be good at DreamWeaver or Composer or Java scripting [to create engaging web content].

The first, easiest step is to start with a wiki. Some people think, “Oh, I’ll start blogging,” and then they feel guilty if they don’t post as often as they should. My advice would be to just start with a wiki. A free Wikispaces account for educators means no advertisements (and they don’t pay me for this—I’m a big fan but not on their payroll).

Wikispaces gives you the ability to click, type, and save. It’s done! So you can post great resources and take resources from others. I always say that any wikipages I have that people want, they can just take the whole page, and put my name very tiny at the bottom for attribution.

So, Rule one: Start with a wiki. That can become your school library web page. It can be where you put your mission statement, how you help your students and teachers, your resources and databases. Another page could be helpful tech tips, professional development tips. Still another page can be research resources or hotlinks for your students to use with your SQWORL [a web application] resources or your LiveBinders or whatever you use. WikiSpaces allows for embedding a widget so easily; it’s simple to use, flexible, and yet very attractive looking. That’s what to start with....

Rule two: When blogging, never apologize for not posting. People don’t want to hear that. I think about my school blog that I started in 2006 a few months after I saw Francey Harris’s Gargoyles Loose in the Library [blog] at my first AASL [American Association of School Librarians] in Pittsburgh. My first year I had like eight posts — that’s it. It’s funny to go back and re-read it. But we must just try. We have to stick with it. Post when you can, be upbeat, share what you can, give anecdotes about your profession or your school or your students. Show pictures. You know I’m very visual, so any blog that’s got lots of pictures is always one that I’ll read!

Q) One of my favorite librarians, Deb Baldwin, says that she sees librarians becoming marginalized in our schools. Do you see that?

A) We cannot affect real change if we are invisible and inaudible. Advocacy – having a voice – definitely helps us. Some things, sadly, we cannot change. It’s scary. But we have to proactively stave off anti-education, anti-library movements by being advocates in our own professions. Honestly this is one of the most exciting times to be a teacher-librarian in our country and in our world, and also one of the scariest.

But we’ve weathered through these storms before. In the early 1990s we went through the same thing. I remember in my area, the county next to mine got rid of a hundred teacher librarians. And over time the economy came back up and it took a couple of years to get their schools back to having libraries and programs flourishing. And so next year that same county is letting go 122 librarians. Definitely, there are communities that have knee-jerk reactions when the economy goes down. They think that because librarians are not grading students every day, we are not valuable.

When I was working in public relations in the health care industry in the late 1980s, everyone who wasn’t directly related to patient care was axed. There’s a parallel to today. They said, “We’ll just use an outside firm to help us.” So I took my masters degree in instructional technology and became a library media specialist, because I thought that would be job security! (And because I love reading and I had a true calling!) But job security – that’s just a false hope. We used to think if someone had tenure (I’m going on my 20th year) you were secure. But who has 100% job security in this world, really? The only job security is being damn good at your job.

Q) Did you read what [author] Seth Godin said about The Future of Libraries?

A) Yeah, and it caused a lot of controversy but I don’t disagree with him.

Q) One of the things Godin wrote was, “The librarian isn’t a clerk who happens to work at a library. A librarian is a data hound, a guide, a sherpa and a teacher. The librarian is the interface between reams of data and the untrained but motivated user.” Is that an accurate description?

A) You know there are a lot of definitions. I don’t have a problem with that. A sherpa’s not a bad thing. A sherpa helps you get up the mountain. He said, “A librarian is a data hound, a guide, a sherpa and a teacher.” I like that metaphor. That resonates with me! You know what? If you’re offended, you’re not looking at the holistic view of library.

People say, “Who is Godin to talk about our profession?” Well, anybody can talk about our profession. We’re not sacrosanct! When did we start being censors? Sometimes we can be most critical of those who criticize us. I think that we really have to take a clear look at the future of the library. What is our role? We have so many. We need to step up. Each in our own way.

Q) What is the changing role of the librarian?

A) Well, for one thing you can still have a vibrant library program even if you don’t have a lot of technology. It’s about new ways of thinking and research and embracing our mix-up mashup culture. We understand how kids today think and give them a voice and their choice. We allow them to take the research that they gather from traditional or electronic means and come up with their own kind of product in a way that allows for creativity and flexibility. We create a la carte menus, instead of the traditional book report, the diorama, or the trifold. If they’re writers, we nudge them (write a screen play, heck, write a reality show) to think of another angle. Teachers say that all kids do is cut and paste. You know, if you give them a creative assessment tool, they can’t cheat...

Q) You’re one of the best examples I know of what I call “professional generosity.”

A) I really just honestly believe the more you give, the more you get back. It’s like good karma or paying it forward. My Mom was a teacher so she raised me that way! You know a lot of people borrow from me, but I also borrow from a lot of people. Plus, who needs to reinvent the wheel? Just borrow and give great attribution. The more we’re generous with each other, the better it is for our profession.

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