School libraries aren’t the quiet places you might remember if you were a student decades ago, says Cathi Fuhrman, library department supervisor for the Hempfield School District.
They are now places to explore, to use video studios and 3D printers and to build things with Legos in library “maker spaces,” says Fuhrman, who recently started her one-year term as president of the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association.
The role of school librarians continues to evolve to meet the academic needs of each new generation of students, she says, teaching them media literacy and helping prepare them to be good citizens and members of the workforce.
Libraries are a second career for Fuhrman, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in library science and a doctorate of education in curriculum and technology.
We sat down with Fuhrman in the library at Hempfield High School in Landisville to ask about her priorities as state president and about the current and future role of school libraries in education.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How long have you worked in school libraries?
I’ve been at Hempfield for 25 years and I've been the (library department) supervisor for 20. I started (in 1994) at Centerville Middle School as a middle school librarian.
How did you get interested in library work?
I actually was a library aide in high school, at Elizabethtown High School, and did that for six years, sixth through 12th grades. I went off to college to be a math major and then a business major and then I was actually a college dropout.
I worked in business for seven years. I was in sales. And I met my husband, we got married, started a family, and I decided I wanted to go back to school.
And I met an amazing (education) professor at Millersville University, Dr. Marge Tassia, who was head of that library department at the time. I just fell in love with the passion she had for students as a librarian. I was 29 when I became a librarian. It was the best move I ever made in my life.
What is the purpose of the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association?
We are the professional association for school librarians here in Pennsylvania. We are an affiliate of the American Association of School Librarians.
Our goal is to transform teaching and learning in Pennsylvania for students through a quality school library program. So we are the association that will help school librarians have the resources to support the professional development and (give them) the advocacy tools that they need so they can have and implement a quality school library program.
There’s the instructional piece: What should we be teaching students? There is the facilities piece: What makes it a quality school library? Well, it’s a welcoming place. It’s a safe place for students. It’s accessible to everyone.
And then there’s the management piece. How do you manage the library? The equipment? The print books? The digital resources? And then there’s managing the library budget in a fiscally responsible way.
What are your goals for your year as president?
Some of our strategic priorities are learning and leadership development for our members.
We’re going to have three tiers of academies (for our members). It’s a way in which we can build up leadership within our PSLA members, our school librarians.
One of our strategic priorities is advocacy for school librarians: to help school librarians in Pennsylvania have the tools and the resources and the training to become advocates for their students and for quality school library programs.
That means having a certified school librarian (in every school library).
In what ways are school libraries “equalizers” for all students?
We have to have books and text and databases and articles for all students, whether they’re a college-bound student or a career-bound student or somebody who’s at our CTCs (Lancaster County Career & Technology Center programs) or students who have special needs or our EL (English learner) students.
Our whole district — all 10 libraries — has a native language collection. We have a collection of books at all reading levels in multiple languages, because we know that students who are EL students want access to their native language so that they can retain that language while they're an EL student.
Our job is to make sure that every student has what they need and has access to it.
What impact do today’s school library staffs strive to have on students?
People think that, “Oh, we have the internet now; we don't need libraries.” But what we teach, and the opportunities and the impact that we have for students is all about making sure that when they leave here, they’re ready to be good citizens. So they have information literacy, so they have media literacy, so they have digital literacy — they know how to select (information).
Can you recognize a photograph that may have been altered, and how do you do that? And when should you question it?
Because someday, when they’re not here, they won’t have a librarian or they won’t have a teacher to facilitate that for them.
What are the biggest ways that school libraries are different now, and how are they the same?
(Libraries are) definitely still the place to get the book that you're looking for. All school libraries still have a good collection of print books, because we have students who want to read print books.
But we also offer a lot of digital resources. They’re definitely different from what it was 20 years ago.
A school library services all students and all curriculum areas. We have that global view, multiple grade levels.
We (librarians) have an expertise in technology, we have expertise in digital citizenship, critical thinking and project-based learning. Because we see the whole curriculum, we can help teachers to develop units and project-based learning that encompasses multiple subject areas.
Tell me about the teaching component of the school librarians’s role.
In elementary, they see the librarian once every six days (for) instruction from the librarian. And then, the librarian also works with teachers at other times as well for other research projects in elementary.
At the middle school and high school level, the classes are on an as-needed basis. Every department will come in.
We had English classes here earlier this week, and they were starting a project.
We'll have our family consumer science classes come in to do some research. Social studies, history, health classes. They come into the library, and the librarians will help students select what they need for those projects.
The librarians are there to support the teachers on projects. We do a lot of digital projects here.
Students might be creating a video or a voice thread or a particular web page. We help them find the right images that are copyright-friendly.
The librarians will go into the classroom or the class will come here.
Our secondary librarians co-teach. We do some amazing health projects with our health teachers, and help students find the most current information about a wide variety of different health and wellness topics.
Right now, our high school librarians are developing a lesson for our social studies department for news literacy, because it’s something that is so important. In high school, students are really ready to dig in and talk about news bias and how to recognize it — how to recognize your own bias.
How do librarians help students deal with the amount of information available to them?
The currency of the information that students can get — they can find out what happened three minutes ago. They can find out on Twitter.
We help them curate all those digital media sources.
Everybody talks about this information overload. It’s so important now, more than ever, which is one of my jobs at PSLA, so that (everyone) knows that that role of librarian is so much more important than it was before.
Because everybody, no matter where they live, where they work, what job they have, how old they are, they are going to have access to information in some way after they leave school.
And it’s our job to make sure that every student, when they leave here, can handle that information and know how to select the right information they’re looking for, that they can be that literate person in all ways.
Where are school libraries headed?
I think we are going to continue to be that central hub to the educational community.
One of the things we need to concentrate on is .... getting our students ready for the workforce.
So, when we’re working with students on projects and we talk about communication skills and copyright and media and news literacy, and our maker spaces are all about problem solving and perseverance and having the grit to say, oh, it failed, what do I do now — all those types of skills are necessary for students to be career and college ready.
School libraries are going to be that flexible space of exploration to help students to really prepare to be part of the workforce.