This past year brought a global pandemic, massive protests around policing and racism, a fraught election, a riot at the Capitol, mass unemployment, mass shootings, and our democracy on the brink. And, of course, the impact of these events on students’ mental health, well-being, identities, relationships, and education.
What’s a school librarian to do for collection development?
One thing we can no longer do is passively select titles solely by topic. In the past, an event would arise (9/11, the Olympics, an election, new standards) or a new curricular unit developed, and the rush was on to buy resources to build background knowledge and support curricular outcomes. This selection process is still critical, but it cannot be the only method. We need to think about student identities, interests, and nonfiction.
Student Identities and Interests
It used to be enough to purchase books students wanted to read: graphic novels, engaging series, and popular genres. Now we have to consider who students are and who they might become. And that means having a collection with diverse voices and experiences at the core. Fortunately, many vendors know this and have lists and tags for #OwnVoices, LGBTQ+, disabilities, neurodiversity, global awareness, and more. But this doesn’t mean we select titles from here and titles from there as if completing a checklist. Think about who your students are and what they care about. What are their backgrounds and experiences? What are the school community’s values and mission? What do our students have to know both academically and personally to thrive today and tomorrow?
Traditionally, libraries had extensive nonfiction collections to support student research and assignments. The explosion in online resources made the need for a robust reference section (or one at all) obsolete. Still, many school libraries have nonfiction series on curricular topics (communities, animal habitats, World War II, climate change) written in an informative, objective style. And we need to have a substantial nonfiction section to develop student content knowledge and understanding.
But are these titles circulating?
Are students reading them cover to cover for assignments and research?
Or are they checking out the books to fit a source requirement?
Of course, we have nonfiction books students check out for personal interest (on health, art, biographies), but shouldn’t we also strive to select nonfiction titles on academic subjects students want to read? Titles that are narratives, primary sources, and biographies come in to personalize history, science, and language. Pair lessons of the Japanese-American Internment during World War II with George Takei’s They Called Us Enemy or with John Lewis’s March to examine the history of racism and politics. Have students read Harlem Grown: How One Big Idea Transformed a Neighborhood by Tony Hillery to extend their learning of conservation and the environment at the local level. Compare today’s Covid-19 pandemic with the 1918 influenza epidemic with Kenneth C. Davis’s More Deadly Than War. Or use the Davis book as an entry point to America’s history during World War I.
What all these nonfiction titles have in common is to personalize the abstract for students, to ground academic content in lived experiences.
And that is what the library collection must do for our students: surround them with titles based on lived experiences and points of view to build understanding, empathy, and most importantly, knowledge.
Author: Leanne Ellis
I am a School Library Coordinator for the New York City Department of Education’s Department of Library Services. I plan and deliver workshops, provide on-site instructional and program support to school librarians, coordinate programs, administer grants, and am program coordinator for MyLibraryNYC, a program administered with our three public library systems.