Keynote Speaker Carolyn Foote

Joint library conference opens with a call to share our 'why' and ends with a focus on students

Carolyn Foote and Grace RiorioCarolyn Foote had just finished sharing with some 100 librarians and educators from the region the reason they need to share their “why” when she asked attendees to turn and talk with one another. From the library-like quiet of a rapt audience, the room erupted into a bustle of idea sharing and connection.

“The more we can bring our ‘why’ into the picture the more we can inspire others,” said Ms. Foote, the opening keynote speaker for the 2023 Annual Joint School Library System Conference. “Listen to how much you had to say just now. Listen to how much knowledge you shared, and bring that back to your school library.”

Describing herself as a “retired/rewired” school librarian from Austin, Texas, Ms. Foote co-founded the FReadom Fighters, a group dedicated to fighting for intellectual freedom. She described its origins pushing back on efforts by state officials to restrict access to certain titles in school libraries. 

That pushback included using a popular Twitter hashtag related to state legislation and generating 13,000 tweets from like minded users about why freedom matters to them.

“It was heartwarming to see that so many people were invested in this,” she said. “There’s so many different ways to lead in your own schools on a variety of issues. It’s an invitation to step up and own your power and knowledge as a librarian.”

Named a White House Champion of Change, Ms. Foote’s work centers around library advocacy, student voice, and library design. She has been recognized by the American Association of School LIbraries with its Library Collaboration Award and Intellectual Freedom Award. 

 Over the course of an hour, she encouraged librarians, using numerous examples from peers, to share their stories and to leverage the expertise of their unique roles to advocate for intellectual freedom generally and for school libraries in particular. 

She cited statistics showing the number of book titles being challenged in school libraries as skyrocketing from a few hundred a year to over 2,000 last year. Most were not individual challenges, either, she noted. It isn’t just happening in places like her native Texas. It’s an issue nationwide, she said, including here in New York.

There are many things an individual librarian can do, she said, encouraging attendees to get and take control of the narrative. Her “why,” she said, is that literacy matters, reading transforms lives and kids should read in communities.

She shared tips for attendees to take away, along with real-world illustrations. These tips included: welcome others in, show your magic, share facts on social; provide proof that others share your views; connect to nostalgia; be clear; don’t just tell, show; center kids, not libraries; center joy; know your audience; give people a call to action; and celebrate success.

“Our ‘why’ is kids. That’s why we started FReadom Fighters,” Ms. Foote said. “That’s why I’m a librarian.”

Riario: We can help students 'feel valued'

The day ended with keynote speaker Grace Riario, the first Latina chief executive officer of a public library system in New York State and the chair of the Regents Advisory Council and Public Library System Directors Association. She spoke on the influence librarians can have on their students.

“When I was 14, I met a wonderful school librarian, who helped me see my potential,” she said. “We have the ability to help students, not just with books, but by making them feel valued. I am the first Latina in my job, but I won’t be the last. It is our job to make sure that all students get the best education possible.”

Riario also spoke to censorship issues. “Librarians stand for intellectual freedom, privacy, and equity and inclusion, but our field is under attack,” she said, citing groups that have sought to eliminate certain books from library shelves. “Make sure your students know that they can get a public library card,” she added.

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