A Welcoming Environment

It’s been a short time since I retired from my job as Teacher Librarian at Petaluma High School, and one might think that I would begin my journey of kicking back and enjoying the sun. I have indeed begun doing that, but I’ve also been fortunate to have been hired as “on-call” for the local county library system. This means that I get to work in any of the libraries as needed, substituting for a day, week, or even months.  With that good fortune, I’ve been heading out to all the branches to meet the people and see the facilities. One thing that struck me is how important that first impression is as one walks through the door. While each library I’ve visited is completely different from the others, each is unique in the way it offers a space that invites one to walk through the doors and once there opens into a wonderful place rich with color, open space, active conversations, people reading and browsing, and of course miles of shelves filled with books. It got me asking myself: what makes a library “inviting”?

Something to do early on in the school year is to walk through the door with your eyes closed (you might want help with that!( and then open them up only when you’ve got the doors behind you. What do you see first when you open them? Try this same thing with a few of your students and ask them: “What is your impression? What do you see first? What do you see next?” Take notes and take note!

Here are some thoughts:

Our first encounter with a library space will often determine if we’re going to come back, so the physical “feel” is important. While design is definitely important, invitation doesn’t depend on it. Cleanliness, order (but not too much!), color, open spaces, quiet spaces, and intriguing artifacts all attract our eye and compel us in.

Questions we can ask ourselves:

  • Are books on the shelf organized and easy to find?
  • Is my space colorful?
  • Do I have signs that help my students find things on their own?
  • Is my desk in a central or easy-to-find location?
  • Have I placed interesting posters, games, comic books, books, or other things up front and close to the door so that they’re the first things students see?

Once we’ve got them in, what can you do to let them know that they are welcome to stay? We’re still dealing with the physical environment with this one, but now we’re looking at our messages: What do our signs say? Are they filled with rules that start with “NO…” or “DON’T”?

If so, take them down and see how you could re-word them so that you stress the positive actions you’d like to see: “Eat outside – the air will do you good!” or “Study here–eat outside.”

Notice that I’m emphasizing the eating thing. We had a rat infestation last year due to the lovely food hidden behind books. One sign that worked the best for us was a long banner with images of ants, spiders, and rats on it. We put it on the tops of all the shelves where students would hang across and hide their eating. The realistic rat pictures did it for most of them, and this seemed to get the message across better than any sign had before. We also then moved positive message signage to the tables where they were allowed to bring coffee, water, or other drinks.

Questions we can ask ourselves:

  • Do my signs tell students the things that I DON’T want them to do? Am I modeling for them what I DO want them to do?
  • Are the bulletin board helpful, interesting, and easy to read?
  • Do the signs at the end of the shelf help guide students to what’s on those shelves?
  • Are there signs in the languages of my students?
  • How can I use signage to enlarge the world for my students? Maps? Images of people from across the world? Poems?

One statement I learned in my orientation to the public library was: (Create a welcoming environment by) “cherishing diversity by increasing accessibility.” Our students come in all shapes, sizes, abilities, and needs. Creating that open environment means that we’ve measured the distance between shelves, around tables, and the height of our desk so that we can meet them at eye level when they come to see us.

Questions to ask ourselves:

  • Is our entire space accessible for students in wheelchairs, those of small stature, those very tall students who find some chairs difficult to use, and those with crutches or other devices to help them navigate? How about those with visual concerns?
  • Do I have materials for those who need to listen to their stories, or need larger screens in order to see computer images and text?
  • What do I need to get in order to meet the accessibility needs of all students?

But as we further discussed this statement (“cherishing diversity by increasing accessibility”), it became clear that accessibility doesn’t mean just the physical – it means the ability to see ourselves in the collection, ourselves in the stories, ourselves in the room.

Questions to ask ourselves:

  • Do I have an inclusive collection that reflect the realities of my students – all of them?
  • Do my signs and posters show a diversity of humanity?
  • Can students in this library find a book that allows all students the ability to identify with a character, a setting, a plot, or a solution?
  • Can all students walk through the doors of this library and be able to state: “I see me here”?  

Last make sure that the whole staff, including student helpers, believes in and follows your lead in creating that invitation to all: a welcoming “hello” followed by a positive statement: “how can I help you?” or “I am so glad you’re here!” or even just a smile. As part of their grade, student assistants were expected to smile, stop and ask those coming in if they need help, and extend a welcoming attitude.

Questions to ask ourselves:

  • Do I usually smile at students…even when I’m not having my very best day?
  • Do I try to anticipate their needs based on what it looks like they’re needing – “Wre you  looking for the pencil sharpener? – it’s over here.”
  • Do I try not to judge students?
  • Do I listen so that I can better understand their needs, wishes, and feelings?

Each of these five strands weave together to create the perception of the library as a space in which students want to live. And it goes without saying that the same applies to our fellow staff members as well as all who open your doors. Inviting us all into your library gives us all those things we want for our students and colleagues: a place where we can spread our wings to truly find ourselves within the many resources you offer.

A shout-out to the librarians and staff at the Sonoma County Library for your policies and orientations that stress how we can be our best selves and provide excellent service to our students, parents, community members, faculty, staff, and administration.

Author: Connie Williams

NBCTeacher Librarian and author of “Understanding Government Information: a Teaching Strategy Toolkit for grades 7-12”. Member of the CA State Library Services Board, and History Room Librarian at the Petaluma Regional Library [Sonoma County Library]. She welcomes all conversation.. give a holler!

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

1 reply

  1. Happy to run across this article from you here….and I couldn’t agree more! We need to welcome our patrons not just with a smile, but with a space that fits them physically, reflects their diversity and meets their needs in a positive and encouraging way.

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