Confessions of a Librarian Who Does Everything Wrong

“How do you do inventory if you can’t close the library because you’re letting kids take books out for the summer?” The criticism in the other school librarian’s voice was not even trying to veil itself behind a smile.

“I don’t do inventory,” I admitted. “I mean, there were some kids eating lunch in the library a couple years ago, and they asked if they could take books out for the summer, and that got me thinking…” My voice trailed off at the sight of her expression. “They eat lunch in the library?” she asked. I suddenly found myself, once again, under the weight of heavy judgment. I am always doing things “wrong” in the library.

But sometimes it’s worth doing the wrong things for the right reasons–especially when our right reasons are our students

I let kids eat lunch in the library.

The premise of a library lies at the intersection of truth and justice. It is the heart of the school where all are welcome and safe, where needs are met and potentials challenged. I didn’t start to let students eat in the library because I didn’t feel like battling the food issue. Instead, I let kids eat in the library because that is the just thing to do.

  • Like us, for a variety of reasons, some students need to work through their lunch. I’d rather them take bites of a sandwich and put words on a page rather than choose between the two.
  • Some students like the quiet break to sit and read during their lunch. There are several regulars who just opt to sit by themselves and, for 20 minutes, fall into a good story while they eat.
  • Some students do not feel safe or comfortable in the cafeteria. Students who have Aspergers, autism, or social anxiety gravitate during their lunch period, where they can either sit with a small group of trusted friends or by themselves to prepare for their next transition.

Lunch in the library can bring its own share of battles, but we tell kids who want to just come and hang out that hanging out during lunch is completely acceptable–just in the cafeteria. Every public room has its own function, and part of ours is to ensure that every child has a comfortable, functional, and safe place to be.

I let kids sign out DVDs and movies.

There is no room filled with teacher-only materials in our library. Just as we don’t purchase and house the entire English department’s book copies of To Kill a Mockingbird, we don’t do that for audio-visual resources, either. We are a supplementer to curriculum materials, not the warehouse for them. The library is about access for all patrons, and we want to make sure that culturally important cinema is readily available. Not only do we have Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, but we have also have J-Law in Mockingjay. And while I am always on the lookout for good movies that will augment my teachers’ practices, I take great joy in watching a 17-year-old take out the entire Star Wars saga for a weekend binge.

I let kids take out unlimited books–even when they have overdues.

Sure–there are “those” kids with whom we have to have private conversations about returning items or maybe only taking a few out at a time, but there will always be the exception to the rule in education. When I go to the library or the bookstore, my eyes are always bigger than my 24-hour-day constraint. There are so many choices! A kid who wants to take out five books? I want to nurture that greed of good storytelling. We should never be the gatekeeper of literacy, but always the gate openers.

I let kids sign books out over the summer.

Significant reading loss–particularly for children in poverty–occurs from not reading over the summer. A proactive library needs to start talking up books a month before school gets out. Bring books to English classrooms during move-up days, send out summer sign-out memes, hang signs, make beach-read displays. Ask every kid you encounter, “What are you reading this summer?”  Let kids know summer is a great time to read! We have found that our rates of book loss are exactly the same as school-year circulation numbers. And that seeing a kid walk out with a shopping bag full of books is worth everything.

And yes, I don’t do inventory.

Here’s what inventory says to the school community: we are not busy enough or instrumental in learning enough to stay open until the end of the school year. We want you to read like nuts–until it’s time for us to make lists of and count our books. At that point, please return everything. Our relationship is over for the year. I know and value all of the reasons for doing annual inventory, but in the end, my students’ access wins. We only have a finite time with our patrons, and I want our library to be a valuable resource through the very last day and into the summer. And if a book goes missing and nobody has been looking for it? Well, then. That speaks for itself.

As I write this, I am uncomfortable with the prospect of being chastised–I know I don’t do everything the way I’m supposed to and I worry that my philosophy sounds like I’m embracing chaos and disorder. I know all of the counterarguments to my practice, and sometimes, in a moment of insecurity I question if I’m betraying the norms of my profession by untying the knots of cumbersome policy. But ultimately, I have decided I will shoulder the criticism and ensure that what is best for students will drive my practice, and that means that our library is student-centered, not policy-centered.



Author: Angie Miller

Angie Miller is a 7-12 school librarian in Meredith, NH. The 2011 NH Teacher of the Year and the recipient of the 2017 NH Outstanding Library Program of the Year, Angie is a TED speaker, National Geographic teacher fellow, and freelance writer who writes for her blog, The Contrarian Librarian, and is a regular contributor to sites like EdWeek and the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet. As a co-founder of the initiative, Let the Librarians Lead, Angie leads professional development, speaks to audiences, and advocates for school leadership through librarianship. Her book, It’s A Matter of Fact: Teaching Students Research Skills in Today’s Information-Packed World, published by Routledge, will be on shelves in April 2018.

Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Blog Topics, Collection Development, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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53 replies

  1. Good article. As an elementary school librarian, I only take issue with the point of letting kids check out unlimited books when they have some overdue. I wish I could foster some relationship with the students after school but that is not possible at the elementary level where kids have to catch buses and must be accounted for strictly in after school dismissal.

  2. Yes!!!!!!! Love all of this! Well done!

  3. My practice and philosophy has evolved to be very much like yours! This year I plan to throw even more “rules” to the wind. Thanks for confirming that I’m not the only one!

  4. I agree w/ everything you write here and do many of the same things in my 9-12 building. Here are a few more.

    My list includes:

    1. When I worked elem, Ks took books out very quickly. After 2 weeks of book care lessons, they were circulating. They cannot learn responsibility if you do not give it to them. You also can observe what they already enjoy reading and encourage them to grow by showing them other choices.

    2. Book loss is to some degree is the cost of doing business. I pressure seniors to return books b/c they are graduating, but I am patient w/ students in other grades and just keep reminding them via annoying overdue notices. I order new books to replace those that were popular but not returned for one reason or another. Needless to say, I never threaten a student or parent if a book is lost. I encourage the student to be responsible. This year I even got a book returned by a sibling after her brother graduated.

    3. Students have access to yearbooks. I work in a very insular school in which the students attend where their parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents went. They love to see the old pix, and they often learn details about the time their relatives attended the school.

    4. Students are often asked what books they want me to order. Their input is as important as teachers’, and they appreciate when you accommodate their requests.

  5. I love this! I have tech clubs and book clubs that eat lunch in the library and the makerspace! We are always creating and inventing something new! I also let kids check out more book if they have overdues. I love your article!

  6. Love this article! Validates many points that I too follow. Food is okay, and I love lunch groups and visits. I let students take ‘as many books as they can handle at once’, and have those students who simply can’t return, so I often find piles of used books for them to take as many as they like. Students can borrow up to ten books over the summer, with parental permission, and what is on loan will show that during inventory, which I do every couple of years, one section at a time, with help or over the summer. Although we don’t have DVD’s, I often play quiet instrumental music in the background. And, I always have bookmarks and chocolate!

  7. Amen. Couldn’t have said it better myself. Thanks for sharing.

  8. I love everything about this! Kids and access aneed to come first. You are doing everything right!

  9. Your students may never know how lucky they are to have you, that is until they move to the school where the “smiling” librarian dictates what will happen in HER library. Your students obviously know the library and its contents belong to them and they treat it accordingly.

  10. Well done! I, too, think you are doing everything right…putting the kids first! I would like to point out though, that if you are using a system like Destiny you can do inventory at any time, without all the books being physically present in the library. That is what I did in my very busy middle school library (I am retired now), and it worked well. It is not an overwhelming job if you take a section and a time, rather than trying to do the entire collection at once. I had the kids needs first and foremost on my mind when I did this, as they would get so frustrated when looking for books they couldn’t find. With an inventory done, the books unaccounted for would be marked lost, and all of us saved time and energy searching.

  11. Thank you so much for all of this! Sometimes, when I share what I’m doing in my library, I feel the reproachful thoughts of another librarian. It is so nice to hear that others are doing some of the same things. And while I do allow summer checkout, I’ve never really pushed it – next year I resolve to really make a big deal about it!

  12. f you’re doing things wrong, so am I!

    II don’t close the library during inventory. Like Katie, I do a section at a time. If books have “grown legs,” I want to know that they’re missing so (1) the catalog reflects what we have and (2) I can buy another copy if I need to.

    While I don’t let kids eat lunch in the library (frankly because the doesn’t get cleaned or even vacuumed very often), I do have a quiet space right outside the library door with a table and chairs. Kids are welcome to use a library laptop out there, take a magazine out there, whatever. I call it the “library annex.”

    And as for summer… I, too, check out books to SOME kids during the summer – those I know love to read and are pretty sure they’re coming back the following year. We have all of our fiction DVD’s out in the public area. Students are welcome to check out non-fiction as well but they are stored in the backroom just for lack of space.

    At my previous school, I sent a whole class of students on to high school thinking it was normal for libraries to play the B-52s before school. These days I limit myself more to classic rock before school and at lunch – it’s not loud and kids have the right to tell me to turn it down.

  13. Nothing wrong! I was supposed to keep all the books in correct order (in junior high)? I cherished most listening to kids tell what their favorite books were. Keep on doing what you’re doing!!!

  14. Hmmm. The Future Ready framework doesn’t even address inventory. I’d say you’re ok!

    For those who are required to inventory as my district is, I encourage you to schedule it for a brief 2-3 days at some point during the year when it will cause the least disruption. Then before you start, let kids get what they need to hold them until you are finished. After all, books don’t have to be brought in. All automation systems I have worked with consider anything checked out as accounted for. The more books checked out, the less you have to scan and the quicker you can be navk in business.

    Thanks for working on breaking down those policy barriers. We need more librarians just like you!

  15. I think you and I are soulmates. Lol! practice everything you mention in your great article. I’ve taken some heat for some of it, but I think I’ve turned our library-media program around in our school.

  16. You are doing what works best for you and your students….there is no mold that you are breaking….be you and let your library be a reflection of what you WANT it to represent. I like doing things outside the box and stude ts comfort zone….and it works! Kudos to you

  17. I couldn’t agree ,more. We need more people in our profession like you. I am definitely doing everything wrong in my library too and I am OK with that. Scrolling on our catalog marquee is, “If it is NOISY in here, then we are busy Creating, Communicating, Collaborating & Critcically Thinking.” It sounds like your library is the HEART of the school as it should be.

  18. Hurray for you and your library! I always describe our library as a student-centered place, and do my best to keep it that way. I work in a middle school with almost 2000 students. The principal used to flip out when he heard the noise level, but he gets it now. And my workroom? That’s a quiet zone for kids who can’t deal with that much noise at lunch. I want my students to know that a library will always be a place for them, whether they want to read, do homework, tinker, draw, take a nap, socialize with friends. etc. My goal is to get them to seek out libraries in high school, college and beyond because they have come to expect, rely on and even crave that space. Kudos to you!

  19. I do inventory, but I don’t close down for it :) Destiny logs a check-out/check-in in the inventory, so there’s no reason to close! I let kids eat, I let them take all the books, I let them do yoga, I let them define the space instead of having it defined for them.

  20. I think I love you!!! Love love, love that you have the tenacity & courage that I tend to squash when these discussions take place in a group of librarians. Thank you for being honest about the struggle!

  21. What I greatly respect and appreciate about your article is that on any Library practice, there are arguments for as well as against. Maintaining accessibility to books vs. promoting student responsibility in care of and returning of those books can be a challenging balance. But it is always important to look at what we’re doing and figure out why. It is just what has always been done? Does it work in our individual case, on our unique campus?

    One thing though – I am not only there as an educator, but also as a librarian. At times they combine. In other aspects of my job, they are separate. There are many administrative tasks that take time to do the job well. Selecting and ordering books for one. Book Fairs. The list goes on. Time has to be taken to do those things. It is not that I’m “not busy enough or instrumental enough” to stay open for the school year. It’s that there is more to being a Librarian than is often considered by non-Librarians. And I love my job.

  22. We are soul sisters❤️

  23. Those who complain about inventory need to understand:
    You don’t need to close for inventory with modern automation systems.
    You can use a laptop, your barcode scanner, AV cart, and long extension and network cords to do inventory in real time.
    Inventory doesn’t need to be done at the end of the year or the entire collection at the same time. Find a “slower” time and get started. For elementary that might be teacher work days. Secondary might choose exam days.
    You can still check out while inventorying.

    Thank you for keeping a student centered focus in your work.

  24. I do inventory without ever closing the library. It isn’t necessary as it counts the books that are out. Actually, I like it better when a lot are checked out. ;-). I run inventories so I can have accurate information for my students. It never fails I have a kid that finally gets excited about a book, catalog says we have it, and then we discover it has grown legs and walked off. ;-). With that said, you can’t be doing it “wrong” if it is what’s best for your students.

  25. Thanks for your article Angie.
    I agree 100% with what you say. I often let kids take more books even if they have overdue books and I let them borrow over the holidays. Fostering a love for reading is my number 1 goal in our school library.

  26. Love your work and your philosophy- keep up the great work.. fellow librarian from Australia

  27. What are u doing wrong ? U r providing a safe place for kids to read . U t keeping their love of books going – even over the summer ! I see nothing wrong at all ! Keep doing all those wrong things – because to me it’s right !

  28. I’m lucky enough to have a part-time secretary whose work year extends two weeks past when the students leave. We do inventory then, so we know which popular books have gone missing and might need to be replaced. It helps that we limit the inventory to fiction.

  29. p.s. I let students take out books over the summer for the first time this year, and their grateful reactions to being able to do so validated that it was the right thing to do!

  30. I doubt you will find many shocked replies, truly, because the key is to do what works for your students and staff. Others may find a need to inventory (certainly it is more necessary the younger your students, and closing to ensure shelf order improves access overall,) or to close during lunch (sometimes the only time you can collaborate with classroom teachers), or to limit dvds to staff (justifying spending scarce funds on dvds would be a no-go; teachers are frustrated if they can’t get their DVD at a minute’s notice), or closing to shelfread, inventory, and weed all at once.

    I took over a junior high library where the librarian never weeded and never inventoried. Access was a big issue, with many long-gone items still in the catalog, and much misshelved. Without inventorying, condition issues had gone unaddressed. Selection had devolved to buying multiple copies of award nominees. I would never before have felt that closing for inventory was necessary, but years of avoiding it and also the tasks (selection, repair, deselection) that are easily accomplished along with inventory, made the library inefficient and ineffective. I’m not an old stick-in-the-mud, but I was given in that year a shocking reminder that one needs to think about library administration with long-term goals even when the immediate effects are, etc. You’re doing nothing wrong…but neither are those who make different administrative choices.

  31. Although I am retired know, I think you are doing everything right! We signed out books to students over the summer. We merged out Destiny catalog with the private high school and community library making our collection available to both the school and community 24/7, all year long.
    Students ate in our media center, spent lunch recess, played chess, had tutoring, had algebra students, homework club, after-school club, book fairs, etc.

    I don’t think doing inventory calls for returning books, stopping services.My reasoning for doing inventory was so I would know what was physically in the media center, not just in the catalog. I wanted to know what was lost (taken without signing out, stolen) so I could re order.

    Did I close? No
    Did I ask for all books to be returned? No
    Did I spend valuable time scanning the collection? No
    Was it time consuming for me? No

    My involvement with inventory was setting up a volunteer schedule, getting a few laptops, borrowing a few scanners and spending 10-15 minutes with volunteers -parents, community members, and students. Luckily I had been at the school long enough that I had a cadre of parents who looked forward to this process every year.

    They did all the scanning.
    They found books with missing or unreadable spine labels,
    They found books shelved wrong.
    They found books that needed repair that were missed during circulation.

    I spent maybe 15 min at the end of the day looking for titles that were missing.
    Inventory was started in April, scanning was finished in May (18,000 titles),and finalized the last day of school – 250 were unaccounted for in May, 44 were actually lost in June. If the books were popular and new, which most were, they were put on a list to re-oder in the Fall.

    With automation, the process is so much quicker. If I had to close, had to request everything back, etc. I wouldn’t do it either!

  32. Hi! You rock! Keep kids involved not shut out! FYI – You can still do inventory even if you are signing out books! The great thing about inventory is that it keeps your holdings up to date.

  33. I love this! Your attitude is exactly what those of us working in libraries today should portray to our patrons. Although I am a librarian at a university library, this can-do mentality is one that we can all learn from. Libraries exist for the betterment of the community — and your community is definitely benefitting from your ideas. Find needs within the community and figure out how to meet those needs — which is exactly what you are doing, Angie. Keep it up!

  34. Love, love, love this article

  35. Sounds good to me. The library is FOR students. In my middle school library I shelved fiction by genre in clearly labeled areas. Books got stickers on the spine s9 shelves could sort easily.
    I am sure that when I retired that ended because I was the only one in the school system who did it. I didn’t ask permission. The rationale was that kids need to look em up. Right….They were shelved by author within sections.
    I never saw so many books go out until sports fiction readers and mystery readers could go directly to their favorite sections.
    I also let kids eat lunch on the library patio until the principal put a stop to it.
    Schools have lots of ridiculous rules.
    34 years 8n school libraries and my goal was to be there for the students. I think I did that. Kudos to you.

  36. Much like my library philosophy, please offer no apologies for putting students first.

  37. You are my new hero!

  38. Oh, overdues! Everyone gets so upset about them! I want kids in the library, not scared to come in. I tell kids right up front that if they lose a book at the beginning of the year they have all year to find it and I don’t penalize them and stop letting them check out books. What is the point of that? We want kids to WANT to come to the library!

    I have a limit of five books – which frankly – I probably don’t even need. I typically let kids check out more if they want them – because again – why not??

    Inventory – I like to do it only so I can keep my catalog correct for the students. Hate having a book show it is there and getting our hopes up when it isn’t. And I do inventory after the school year is over.

    Totally allow kids to check out books over the summer and I’m open for a few days over the summer as well in case they want to get new titles.

    It’s all about meeting the needs of the students and helping them love reading.

    It’s great to be a school librarian and nice to know that others have the same philosophy as I do.

    Great work everyone!

  39. Great reasoning here, thanks for the article. I do want to let you know that I have had no issue performing inventory while still circulating books in the middle of the school year. We use Follett Destiny and it accounts for what is checked out and not on the shelf separately. Nothing is counted as missing until you close the inventory, presumably at the end of the year. It doesn’t effect students or circulation in the slightest.

  40. Angie I love this! I agree with everything you are doing so you’re not alone in doing it wrong! I do inventory only for the reason of keeping my catalog current and updated and as accurate as possible for when the students are searching. And honestly? If the books are checked OUT it makes scanning inventory at the end go SO much faster! My only problem with checkout and ‘overdues’ at the end of the year is that my 4th graders leave to go to other buildings where the librarians are my polar opposite…Complete with one book limits and no checkouts ever if one is missing. I feel so bad for my kiddos and only hope that the waves I’ve been making will ripple out to the rest.

  41. I honestly could have been the author of this article!!! I have been the librarain at our school for two years now, and all of this applies to me! I will be heading back to school this year with newfound confidence that I’m not a complete screwup! HA!

  42. Kudos to you! Why create problems out of nothing? Why worry about what could or might happen? Providing a safe, inviting, place with plenty to read is all that matters.

  43. Good for you! If it works for your population and you have administrative support then you are doing exactly what librarian should do.

  44. You won’t hear judgmental statements from me!!. Kudos to you for showing some guts! What is wrong with eating in the library? Well, the security personnel have their opinions as would my para who worked the circulation desk. Oh, those naysayers! Begone. The library is for the students. They will show respect because they value the space!!

  45. It…had never occurred to me that you were supposed to close the library to do inventory. We do inventory, and if something is checked out, it’s marked as checked out until it gets turned back in. Why the heck would you have to shut everything down to do that?? We do have to do inventory, though, the problem of nonexistent items being in the catalog is a real one. (When I got here 5 years ago, the previous librarian didn’t do inventory, OR weeding. There were books with floppy disks included. We don’t even have a computer that could play a floppy disk anymore!) We also allow eating in the library, just not at the computers! Because there’s no way to keep sandwich crumbs out of those keyboards. But if they want to sit at the tables and work and eat, no problem here. No limits on checkouts, and no fines for late stuff. Never would have thought any of that was wrong, it’s perfectly acceptable library-ing.

  46. Interestingly my Library is a small, specialist Library in a Research Institute, and we do some very similar things to you, for different and yet similar reasons. It’s easy to create a whole load of rules and procedures to follow to justify our existence and create measurable ‘work’. However often when I think we should do less ‘wrong’ things, or I’m explaining why some of our systems are a bit vague, I come back to the real purpose of our existence which is giving users access to knowledge, helping and supporting them

    So when a user asks me ‘How many books can I out?’ I reply ‘How many can you carry?’

  47. This is fantastic, I love this concept! I work in a public library and we have the same outlook! We are OK with noise and we are OK with the children being comfortable, after all, this is an intellectual playground! There is bound to be noise in a playground, so the same is to be said of a library that services the youths of our community! Keep up the wonderful work that you do for the children at your school!

  48. Love it! Students first! I agree with Katie and Terri about ongoing inventory – it’s collection management made easy by our automation systems. It’s also the reason we should be diligent when cataloging our collection– be consistent- have a framework and let the software work for you so you can work with the kiddo’s!

  49. Wow. I’m just waiting to get a circulation computer or access to a LMS… In at least one of the 3 libraries I’ve been assigned to. I don’t know where you all are working that you have all these resources, much less things like secretaries and offices/work spaces. I was hired and told I was re-opening unused libraries. Wasn’t told they had been stripped, looted, and totally treated like free-for-all zones and had virtually NO technology (including anything for the teacher).

  50. I really appreciated reading this blog post. It made me feel like it is okay to experiment, to change things up, and to take some risks that are outside of the “standard library” practices. As a new teacher-librarian, I feel like it can be challenging to swim against a school culture that has some entrenched ideas on what a library is and how it can be used. Thanks for sharing this valuable piece.

  51. I too love your philosophy here, but I’m not sure how practical it is in today’s world. I’ve worked for the same system since 1982, and I’ve been in my position since 1988. I was in acquisitions, but they combined my job with the catalogers, so now we are called Collection Management Specialists. (They also put into our job descriptions that we must originally catalog, even tho none of us but the supervisor is a librarian.)

    Anyway, things have changed so much in the last few years. EVERYTHING has to be done exactly the same at all of our branches now. We aren’t allowed to check out our own books on our work pcs, nor can we place our own holds from the order screen anymore. They want us to log into the public side of our website and place our holds that way. They (management? director? board?) want each library in our system to look and run the same. Even tho I work at the administrative/headquarters, and not with the public, they won’t let us make up time anymore because the branches can’t do that. Meaning, 5 minutes late? No you can’t stay and work 5 minutes past your shift, even tho everyone has a different start/stop time, you have to take 5 minutes vacation.

    I miss the old libraries. The feel of them. They were like, FAMILY. Now it seems just like another business. No more patrons, only CUSTOMERS.

  52. You may be a rare person to empathize with my sadness. This week, our James J. Hill Library closed permanently in St. Paul, Minnesota. I have read that England is experiencing significant library closures. I feel it is a great loss to our community to lose the Hill library. It was monumental.

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