Libraries are important places for social connections in our societies and schools. When I worked in a small public library, many of our older patrons counted on the library to serve a social function. Not just with programs or activities, but simply for conversation — about books, life, and our community. The same is true in the Camden Hills Regional High School Library. We always have a jigsaw puzzle going, community hats to knit or crochet, board games, coloring pages, crosswords, math puzzles, and more. Frequently these are the engagement points that stimulate social interactions for those who need them most.
Over the four years that I have been the school librarian/technology integrator here, I have come to know a student called C. (not his real name or even his real initial!). Now a senior, our interactions have been limited to his almost singular interest in playing video games on our library desktop computers. Because we prohibit games on these computers during the school day, this is his usual pattern: in the morning I watch C. come into the library (checking the whiteboard for our after-school hours), log in, and play. Then he literally RUNS out the door to make it to class, his head pitched forward, backpack swinging, often barely missing a collision with another student. In the afternoon, it’s the same: C. makes a beeline to the computers and plays while he waits for his ride home. Sometimes I hear him chuckling to himself as he plays, while also listening to a streamer on his personal device. I greet him, morning and afternoon, with a smile and a welcome, and his response and expression is flat, without inflection. As a freshman and sophomore, sometimes there was no return greeting or any response. He does not interact with me, and I only rarely have seen him interact with his peers. I learned from another teacher that C. wants to be a videogame designer.
This fall, chess has taken our library by storm! We started with a pretty beat-up set that I found in a storage closet. When the chess club advisor asked whether he could give us a few nicer chess boards to inspire more interest in the chess club, we were grateful to receive them. Two of the sets are oversized, with pieces that are 6-8” tall. We leave one of these boards up all the time now and it gets played off and on throughout our days; sometimes students come from a neighboring study hall to borrow a smaller set. It was a logical next step to invite the chess club to relocate their meeting space to the library after school, instead of in a classroom.
It was a chess club day, and C. came screeching into the school library as usual. But instead of veering immediately to the computers, he paused at the desk, taking in the giant chess game in progress, with a few spectators gathered around the board. C. edged over and stood with the group. The next time I looked, he was perched on the edge of the table, offering some comments to another spectator about the play. Since that day, I have seen C. approach different chess games in process to observe. He’s never played yet, but I’m wondering if that might happen before he graduates in June.
Before this year, I could not imagine a way to facilitate more socialization for this student that would not be too intrusive or forced. Though the school library was clearly a part of C.’s routine, and a place he felt comfortable visiting, he wasn’t seeking connection with others in our library. Now, whether or not C. ever chooses to play, chess has become his social entry point, a platform upon which to practice social skills in a place of safety.
How does your library support students who may need more opportunities to socialize? Are these casual or structured connections? Is the library accessible to all of your students? How do we reach those in our community who may be at the fringes? How do we invite participation in our school libraries from all of our students?
Author: Iris Eichenlaub
Iris Eichenlaub is the Librarian/Technology Integrator at Camden Hills Regional High School in Rockport, Maine. She is the 2017 Knox County Teacher of the Year, and was named an Inspiring Educator in 2017 by the Maine Education Association. Iris serves on the board of the Maine Association of School Libraries as the chair of professional development. Follow the story of the Edna St. Vincent Millay Library via Facebook (@ESVMLibrary or https://www.facebook.com/ESVMLibrary) or Instagram (@ESVM_Library or https://www.instagram.com/esvm_library).
Categories: Blog Topics, Community, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models
In “Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library” (Oxford University Press, 2015), I showed that from “a library in the life of the user” perspective people love their public libraries for three main reasons: (1) for the practical information public libraries make accessible; (2) for the billions of stories they circulate that help people make sense of their lives in so many ways; and (3) for making public space available for multiple uses, including the construction of community. Unfortunately, our professional discourse has devoted most of its attention for the last 150 years to the first, and for the most part overlooked and undervalued the second and third. Scholars from other fields, however, are beginning to notice. See, for example, sociologist Eric Klineneberg’s new book, “Palaces for the People” (2018); Eric will be delivering the Curley Lecture at ALA Midwinter in Seattle.
I am currently writing a history of American public school librarianship, and in my research am struck by how little attention the school library research community has given to “school library as place” over the generations from a “library in the life of the user” perspective. For decades I have told my students: “There is no holy book in which God tells us what a library should be; historically, it is people (users and managers) who make libraries and people (users and managers) who change them.” So the research question I would ask is: “Between K-12, what are the changing space needs of children and young adults [there is a lot of research outside LIS literature that identify these needs], and what changes can school libraries as places make to address them”?
I too over the past 33 years had many students who have sought out the Media Center/Library as a place to practice socialization skills with me or my assistant(they don’t know that is what is happening) Our students in 4th and 5th grade can currently come in at lunch, in addition to weekly library times, and throughout the day. Some receive standing passes and they become assistants in the library. It is amazing to see the change in them when they interact with other students. They have learned how to interact in a non-judgemental way, and they gain confidence
We have a puzzle, a coloring area, and computers to use. It is amazing what you may overhear, as they are working.
Thank you so much for the reminder that a library should be an open, inviting environment where all are welcome. There are so many students (like C in your blog post) that struggle with social interactions and making connections either with the students and/or staff. I think that this blog topic serves as a critical reminder that the library is so much more than a library and, in this case, has acted as a platform of comfort and safety in the school community and a gateway to practice some social skills.
My library supports students that may need more opportunities to socialize by hosting various clubs and activities such as chess club or the comic club. The comic club was my son’s idea when he was a student at the school in which I was the librarian. With the trend of graphic novels, he sparked an interest in creating his own graphic stories or comics, so we started a lunch time club. I was amazed at the turnout and the students who chose to come. In a K-5 school I had students from every grade show up, many of whom were some of our most vulnerable students and struggling readers. It served as such an opportunity to make personal connections with students that I otherwise may not have.
It’s amazing what can happen and the connections that you can make by simply opening the library doors and having a welcoming space for the students by offering a more unstructured activity.