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KSBA News Article

In Conversation With Jennifer Gilbert

Jennifer Gilbert

Kentucky School Advocate
June 2023

In Conversation With features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.

Jennifer Gilbert is the librarian at Eminence Independent and the president of the Kentucky Association of School Librarians. Her school’s library serves students in K-12 with traditional books and resources, ebooks, audio books, technological tools and a makerspace.

Q. You’ve said that when you got your driver’s license, the first place you drove was to your local library. Have you always loved reading?

I have always loved reading. I always had access to books. We had books at our house growing up and my parents made sure I got to the public library and school library. I was voracious about reading, one of those kids who valued books.

Q. Is that why you became a school librarian?

Before I became a librarian, I was a high school English teacher because of my love for literature. When I was staying at home after I had kids, my husband said, “What about the library?”

Q. He was nudging you in that direction because he thought the role would suit you and be better for family life, you’ve said.

To be a good English teacher, you bring so much grading home. I still stay late, but I do not come home with bags of papers to grade. I got a master’s in library and information science from the University of Kentucky while I was still staying at home with my little ones. Libraries have never been far from whatever’s going on in my life.

Q. And you’ve continued your education?

I am certified in computer science, which allowed me to open a computer science pathway here. Eminence has an administration that supports you and what you want to do. Our library is the hub of STEM and technology, so the computer science certification fit. I’m currently getting certified in cybersecurity and will graduate with my certificate this summer.

Q. School libraries today offer way more than books. Can you tell us about EdHub, your library at Eminence Independent?

We have the classic offerings of traditional books and resources, and we are growing our collection of eBooks. We are also building out audiobooks in more than one format. For elementary students, for example, we get playaways, which are like individualized MP3 players. They don’t require an internet connection and are wildly popular with the younger students who don’t have their own devices. We also have labs that give students access to information and tools they can’t always get, given we are a rural school and have students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged. We received grants this year for kits that they can check out to learn programming. We have a robust makerspace with 3D printers, laser cutters and vinyl printers.

Q. How do the lessons learned in the makerspace go beyond using the technology?

I teach them how to ethically use information when you’re in a makerspace. We discuss digital citizenship, in terms of who’s the copyright owner of what you’re using, does this have a trademark? We hold our kids accountable when they’re making. They want to be able to make so they will listen to you and learn what hoops they must jump through before they’re allowed to do it.

Q. Your school recently had a Hackathon. Could you explain how it worked and what the students learned from it?

It was aimed at growing participation in our computer science pathway by making students aware of classes available and what those classes cover. A group of our middle school students organized the evening event, and we collaborated with Code Louisville and the University of Louisville Code. A programmer helped us put together several coding challenges for kids who wanted to do coding. We wanted several options because we have a lot of kids who haven’t done anything yet in computer science. Since I’m working on my cybersecurity certificate, I worked with a professor to set up cyber security challenges. I’ll be teaching our first cyber security course this fall. We had a Sphero Battle Bot competition that involved more engineering, and there was an Ozobot maze that challenged kids to program the Ozobot so it would make it through the maze. We had pizza and music playing; the evening was meant to hype up computer science.

Q. How do you work with teachers to align what students are doing in the library with what they’re learning in their classes?

Different teachers have different needs. In elementary, teachers often ask us to create a landing page with research tools on the school library website for, say, a unit on careers. We pull resources and put them on the page but narrow it down so the students aren’t drowning in information. Sometimes, we assist by pulling together a cart of books on a topic they are studying. Or, when our 3rd graders did a weather unit, they wrote scripts for forecasts and then we had green screens set up and helped them learn to use them and to record their weather forecast. At the beginning of the school year, we do sessions on how to power search, navigate sources and evaluate information from the internet.

Q. You are president of the Kentucky Association of School Librarians. Why did you get involved with KASL and become part of its leadership?

My mentor in the library science program at UK said, as a professional, you should join professional organizations. Then, when I came to Eminence, I was partners with James Allen, now library lead at the Kentucky Department of Education. He was the other librarian here and was also president of KASL. He was a good example and made sure I was as involved as I could be. Being a school librarian can be a lonely job in some ways. It’s only natural to reach out to your peers, and there are more challenges going on with our profession than ever before.

Q. School libraries are under more scrutiny from parents and outside groups than ever before; the American Library Association says challenges to books doubled between 2021 and 2022. What impact do you think this has had on school librarians and student access to books?

Obviously it’s had a negative impact on access. I fear that relationships between stakeholders, between parents and librarians, have degraded so much. It makes me sad. A lot of trust has been lost and it is going to be hard to regain. I have such concerns about the things that have happened in our state that have made it easier to take away freedoms and to limit when there was already a challenge policy. I feel the democratic process has been removed with some of the legislation and that’s really concerning to me.

Q. In the past session, the legislature passed Senate Bill 5, which created a new process for challenging materials and books. Do you think there will be more challenges because of this new law?  

I don’t know if Senate Bill 5 will increase the number of challenges, but I do think it could impact the outcome of challenges because, at least in my school, my principal is already overwhelmed with work. So, to put a time limit on challenges and put this on one person who does not deal with libraries day-to-day can be extra hard. Our school has not had this happen yet, but I’m aware of several counties that have had batches coming in in 20s and 25s. I don’t feel it is fair or right to have it come down to something like this instead of a reasonable procedure that was already outlined.

Q. The state board of education adopted the Kentucky Academic Standards for Library Media in 2020. Have those standards improved library instruction?

I think so. Just the fact that we have goals and they are clear on a state level, well, that’s a big deal. I think that’s important to have so that you can justify what you are doing, and say, “the standards are why I’m doing this.”

Q. How do you think school board members can better support school librarians in their districts?  

By acknowledging the work librarians are doing to select materials. If they don’t understand something about the materials selection policy, they should have a conversation with librarians. I’m proud of the way we go about selecting materials. Board members should make sure they understand materials selection policy so they can defend it and be ready to advocate for students when there are challenges. I would hope that administrators would be willing to stand up for and believe in the materials being selected and how they’re being selected. I think the knee-jerk reaction that assumes librarians have ulterior motives is insulting.

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