‘I Am the Cook’

Kenny Brechner - August 27, 2020

“Hi Kenny, this is Ellen Resman. I am the cook at the Strafford School and was told to pick out $500 worth of books. Would it be possible to have you pick out the books? I have pk-8 grades at our school.”

I received that email a few days ago. The name and school name have been changed for privacy. Reading it with decades of experience in serving rural school libraries, the email was neither surprising nor far from the norm. A little out of the norm, sure, but not much.

To explain why. let us answer a few questions.

How did it happen that a person whose primary job is school cook was tasked with picking out books?

Devaluing expertise in school librarians is an entrenched state of affairs here. In Maine, each district is required to have at least one librarian with a Masters in Library Science (MLS) degree. The rest of the school libraries are usually staffed by ed techs. The pay differential between a librarian with an MLS and an ed tech is vast. Ed techs get minimum wage, have no benefits, and have no pay over the summer. From an operational standpoint, the distance between an ed tech ‘librarian’ and a cook is nonexistent. Gym teachers, bus drivers, and receptionists have all, in my direct experience, made the lateral transfer into ed tech library positions.

All the work done in the school is important, to be sure, but one might be forgiven for thinking that both children’s books and library work benefit from expertise. Many ed techs develop into amazing and wonderful “librarians,” but it is short-sighted and ill-conceived that schools don’t offer a little bit more financial support to such a vital position in their academic ecosystem.

Doesn’t the fact that she had $500 to spend on books show a commitment to the value of books from the school?

Actually, the money came from a non-profit fundraising effort by a statewide organization, which both provided the money to Strafford and pointed them in my direction.

Wasn’t it kind of ideal for you, Kenny, to do the selection yourself?

Sure, I was happy to do it, but there are two things to consider. As much as an experienced children’s book buyer such as myself can help make a school’s book money count, I will not be there to pitch and connect the books to the students. The value of someone on site who has read and is committed to the books cannot be overstated. Second, easy as it is to do the selection myself, I prefer to work with a knowledgeable book professional who not only knows their constituents intimately but also increases my own knowledge base and provides a partnership atmosphere we both benefit from.

I’ll gladly and gratefully do anything needed by the many schools I have the privilege and pleasure of working with, but I do wish the librarian position was valued in accordance with its potential impact on the school’s primary mission. Whether providing enrichment material to teachers or stoking the love of reading and learning in students by putting the right book in young hands, there is a great deal to be said for treating the school librarian position as something of vital importance.

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