Hello library friends,
It has been several months since my last blog post. I have missed interacting with you, my colleagues and friends, on this space during my hiatus. I am happy to now be back! I missed blogging not only because it offered a professional way for me to connect with and build friendships in the library world, but because it provided me a tool to reflect on my work. After a program or new initiative, I would sit down and ask, “Did this program accomplish my goals? The goals of my audience? What went well? Do we want to offer this program again? What can I do differently next time to make it work better for different ages?” Blogging gives me a reason to reflect.
I have been reflecting a lot lately on the differences between public and school librarian’s work. This is due to the fact that during my blogging break, I went through a job change from Brewer Public Library to Ithaca School District school library. I went from serving a service population of 15,000 to now serving a community of 450 4K-12th grade students, all in one building. While I deeply miss the staff, families and children that I developed wonderful friendships with while at the public library, I am also so thankful for this change and the work I am doing now in schools.
I wanted to use this space to communicate some lessons that I wish I had known when I was in the public library world about the work that school librarians are doing.
First of all, school librarians are teachers. At the public library, on certain days I might organize and run as many as four programs a day, but mostly I only ran one or two. In the school library, I have six classes coming into the school library every day. I do have freedom to organized my curriculum, but the time is limited. My classes run every day, but I have only 40 minutes to do my best to use to reinforce concepts of reading that are also being taught by other teachers in their classrooms. That means that my lesson plans need to be very focused with specific learning goals in mind. It also means, though, that my lessons plans build on each other for a long term. Unlike the public library programs that are usually presented as completed block of learning to students who may (or may not) ever return, the school librarian teaches the same students for an entire academic school year.
I always wondered where the “shushing librarian” stereotype came from, but now I know. It is the school librarians who were the first, and sometimes, only, librarian in the lives of students who become parents. At the public library I was blessed to have a director who let my youth programs be as loud as needed. In the school, that is simply not an option. My school is so small that there are not enough classrooms to fit everyone, so one study hall per period is in the library. I will teach a class of 4K-6th graders in one half of the library while the study hall is held in the other half. I can not let my kids be loud because only a few feet away are middle or high schoolers trying to get their homework done. This means that I need to do something I never asked students to do at the public library: I ask them to speak quietly and I have to “shush” them when they do get to loud. I also need to speak quietly myself when I am reading a picture book aloud now. It is really hard. Learning and reading should be exciting, and when we are excited, we naturally talk louder. It is hard to put a damper over that fire, but I work to keep it quiet for the good of everyone while still being as enthusiastic as possible with my own, “library voice.”
Another consideration is that school librarians are not able to leave the building in the same way that public librarians can. I know that this can differ from one public library to another, but it is a consideration that school librarians are expected to be in the building and ready to go basically all the time. For collaboration between the public and school librarian to happen, it has to come from the public librarian reaching out, and being willing to meet the school librarian at their school if at all possible.
School librarians see the practical problems of literacy needs within a wide variety of students they serve. For most of the children I serve in the school, the school library is their only library. They do not have books at home, and their parent/caregiver is not bringing them to the public library. I do my best to have great books available, including books that are required in classes, but what do we do when more than one students wants to read the same book? I only have one copy. What do I do when I speak with a student and know of a book they really need, only to realize that our school library does not own it. Should I ask the student to wait the month it takes for my book order to come in from Follett Titlewave? No, they need that book now. One idea is to send these students to the public library if there is a book they are really interested in but I do not have right now, but that idea runs up against numerous challenges.
Many of these children will never darken a public library door with their parent/caregiver because reading is not a priority in their family. For these children, the school library is their only access to books. Can this be changed? Can visits to the public library become as normal as stops to the grocery store or the laundry mat? Sure, but it will take more than one or two field trips to the public library to make it happen. The adults driving the children also need to buy into the principle that reading is valuable in itself and practical for their family routines.
On this note, I am realizing that one of the largest barriers that keep families from coming into the public library is the fear and threat of fines. When I began working in the school, I had several parents come and tell me that they do not ever go to the public library because the fines are too high, and they are not able to keep the public library books separated from the school library books. Even for parents who have it together, this is seen as far too stressful to bother with so they just avoid the public library altogether.
On the opposite side of the “needs spectrum”, I am also seeing many children struggling under the obvious stress caused from parents who are just not able to keep it together to do ordinary tasks to help their children. For these families in varying degrees of crisis, the threat of library fines is just too high of a stressor.
In the public library field, it seems we have unintentionally created an impression among our patrons that the library values their fine money more than providing access to books. For that to change, we need to end library fines and recommit to re-educating parents that the library is a space that will actually help them. We need to re-emphasize the fact to them (and perhaps, to ourselves) that our first priority it to put books in the hands of kids. Fortunately, school librarians are key partners in that re-education process, because they have access to all the kids, and potentially, all the parents.
At the same time, school and public libraries should work together to find ways to return books to one another when they are accidentally returned to the wrong place. This can be done, and it would help parents to know that if they return a book to the school library, even if it belonged to the public library, that it will end up where it needs to. This will help to reinforce the perception that libraries can work together and share the same objectives.
In the public library world, I worked hard every day to find ways to promote our library services and resources in ways that reached more people and were more effective. In the school library, I do not need to worry about outreach in quite the same way because the children are coming to me on a daily basis. At the same time, I work just as hard to make sure the library remains a magic place in their imagination.
The outreach programs at public libraries serve the same function of creating that sense of magic for children who attend them. But these “magical moments” only work when the children and parents come. If the public library wants to be an assertive player in the children’s reading lives, they need to come up with creative solutions to decades-old problems of fines, lost books, and public fearfulness. School librarians can not meet the literacy needs of their students alone. They need a community of literacy warriors to build up the idea that reading is something valuable, that cool people do it, and that it is a normal part of our daily lives. That is where the power of a public and school librarian working together can shine a light against the darkness of reading poverty in our student’s lives.
Meeting with the school librarians can go a long way toward finding ways for us each to do what we do best, but differently. And, I believe now, more than ever, that public and school librarians have power to effect great change in the reading habits of the children they serve, especially when we can partner together. We are going up against decades old reading apathy and even illiteracy in our communities. For the families and children we serve, we are literacy warriors.
Keep reading, my friends!