Newsmaker: An Interview with Sylvia Knight Norton
Sylvia Knight Norton has been appointed executive director of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), effective September 30. She comes to ALA from the College of Communication and Information’s School of Library and Information Studies at Florida State University in Tallahassee, where she has been school library media internship coordinator and instructor since 2011. During this period, she also served from 2011 to 2012 as state e-rate coordinator for the Florida Department of Management Services. An ALA Executive Board member until accepting the AASL directorship, Norton brings strong state and local experience to AASL. From March 2002 to September 2010, she was school library, technology planning, and e-rate coordinator for the Maine Department of Education. Before that, she served as school library technologist at the Maine State Library and was a school librarian at Freeport (Maine) High School.
AMERICAN LIBRARIES: What appealed to you about becoming executive director of the American Library Association’s (ALA) American Association of School Librarians (AASL)?
SYLVIA Knight NORTON: As a school librarian, AASL is my professional association. Much of the knowledge I have today about libraries and education was gained through AASL and ALA. I looked to the standards and guidelines and other resources from AASL when I first started working in school libraries. My active involvement as an AASL member began when my state association sent me to represent them at an AASL Affiliate Assembly. Eventually I was elected to the AASL board and became more involved with AASL and ALA governance. The association’s people and projects have enhanced my own work as practitioner, state-level coordinator, and instructor of the next generation of school librarians.
In becoming an executive director of a nonprofit association, I value that AASL is an integral part of a larger organization. I can leverage the “big” ALA resources such as the Washington Office and the Office for Intellectual Freedom. I also have a built-in cohort of executive directors from the other divisions. As a school librarian and even as a state coordinator, I was the only library professional in the building, so I reached out to AASL, where I could network with others who understood my job. Now, I'm looking forward to having colleagues right down the hall.
From any perspective, I think most of us just want to make a difference through what we do, and school librarians do make a difference. AASL is the leader for the school library profession. My goal is to ensure that AASL meets its mission: to advocate excellence, facilitate change, and develop leaders in the school library field.
What will be your top priority for AASL (aside from having a successful conference six weeks after starting your new job)?
It may be a clich?, but my top priority is to ask questions and listen.
It will be only a short time from my start date [September 30] until the AASL National Conference on November 14–17 in Hartford, but I’m particularly looking forward to it. The lineup of speakers and programs promises to make for a great conference. Hartford will also be my first chance to meet AASL members in my new role and see great examples of how school librarians are integral to education. I’ve served on previous conference committees so I know that everyone has been working diligently for almost two years to make the conference a success. We are in capable hands thanks to the National Conference Committee, cochaired by Terri Grief and Ken Stewart, and to the efforts of Allison Cline, Jen Habley, and the rest of the AASL staff.
Even before the conference, this fall will be a busy time since the ALA Executive Board and Division Leadership meets in October in Chicago. I attended a number of the Division Leadership fall meetings as an AASL Executive Committee member over the last decade, so I have a sense of the purpose and schedule as we prepare for those meetings. More recently I’ve been involved with ALA issues, but less specifically with AASL. Now that I am assuming a staff member role, I need information, understanding, and perspective.
How do you see the School Library Campaign and ALA President Barbara Stripling's Declaration for the Right to Libraries intersecting and supporting each other?
The School Library Campaign emerged from the work of the School Library Task Force, which was established by 2011–2012 ALA President Molly Raphael and moved forward by ALA Immediate Past President Maureen Sullivan. As a member of the task force, I was thrilled to have “big” ALA—in other words, colleagues from all types of libraries—involved in strategic planning to address the crisis in school libraries. I’m very excited by President Barbara Stripling’s Declaration for the Right to Libraries; I know from personal experience that libraries do indeed change lives. The Declaration is an inclusive effort and a very natural connection to the School Library Campaign. The school library focus in the Declaration for the Right to Libraries makes it easy for individual school librarians at an open house or parent conference night this fall to shine a positive light on the value of libraries. Everyone—students and teachers—should have a school librarian who makes the school library program integral to teaching and learning.
What does AASL need the most from school librarians and “big” ALA?
AASL member leaders volunteer their time and knowledge on our committees and governance bodies. The standards, professional development, and resources on which school librarians depend would not exist without members’ efforts.
I often tell a story about my takeaway from a weeklong Student Leadership Conference that my high school librarian sent me to that was sponsored by the New England School Library Association and staffed by school librarians. Afterward, I thought all school librarians were leaders and now I know leadership is an attribute of our profession. In a July 18 Edutopia blog post, Rutgers professor Maurice Elias wrote, “Leaders are those who step up to help their organization succeed.” There may be some new paradigms for how we achieve that, but AASL needs those leaders. Be involved in AASL and ALA. If you are already involved, reach out to someone—maybe someone who offers something you don’t —and encourage them to work with you. In my experience, it makes your professional life more rewarding, and along the way you may even develop some lifelong friendships.
Sometimes in the rhetoric it is easy to overlook that ALA is a member organization for all types of libraries—public, academic, special, and school. As an ALA member, I’ve seen a stronger awareness of that ecosystem in Council discussions and ALA initiatives. AASL, as a division, focuses on the needs of school librarians and can be the voice for school libraries. ALA has an even bigger voice that can extend the school-library message among all types of libraries and their users. AASL is an integral part of “big” ALA and our strength is in that convergence.
What do school librarians need the most from AASL?
I'll ponder the answer to that in my entry plan over the next couple of months as I question, listen, and consider. In the meantime, I’ll be drawing from my own experience. I looked to AASL in my work as a building-level school librarian and later as a state-level coordinator concerned with policy. I needed AASL to advocate for the best of what school librarians bring to the table—and to make sure we are at the table to begin with. It is a challenge for all of us in AASL and ALA. Ultimately, we need each other.