TN Association of School Librarians – educators or political activists?

This is a three-part series that will explain how the three-tiered library organizations are taking school libraries from education to activism.

Part 1 of this series will introduce the three-tiered library organizations working to influence and “transform” school libraries including those in Tennessee using the new National School Library Standards also known as the AASL Standards. The structure of the standards is explained below. Part 2 will focus on the Tennessee Association of School Librarians’ banned books campaign. Part 3 will discuss how the three-tiered library organizations define and use “intellectual freedom” as it applies to students, librarians and school libraries and what it means for Tennessee school libraries.

Part 1 -Tennessee’s new state-wide school library coordinator

Lobbying by the Tennessee Association of School Librarians (TASL), succeeded this year with the passage of legislation re-establishing a State Coordinator of School Libraries in the state Department of Education (DOE).

The state library coordinator position has been an on-going legislative goal of the three-tiered library organizations. In 2019, the president of the American Library Association (ALA) and the president of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), co-signed a letter to Tennessee DOE Commissioner Penny Schwinn, advocating to “reinstate” the position. TASL likewise encouraged their members to use “TN Library Legislative Day” to advocate for the state library coordinator position. TASL is organized as a 501(c)(6) and is not prohibited from lobbying or engaging in other political advocacy.

The AASL is a division of the ALA. TASL is an approved state chapter of the AASL. The TASL handbook requires that anyone serving as president of its organization must be a member of the TN Library Association, the ALA and the AASL.

SB1784/HB1667 sponsored by Senator Jon Lundberg and Rep. Sam Whitson, codified at Public Chapter 1048, passed unanimously in the Senate but with two abstaining votes in the House. The bill was signed into law by Governor Lee in late May.

In committee, Rep. Whitson explained that he had engaged with TASL over time and discussed with them about how they could best “lobby and promote their organization’s agenda”. Rep. Whitson invited Lindsey Kimery, coordinator of library services for Metro Nashville schools, to speak to the committee in support of his bill. 

Kimery, is a past president of TASL and the past chair of the AASL Coordinating Team for AASL state chapters. 

The new law requires that the new state library coordinator be a “certified school librarian”. Generally, this means that the individual would have completed a master’s degree program in either Library and Information Science or a master’s degree that awards a School Library Specialist endorsement. These programs are accredited either by the ALA or the AASL.

The new law also requires DOE’s new state library coordinator to “consult [with], guide and train school librarians to strengthen school library programs” and to promote “best practices among school librarians”. The new state coordinator is also required to help school librarians partner with classroom teachers to “support school and district-level instructional programs”.

On the House floor Whitson said his bill would “assist school librarians as they implement the Department of Education’s (DOE) policies including the requirements of the Age Appropriate Materials Act of 2022 in LEAs [local school districts] that have limited library staff or coordinators”.

According to James Ritter, Tennessee’s newly appointed State Librarian and Archivist, “[s]chool libraries fall under the TN Department of Education, so they would be the state agency implementing [education] standards across the state”. 

Presumably this means that school librarians and the libraries they oversee, must comply with the same state laws applicable to the DOE. State laws include for example, TCA 49-6-1019 and the rules promulgated by the DOE pertaining to the prohibition on teaching concepts underlying critical race theory, the Age Appropriate Materials Act (Public Chapter 744), and Public Chapter 1002 which removes the education exception for obscene materials as defined in Tennessee law and requires steps to prevent using school computers to access materials “harmful to minors” as defined in Tennessee law. 

The Three-tiered Library Organizations and Political Advocacy

Ritter also confirmed that prior to the COVID shut-down, TASL began training Tennessee school librarians in the new National School Library Standards (the AASL Standards) release by the AASL in 2018. TASL was awarded a grant from the AASL to help roll-out training to Tennessee school librarians on the new standards. TASL formed an AASL Standards Task Force to provide the training.

The AASL Standards are heavily influenced by the ALA’s advocacy positions including their platform on intellectual freedom. In line with the ALA and the AASL, TASL’s “advocacy” drop-down menu includes “intellectual freedom” and “banned books week”, both of which will be discussed further in this series of posts. TASL also includes a fuller description of what Tennessee librarian “advocacy” can include as applied to different groups such as students, families and elected officials. 

For example, TASL suggests that as to students, librarians can “create, facilitate and encourage student led groups (ex. ProjectLIT, Sustainable Schools, Urban Green Lab, GSA [Gay-Straight Alliance]”. Librarians are also encouraged to help “young people” to become political activists by “teach[ing] them how to write to representatives about various bills”. 

Political advocacy within the three-tiered library organizations flows top-down and bottom-up.

The new president-elect of the ALA, Emily Drabinski, made headlines when she tweeted the following: 

I just cannot believe that a Marxist lesbian who believes that collective power is possible to build and can be wielded for a better world is the president-elect of @ALALibrary. I am so excited for what we will do together. Solidarity!
And my mom is SO PROUD I love you mom.

 Of greater concern than Drabinski’s public declaration of sexual preference are her goals for the ALA which are solidly grounded in her Marxist ideology:

I will direct resources and opportunities to a diverse cross section of the association and advance a public agenda that puts organizing for justice at the center of library work.

AASL’s Knowledge Quest publication and the ALA affiliated Freadom to Read Foundation help promote the idea that school librarians should also be connecting “intellectual freedom” to social justice standards. For example, an elementary school librarian writes about how she learned at the 2019 AASL national conference to align the National School Library Standards “six shared foundations” with Learning for Justice’s  Social Justice standards. 

Learning for Justice seeks to uphold the mission of the Southern Poverty Law Center: to be a catalyst for racial justice in the South and beyond, working in partnership with communities to dismantle white supremacy, strengthen intersectional movements and advance the human rights of all people.

Sarah Searles, Knox County School’s Library/Media Services Supervisor, chairs the AASL Knowledge Quest board. Searles has been a leader in rolling out the AASL Standards in Knox County schools and has written about her experience here. She has also authored the book about the shared foundation “explore”.

Three other Tennessee school librarians serve on the Knowledge Quest board. Metro Nashville Public School librarian Jennifer Sharp who announced the AASL grant to TASL, serves as an AASL director-at-large.

Structure of the AASL National School Library Standards

The AASL Standards have several moving parts which are described below. The AASL says that the standards framework is designed to connect the student, school librarian and the school library in a way that “standards-related activities would be mutually reinforcing, simultaneously building capacity among learners, school librarians and the school library”.

– The school library is a unique and essential part of a learning community.
– Qualified school librarians lead effective school libraries.
– Learners should be prepared for college, career, and life.
– Reading is the core of personal and academic competency.
– Intellectual freedom is every learner’s right.
– Information technologies must be appropriately integrated and equitably available.

  • shared foundations
    The six shared foundations are, “inquire”, “include”, “collaborate”, “curate”, “explore”, “engage”. The shared foundations “anchor” the standards and serve to “reinforce the core values that learners, school librarians, and school libraries should reflect and promote”.
  • key commitments
    These are the expanded definitions of the shared foundations. For example, the shared foundation “include” is defined as “[d]emonstrate an understanding of and commitment to inclusiveness and respect for diversity in the learning community”.
  • domains
    Each shared foundation contains four domains – “think”, “create”, “share”, “grow”. The chart below shows where each domain within each shared foundation is applied to the student, the librarian and the library. Each domain within each shared foundation is also supported by an activity guide directed to the learner (students), the school librarian, and the school library. Each activity is prefaced with a “scenario” describing an example of what could occur under a given set of circumstances. Included in the scenario is how to answer or approach the desired answer.

Below is a “framework” chart which demonstrates how a shared foundation integrates with each domain and samples from the activity guides. For example, applying the domain “create” to the student in the shared foundation “include”, the scenario describes 10th grader “Jonah (preferred pronouns he/him/his)” who realizes that his LGBTQ+ friends are being bullied, one of whom tells Jonah that he wishes he “had a support group to help them deal with feelings of anxiety and loneliness”. The two friends find the GLSEN website and decide to start a GSA (gay-straight alliance club). For the learner the domain “create” based on the scenario above, the activity guide suggests the students “create” a GSA.

Applying the same domain “create” to the school librarian in the shared foundation “include”, the suggestion is “the balancing act” for which activities are provided. The school library scenario is “dealing with book challenges” and recommended activities include “facilitate and share lesson plans that incorporate banned books”.

The activity guide for the shared foundation “include” is titled Developing Inclusive Learners and Citizens. This guide follows the standards organizational format with activities divided by the four domains in separate sections for students, school librarians and school libraries. The activity guide introduction advises that by “[u]sing the resources in this activity guide, learners and school librarians alike can seek balanced perspectives, global learning, empathy, tolerance and equity”. The guide also uses activities intended to make the school library a fully inclusive space.

While there are many creative and useful ideas in the activity guide, there are others that may well fall outside Tennessee DOE education policies and still others likely to be considered highly controversial in the community in which the school is located.

For example, in the “think” domain, there are four suggested activities. “Understanding Equity” is activity #4 for learners which includes students. The stated objective is for “learners to better understand various groups’ struggle for equity”: The suggested activity on page 14 is a privilege walk described as:

A privilege walk highlights how race, gender, and sexuality can affect individual success. Ask learners to line up in an open space and instruct them to move forward based on statements read related to race gender, or sexuality. The power of the lesson comes from the debrief after the lesson when learners see how it feel to be in the front, middle, or back of the group and their placement in relation to others position, which allows them to see others more clearly.

Similar exercises of recognizing personal bias and privilege is advised in the “grow” domain for school libraries as applied to educators and community members.

Included in the same guide are activities in the “share” domain for school librarians. Activity #1 is “inclusive research” with the objective for the school librarian to learn the pronouns used by learners in the school community – “hold a conversation about recognizing pronouns with a large same of learners of varied gendered expression and allow them to share their opinions honestly.”

Activity #2 builds on Activity #1 by using the information to “create a new gender inclusion and diversity policy protecting and empowering learner and their autonomy”. GLSEN’s model gender diversity policy is provided.

The “create” domain applied to school libraries advises about book collections, book challenge policies and an activity to “facilitate and share lesson plans that incorporate banned books”. This activity encourages the school librarian to design a lesson plan that “puts the spotlight on banned books”.

  • standards crosswalks
    The crosswalks show the intersection between the AASL National School Library Standards and other sets of national teaching and learning standards.

AASL Library Standards and social justice charge to school librarians  

The AASL says that the shared foundation “include” is the school librarian’s directive to wage a social justice campaign with their students and the wider community:

Thinking back to January 2019, when our Emerging Leaders group met for the first time, we could never have anticipated just how timely our discussions about equity, diversity, and inclusion would be. We focused our project on the Shared Foundation of Include from AASL’s National School Library Standards for Learners, School Librarians, and School Libraries. As we prepare for the coming school year, whether it be in-person, virtual, or some form of hybrid learning, it is evident that our project is more timely than ever. We know that we must do even more to address intersectionality, bias, racism, and other social justice issues. Who better to lead the charge than school librarians? 

TASL’s Equity, Diversity, Inclusion (EDI) committee chair Brandi Hartsell, a Knox County school librarian is a contributor to the AASL Knowledge Quest publication. In one post, Hartsell describes a program she created for her school’s teachers to influence and shape their cultural competence. In another of her posts Hartsell encourages other librarians to ensure that the school’s library addresses the needs of LGBTQ+ readers and encourages the use of the AASL manual on Defending Intellectual Freedom: LGBTQ+ Materials in School Libraries. This publication will be the subject of Part 3 of this series.

Hartsell also writes for TASL Talks, a blog directed to Tennessee school librarians. Hartsell’s EDI committee posts book recommendations on a variety of issues including racism (including picture books for elementary school), illegal immigration, and LGBTQ. Book recommendations are divided by elementary, middle and high school.    


The AASL says it “empowers leaders to transform teaching and learning.” The AASL describes, the school librarian as a collaborator, change agent, and leader. (emphasis supplied) a characterization reinforced by the AASL’s sample job description for the school librarian. The AASL standards also elevate the school librarian from educator to activist. 

However, the AASL standards are not state law and must not be used in any way to skirt any state laws applicable to the Department of Education and Tennessee schools including the teaching of critical race theory concepts, the age appropriate materials and obscenity laws. This oversight responsibility is inherent in the position of the new state-wide school library coordinator. 

TASL has been training school librarians in the AASL standards which may not comply with Tennessee state laws. School librarian practices may require extensive review in light of legislation passed since TASL began training in the new standards.

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