Innovate from Inside the Box
I love that thrill when I happen upon the right combination of search terms and come up with a useful result! Librarians have a certain tenacity, manifested by our unwillingness to accept defeat in the face of a difficult reference question. But I’ve also heard discouragement from some school librarians who feel defeated by the realities and circumstances in their schools. When I hear their struggles, I shift into the same mode that I employ when I’m helping a colleague with a technology issue. In the face of a colleague’s defeat or frustration, I become extra patient, reassuring, and relentlessly positive, donning my cape as a Solutionary Librarian! I’m borrowing the term “solutionary” from Zoe Weil, co-founder and president of the Institute for Humane Education, who envisions a new generation of design-thinkers and solution-finders through problem-based learning. Maybe it’s part of my character or personality, but I rarely feel boxed in by a limitation of my circumstances; once I exhaust the options inside the box, I’m peering over the edge to see what possibilities are on the outside of the box. If there’s nothing out there, I reconsider how I might innovate from inside the box.
I had a problem that had been nagging at me for some time, a problem I couldn’t quite figure out how to solve on my own. When I close up the library in the afternoons, there are always students that I have to displace. They pack up their stuff and walk down to the cafe, which can sometimes be noisy at that time of day. These students are waiting for their sports practices or theatrical rehearsals to start or waiting around for their rides, and it makes me feel terrible to send them elsewhere. I wanted to model a solutionary approach to this problem, something that my learning community could witness: exploring and reflecting on a problem, persisting through a challenge, learning in an iterative way. This probably sounds familiar, as it speaks to the spirit of the “Explore” Shared Foundation and Key Commitment of the National School Librarian Standards.
Since I grew up with Mr. Rogers, I started to imagine who my community helpers could be. Similar to the idea of affinity mapping that Ellen McNair referenced in An Invitation to Collaborate – Part 2, I tried to imagine the other organizations that would share an interest in supporting our community’s youth. At first I was dreaming really big: public transportation for our rural community to have easier access to our two local public libraries! But since this solution was way, way beyond the box, I began to wonder whether we could bring those public librarians to us. Could the librarians be paid by their own libraries to staff ours as volunteers? Public libraries in my community often struggle to attract teens, though they offer free library cards to any student in our county. After getting approval from my building administration to reach out to the directors of both libraries, I realized I’d have to be brave. Because this felt like a big thing to ask.
The Big “Ask”
I know both library directors. I was previously employed at one of the libraries. So why did this feel so hard? For one thing, I know that both libraries have small staffs, so any disruption to the routine would have a ripple effect on other library services. In addition, by bringing my idea forward to two librarian colleagues who I respect, I was placing myself in a vulnerable position. I anticipated feeling awkward and uncomfortable. But then I remembered why this mattered: it mattered because it would support the learners in our community. Could I sustain some personal discomfort if it would potentially help my students? Of course. Could I be brave and step out of my comfort zone for my students? Always.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the enthusiasm for this initiative! Each library director was excited by the idea and interested to know what it would take to move forward. One library even offered two afternoons! Now, with the connection made, I reached out to our central office to get the wheels of bureaucracy moving. I used funds from our library activity account to pay for fingerprinting and background checks for each library volunteer, but my public library partners subsidized this by giving their employees paid time off to get fingerprinted. Last year for the first time, our high school library was staffed for an extra hour, three days a week!
“Revolving Door of Creativity”
When public organizations help each other, everyone wins. As we look ahead into year two of this initiative, we’re already thinking of how we could improve or expand what we are offering. What could the public librarians bring in terms of programming? What do students need most at the end of their days? A quiet place to study? Some kind of art or craft? Or is it enough that we are offering a bridge to the public libraries and the talented librarians who work there? I come back to McNair’s words: “Building and maintaining community relationships can be a revolving door of creativity that always, always comes back to strengthen our relationship with our learners.”
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).