I recently received a $200,000 grant from the New York City Department of Education’s Office of Library Services to expand our collection. The BUILD Opening Day Grant was created to spark the initiation of library programs in New York City. While we’ve been a functional library since 2018, our collection is small. The 4,000 books we have to serve three collocated high schools wasn’t quite cutting it, especially as readership has increased this year. This is the year my students became readers. When we received this grant, I knew that I needed to implement student voice into the process of selection.
Collection development is a passion of mine. I like to picture the reader of a book and imagine which students will want to check out a title. I take a lot of joy in adding student requests to the collection. Librarianship is not only about providing books. However, what drew me out of the classroom and into the school library was my desire to connect students to books. Reader’s advisory and collection development are my particular passions for this reason. No matter how much I love collection development though, I cannot truly understand my students’ needs without consulting them first.
Student Involvement From the Beginning
The first thing I did was create a survey for students. I always try to structure surveys as simply as possible when it comes to these sort of initiatives. I want quick and fast data, meant to make things easier for students.
Because of the timing, I didn’t get a ton of responses; we received word that we were receiving the grant right as our campus had to go remote because of the COVID surge. Then came the winter break. But what astonished me was how the responses I got were coming in with an intensity and excitement. Students were responding to the survey in the middle of the night or on Christmas day. And I received messages on our official accounts from excited students, asking for things like poetry and cooking books.
Certain things were expected. We have a culinary program, so I was prepared for the requests for cookbooks. I can’t keep them on the shelf. But the overwhelming requests for true crime were something I wouldn’t have known about without this survey. Students come to me and ask me for things, but they hadn’t verbalized this desire before.
Practices That Help Make Collection Development Easier
Prior to this, I had been keeping a secret Google doc. Every time a student asked me for a specific book or a topic and our limited collection couldn’t fulfill it, I typed it into the doc quickly. Later, I would put the title or titles that would have fulfilled the request into a Mackin list that I called “Dream List.” I also had a stack of paper request forms that I kept on the circulation desk. On this form, I asked students to tell me why they wanted particular titles. I’ve never once gotten an explanation lacking in literary analysis. They always cite character development, plot, theme. I would honestly accept the explanation, “Because it looks cool and I want to read it!” But students take adding books to the library seriously.
Students Are So Invested in the School Library
This ownership and seriousness has its roots in the rarity of school libraries. The reason our collection is so small is because for ten years prior to my hiring there was no school library. For many of my students, I’m the first librarian they’ve ever met. For the first few months of school this year, I had my ninth graders asking how much they had to pay to borrow books. Starting a school library is a revolution, and students need to be a part of said revolution. Culturally responsive librarianship means listening to student wishes and giving the community what they need. When the books come in, I will be able to say to students, “These are the books you picked. This is your library.”