Five years ago, I began my new position as head librarian in a large public high school located in the Midwest. Needless to say, I was excited about all the opportunities and possibilities it would offer. My previous experiences at the middle and elementary levels were great and meaningful, but high school was the next level. As a school librarian, I saw great potential to impact students before they branch out and enroll in post-secondary schools or start vocations immediately. In either case, for them, it is the dawning of a new season becoming a young adult. Not only was I pumped to introduce great reads, I am also a lover of research. The art and science of learning gets me inspired and motivated to grow personally and professionally. Sure, I have my favorite topics of study; however, I am never afraid to learn something new that’s totally different or distant from my comfort zone. In fact, I’ve found the disciplines have done a great job of separating knowledge when in reality there’s always a connection that can be made and that connection can be made through exposure to information.
There you have it, I thought surely, I would be well received by the students. Eastmoor Academy High School is one of the top high schools in the Columbus City Schools District, and I knew students would pour into the school library begging for the latest, greatest reads and best sellers. Imagine my surprise when one of the first students to enter the library asked, “Does anyone ever check books out?” Why lie, right? My official answer consisted of explaining to the student that this was my first year in the position and I would run statistics to review patterns from last year, but certainly I was hopeful that students do indeed check out books. Big mistake. The need to sound professional and informal created a distance between myself and the student. In hindsight that would have been a good moment to make a connection and build a strong relationship with that students and lead with the recommendation of a good book.
Well, after checking the stats, I found that students did check books out, but not very many. In fact, after the first quarter, the circulation statistics revealed there were 81 books. Eighty-one books, eighty-one books were checked out. Here I was the librarian at a top high school with a student population of more than 800 students, and only 81 books had circulated within nine weeks. Certainly, the academic performance and achievement records of the schools proved that students were readers and they were reading. What to do? What to do?
Over time it became increasingly clear that students were reading novels for English classes, essays from professional journals, articles from local newspapers, and New York Times and Wall Street Journal articles assigned by the social studies and science teachers. There was definitely promotion of reading, and reading assignments were always connected to thought-provoking questions, inquiries, and critiques.
Now I had a dilemma. Do I take on the task of promoting titles within the school library, a feat I could accomplish, or conduct a needs assessment and determine how to best utilize the space for not only the student body but also for the entire school community (administration, teachers, staff, students, parents, and community members)? I realized throughout the year that building relationships with students, teachers, staff, administration, and parents was the best way to effectively resolve the issue of an under-utilized school library space. I was reminded that the quiet and uneventful school library as we know it no longer exists. It is a thing of the past; previous generations, I’m sure, enjoyed what they offered. In fact, the school library will need to take on a totally different role as it must cater to the academic and social needs of the school within the 21st century and beyond. The reality of low circulation statistics does not and cannot overrule the necessity of a sound learning hub where student meets student, staff member meets staff member, staff member meets students, and community meets school. It can become “the place to be” through transformational thinking. Here are some things to consider:
- Virtual book clubs. This generation of students are tech savvy, and social media is second nature to them. Books can be featured online and questions, comments, and critiques can take place via postings with participation from all members of the school community.
- Brown bag lunch workshops. I provided a brief sample of this event my first year during Women’s History Month. I invited professional women in the community to speak about their professions while students ate lunch in the library. Yes, they ate lunch in the library.
- Theme-based essay contests. For instance, Women’s History, Latino History, Poetry Month. I hosted Black History Trivia daily during the month of February and topped it off at the end of the month with an essay contest open to all students. Recently an English teacher and I sponsored a poetry slam to determine which participants would comprise the Poetry Slam team and compete at the district level.
- Writing center. I was also honored and excited when students solicited my assistance when writing personal essays, college essays, resumes, and informational reports. It was a pleasure and I learned much in the process. A student-led writing center would be great as honing writing skills is crucial. Warrior Words, an annual literary publication that includes poetry, prose, opinion articles, and artwork, was birthed from this group.
- Information literacy and research workshops and lessons. Our students are members of the Google nation like many adults, but watch what happens when you teach them serious search strategies and how to dig into noteworthy databases. As overwhelming as it can be, they witness the power of effective research and how to handle the overload of information by focusing on research questions not topics.
- Storytellers. Who says high schoolers are too old to enjoy a professional storyteller? Students learn the significance of oral language and how to honor oral history from cultural bearers.
- Music reggae, gospel, jazz, pop, and yes, rap… Need I say more. After purchasing a large bluetooth speaker for the library I found playing music while students gathered to chat, play cards, put puzzles together, and study was surprisingly an excellent strategy to get students to visit more often.
- Promote and market the school library as an open space where educators within the disciplines meet to showcase interactive learning and of course reading.
Remember there is a new generation of students and library users. As models of professional learners we must be prepared to not only meet their needs but also take them to a higher level of learning and engagement.