Move to ‘innovation specialist’ description for new hires concerns some Shawnee Mission librarians

Ray Marsh librarian Jan Bombeck told the board of education she was concerned with the move to an 'innovation specialist' job description for new hires.
Ray Marsh librarian Jan Bombeck told the board of education she was concerned with the move to an ‘innovation specialist’ job description for new hires.

Take a look at the job description for the library and media center openings at Oak Park/Carpenter, Mill Creek and Rising Star Elementaries on the Shawnee Mission School District website, and there’s one word you won’t find: books.

As part of a move to create spaces for students to gain skills with digital research and learning, the district is making a push to transform its libraries into hubs for technology. As a result, it has renamed the “librarian media specialist” position at the above mentioned schools to “innovation specialist.”

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Changes to SMSD libraries

• New library/media center employees will have “innovation specialist” title
• Administrators say the change is part of a reworking of school libraries to give students more access to digital technology and modern research tools
• Some current employees think the move shifts too much focus away from books, which still have much value
[/pullquote]It’s a change that’s drawing scrutiny from some current district librarians. Jan Bombeck, a 25-year veteran of the district and the current librarian at Ray Marsh Elementary, was backed up by 11 colleagues who stood during the open forum portion of Monday’s board of education meeting as Bombeck expressed concerns with the change.

“A member of the administration when questioned about this new job description said the innovation specialist job title is so librarians will do more than just read stories and check out books,” Bombeck said. “When I first heard this statement I was angry because I have never just read stories and checked out books.”

Instead, Bombeck said, she and other current elementary librarians have worked hard to incorporate technology and digital learning into their curricula. But taking time to read stories during library time has remained a beloved practice for both teacher and students with ample benefits, she said.

“I have taught about authors and illustrators that enrich our lives and I have read stories. Stories, stories and more stories,” Bombeck said. “I am sad to think that administrators with advanced degrees would disparage the importance of ‘just telling stories.'”

District officials counter that the change in the configuration of school libraries and library curriculum has been a long time coming and well communicated. A major focal point of the bond issue overwhelmingly approved by voters in January 2015 was reimagining the district’s library/media center spaces. Part of that transition is coming on the physical level, where both elementary and secondary schools will have their libraries reconfigured to be more conducive to collaborative learning and the use of technology. (SM North is one of the first schools in the district to have its library scheduled for renovation).

“This is not something that is newly cropped up,” said Dr. Michelle Hubbard, the district’s assistant superintendent for instructional leadership. “We’ve been thinking about this intentionally for a while.”

Hubbard and Dr. Christy Ziegler, assistant superintendent for curriculum and assessment, pointed to the desire to give students a better space for exploring the topics they’re passionate about as an impetus for the change. Students in updated library facilities will have access to advance digital technologies that will allow them to research and present their findings to classmates in more engaging ways. There would also be maker spaces, similar to the one at the Johnson County Library’s Central Branch, for kids to flex their creative muscles.

“[These are spaces where] students will research projects as a team,” Ziegler said. “These are high engagement learning opportunities.”

And, added Hubbard, simply because the focus of time in the library class may move beyond books doesn’t mean that books won’t still play a role.

“It’s no longer just about books,” Hubbard said. “But books are still very much a part of it.”

While current employees will retain their librarian media specialist titles, new hires for the 2016-17 school year will come in as innovation specialists. Previous descriptions for jobs in the library/media center of a school required a teacher to have library certification. The innovation specialist role requires only elementary teacher certification, a reduction in required qualifications that proved another concern for Bombeck and her backers.

“Maker spaces are great. Knowledge, experimentation, tech skills and collaboration can be gained there,” Bombeck said. “However our future, architects, doctors engineers and teachers will miss learning valuable lessons if no one has time for ‘just stories.'”