Celebrating School Library Month with Union’s Mrs. Gassman

Iowa’s school libraries continue to evolve while remaining firm in focus

Union Community School District teacher librarian Jennifer Gassman smiles while working in the middle school library on April 14, in Dysart. Gassman has been a certified teacher librarian since 2000. –Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker

Since 1985, the month of April has been designated School Library Month – a time set aside to celebrate the valuable contributions of America’s school libraries and librarians including teacher librarians like Union’s Jennifer Gassman, the only certified librarian assigned to the multi-community rural district of just under 1,000 students.

“I am the library,” Gassman said with a laugh as she stood in the middle school library in Dysart on the last day of school before Easter break. As she spoke, students played chess and other educational games at the library’s tables as part of the school’s annual ‘Spring Fling’ day.

Although she initially worked as a social studies teacher post-graduation, Gassman became a teacher librarian – complete with a Master’s Degree – in 2000 after “struggling in the classroom with student failure” – something she admitted she took very personally at the time.

“I knew I wanted to stay in education … but something that was ungraded. I didn’t want that barrier between myself and students. I had always been a reader and thought I could benefit students best that way.”

A lot has changed for Gassman and Iowa’s school libraries over the last two decades – long gone are the days when most every public school building had its own certified teacher librarian who was able to spend dedicated teaching time with every classroom imparting the importance of intellectual freedom and how to seek out information in that pursuit.

Union Middle School students play a game around a library table on April 14 as part of the school’s ‘Spring Fling,’ while teacher librarian Jennifer Gassman (background, third from right) looks on. –Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker

“When I first became a teacher librarian, I was one of three in the district,” Gassman said. “I am now the only certified teacher librarian in the district.”

Up until recently, Gassman was Union’s full-time high school librarian. Upon the middle school librarian’s retirement two years ago, Gassman assumed both roles – she now splits her time between the two secondary schools, while the Dysart and La Porte City elementary schools are staffed by teacher associates.

As it stands today in Iowa, every school district must have one certified librarian assigned to the district, but even that minimal requirement could soon see the chopping block if a bill that seeks to remove the requirement for teacher librarians to hold master’s degrees passes this legislative session.

There were several other bills active this session that pertained to school libraries. One bill sought to challenge the content found in school libraries and proposed penalties for librarians, teachers, and administrators in the pursuit of what was deemed ‘parental rights’. Those bills failed to make it past a legislative funnel.

“The [legislative] attacks this session did feel personal this year,” Gassman admitted. “[Librarians are] trained to select and present. Does [the content] support the story and what is happening in the story? … There’s ten-thousand choices here, no one is forcing anyone to read anything.”

Union Community School District teacher librarian Jennifer Gassman pictured behind the circulation desk at Union Middle School on April 14. Gassman has been a certified teacher librarian since 2000. –Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker

Oftentimes, Gassman said, reading a book found in a school library is the only way for an individual to safely experience uncomfortable things – to seek out knowledge in a curated, structured environment alongside a certified teacher librarian. And regardless of the content, Gassman further added, the entire school library catalog is already available online for anyone to peruse.

School librarians the key ingredient

According to the American Association of School Libraries, since 1965 more than 60 studies have shown a school library program staffed by a “qualified librarian” has a positive impact on student academic achievement.

Gassman agrees: “School libraries are an integral part of schools today,” she said. “A school library and librarian supports both staff and students. Studies show that schools that have certified librarians have higher reading scores and students have access to quality that supports both curriculum and personal reading.”

To that end, Gassman practices what she preaches by reading along with her students. A display titled ‘What’s Mrs. Gassman reading?’ features prominently on a window behind the middle school checkout counter and includes book covers of every school book Gassman has read or is currently reading this school year.

A display inside the library at Union Middle School gives students a peak into what their teacher librarian Mrs. (Jennifer) Gassman is reading throughout the school year. –Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker

“I generally have three or four books going,” Gassman said. “I generally always have one audiobook going – that may or not be a school book, could be a personal book. Usually one going on the Kindle. I try to get a nonfiction book in every once in a while. And I’m always reading something from the school library.”

Despite all the changes school libraries have undergone in the more than 20 years Gassman has been behind the circulation desk, from the technological – long gone are the Dewey Decimal System days of cataloging books – to the bread and butter staffing issues, Gassman continues to find daily joy in her job.

One of the best parts of her day, Gassman said, is simply connecting students to reading opportunities.

“I really enjoy plucking interests and ideas from students and using those to help guide them to a book. Each time a student stands in front of me and says ‘help,’ it’s like solving a little mystery.

School Library Month is sponsored by the American Association of School Librarians, a division of the American Library Association. The first national observance kicked off on April 1, 1985, with a ceremony on the west steps of the U.S. Capitol. The keynote address was given by then-Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York.

School librarian Jennifer Gassman shelves books in the Union Middle School library in Dysart on April 14. –Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker

Moynihan told the school librarians in attendance: “I want to thank you for what you do. I hope you know how important your work is. You change lives for the better.”