Alumna Kathy Lester is a tireless advocate for school libraries

The title “middle school librarian” may not bring to mind images of heroes with super-human powers, but Kathy Lester deserves to don a cape for her heroic acts as an advocate and champion of the school library profession.SIS Alumna Kathy Lester

Lester is the school librarian/media specialist for Plymouth Canton Community Schools’ East Middle School, where she has been teaching and supporting reading, digital citizenship, technology integration and information literacy for 18 years. She also serves in a number of volunteer roles, including advocacy chair for the Michigan Association for Media in Education (MAME); Region 3 director for the American Association of School Librarians (AASL); and communications director for the Michigan Association for Computers Users in Learning

In 2020, Lester received both the Margaret Grazier Award for Contributions to the Profession from MAME and the Michigan Library Association (MLA) Citation of Excellence for her work in championing school libraries through volunteerism, administrative support and advocacy. Her library was the Michigan SL21 Model Library and the MAME School Library Program of the Year for 2017-2018 and she was recognized by Wayne State’s School of Information Sciences with its Professional Service Award in 2015 and a Shining Star award in 2017. 

“I love what I do. I’ve always believed that education can make a huge difference in people’s lives and that all students deserve a good education,” said Lester. “Seeing what school libraries can do and how they support that education in so many different ways is what makes me passionate about the field.”  

Like many in the profession, Lester’s career as a librarian was unexpected. After receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics, she served as director of operations for a small software company for 15 years. When her son began going to school, she became a parent volunteer serving on the technology committee for Brighton Public Schools. Lester worked closely with the committee that was mostly made up of librarians and media specialists. When one of the librarians retired, she suggested Lester would be a great candidate to replace her. Soon after, Lester found her way to Wayne State to pursue a master’s degree in library and information science, which she received in 2001. “I loved Wayne State. I got a great foundation, and I met such amazing people from all different backgrounds,” she said.  

Lester said that a big part of her success has been working and volunteering with professional organizations and she encourages others to get involved. School media specialists don’t typically have a cohort to work with in their buildings and the organizations give individuals the opportunity to collaborate. 

In addition to her volunteer work, Lester frequently presents at state and local conferences and runs two after school programs for her middle school students. The clubs are not currently meeting face-to-face due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but Lester has adapted her library curriculum to keep kids interested in reading while learning remotely. She helps students navigate technology to access online books and resources and offers curb-side book pickup.  

One of her most popular programs is the virtual “book tastings.” The program originally was offered in person – similar to speed dating – in which students get to quickly sample different books and genres to get idea of what they might be interested in. She has adapted the program for a virtual environment. Students are introduced to various books in four rounds. Each round offers a “book trailer” similar to a movie trailer to help students choose which book they would like to read.  

Lester also makes time for advocating and working with legislators on behalf of school libraries and librarians and works as a mentor for School of Information Sciences Assistant Professor Kafi Kumasi who was awarded an IMLS Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program award of nearly $250,000 for “Project RUSL: Restoring Urban School Libraries.” The project will provide education and professional development for six diverse classroom teachers in the metro Detroit area. 

“Kathy is a stalwart advocate for school libraries,” Kumasi said. “She is known for helping with the legislation around the criteria and staffing levels for school librarians. Making that a standard of excellence that schools can expect. She’s instrumental with bills getting passed in legislature in bi-partisan efforts.” 

Lester hopes to expand her advocacy work to a national level and is running for the 2022-2023 American Association of School Libraries presidential term which will be decided during the 2021 ALA election this spring. She is a member of the AASL Practice Committee and a past member of the AASL board of directors. Lester is also currently serving on the ALA Committee on Library Advocacy and the ALA Ecosystem Subcommittee. 

In a statement to the AASL regarding her candidacy, Lester said the following. "I am honored to stand as a candidate for the office of AASL president-elect. If elected, I would work with the AASL Board and all of the members of AASL to move toward our vision of ‘every school librarian is a leader; every learner has a school librarian’ while keeping front and center our core values of learning; innovation; equity, diversity, and inclusion; intellectual freedom; and collaboration.”   

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