Reflection Post, Week 5

This week’s discussion topics helped me place my system of interest, libraries, in the bigger picture of systems of systems. Discussion topic three asked us to think about how the interconnections between systems impact stakeholders’ behavior in a system example. I looked at the systemic failure of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) for the exercise. Delving into the news and research related to the problems with CPS made me realize just how connected that system is to the larger Illinois state government system. Decisions made at the state level that negatively impact the state’s own budget ended up trickling down to all the systems within the state that depend on state funding. CPS relies heavily on state funding in addition to local funding (e.g., city funding, earmarked taxes). CPS is such a behemoth of a school system that it has suffered greatly under the near bankruptcy of the state of Illinois. All school systems (K-12, higher education) have been affected by Illinois’ financial fiasco to some extent. However, CPS has fared worse because it is the largest school system in the state and because it is dealing with additional strains, such as high rates of poverty, that have negative impacts on student learning. Those additional strains led to decisions, such as a push for charter schools, that further strained the financial problems facing CPS. The fixes that were offered to manage the CPS system have failed across the board. Charter schools have failed to bridge gaps in achievement. Closing schools with low enrollment has created additional burdens for the schools that have taken in those students. Cutting budgets has led to impasses in contract negotiations with the teachers’ union, leading to low teacher morale and staffing cuts. Increased school board oversight has led to a high turnover with principals, who cite reasons for leaving as low autonomy and too much paperwork.

This brings me to the libraries in CPS. What has happened to them amidst the battle to fix the system? Some have been shuttered, and school librarians at CPS are now few and far between, despite the fact that school libraries are significantly strongly correlated with higher reading scores, even when controlling for student income levels. What the exercise with CPS shows me is that libraries as a system are at risk of extinction when the health of the systems they support are in jeopardy. There is documenting support of this phenomenon on a global level. Why? I believe that the answer lies in the invention of the Internet. If classrooms are stocked with books and schools have access to the Internet, who needs a school librarian? Of course, this makes no sense from a systems thinking perspective because the cost of purchasing the same books for multiple classrooms far exceeds the cost of purchasing books as shared resources. Furthermore, in the age of “fake news,” students need an expert to guide them through the information ecosystem. Classroom teachers are not qualified to fill this role, as many of them lack strong information literacy skills. In the long term, school library systems are necessary to the health of the K-12 systems like CPS. Though the fate of libraries (and librarians) may seem like something that must be accepted as a result of the trickle down effect of dysfunction from the systems that support it, this is not necessarily true. What if librarians lobbied harder to save their libraries (and themselves)? What if librarian educators collaborated with teacher educators to create a culture of support for libraries so that future education leaders better understood their value? In the health of a vulnerable system like libraries, human capital is the greatest resource.

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A Reflection on the Library as My System of Interest

Note: This is a reflection post for LTEC 6250.

My system of interest is the library, which has also been my career field for nearly twenty years now. I started library school after a year of working in a terrible job directly out of college (customer service). I spent that year examining what I really wanted to do, knowing that I wanted to get a master’s degree. After reading many job descriptions and looking through pages of job ads (the Internet was not quite the place yet for job hunting), I zeroed in on librarianship because it seemed to be a good aptitude fit—I had always been an asker and a finder and the person who did all the research in group assignments in my undergraduate years. And it turned out that I would indeed be a very good fit for the library system.

Libraries matter to me because they matter to their users. I learned that lesson during my internship at an academic library while in library school. One day I helped a young woman find medical research that supported her suspicion that a medication she was taking was causing additional medical problems. It was a simple reference transaction, and she appeared satisfied with the information I found for her. Several months later, as I was walking into work, she approached me again and told me that I had saved her life. Apparently, the doctor read the articles that I had found her and made the decision to change her medication. That changed her life, and her gratitude toward the little role I played in it changed my life. From a systems perspective, I helped return function to this young woman’s own system through my role as a librarian. As a result, I came to realize that libraries are intricately connected to the larger life world. It’s an important relationship.

That perspective may also be a bias—I will always see the value in libraries even when others do not, and I will always be an advocate for libraries. That being said, after stepping away from librarianship these last few years to write a book and pursue my PhD, I find that I can be more objective about libraries as systems. Objectivity is much more difficult to achieve when working in a library because it is difficult to see the bigger picture. Stepping away from library work to become a librarian educator has enabled me to see the bigger picture of the library and its place in the larger systems that it supports. Learning how to conduct and interpret research has also given me the ability to apply concepts of librarianship within the bigger picture and see the flaws that exist in current library systems. As a result, I have become as much a critic about library systems as I am an advocate; and my advocacy has turned toward improving the systemic problems that currently exist in libraries rather than blindly supporting them.

One systemic problem I would like to fix comes from the lag in the library school curriculum in preparing school and academic librarians for roles in instructional design and technology. Right now, librarians in the field are trying to fill their own skills gaps through personal learning networks and continuing education. Unfortunately, that solution has created more problems because the people who are doing the teaching are not always experts themselves (more often, they are amateur ‘experts’). That can result in the blind leading the blind with decision making that creates a ripple effect of problems for the larger systems they serve (e.g., adopting approaches that have little to no support in the research, like SAMR).