Where to Start? Opening a Neglected Library Space

Recently, I went to a school library in lower Manhattan whose neglected space overwhelmed the new librarian and me. Not only were books piled everywhere–library books, classroom titles, those annoyingly thin paperbacks–but discarded furniture, musical instruments, papers, technology, and an assorted mound of stuff littered the space. But hiring a new librarian–in an era of low reading scores, increasing misinformation, and the need for critical yet open thinking–means this school community can revolutionize their school community with dynamic library space and program.

So, where to start?

Pulling Titles for Students

There wasn’t time to organize the collection for incoming pre-K to second-grade classes starting the following week in this particular library. So, the librarian had the clever idea to pull select titles to highlight the library’s appeal for all readers. We chose funny books, scary ones, ones with diverse characters and experiences, SEL, fiction and nonfiction, and foundational themes (numbers, ABCs, sharing, starting school).

We arranged the books into baskets to surround the story time. Usually, I abhor baskets in libraries since they remind me of the haphazard organization of classroom collections. But in this case, the librarian needed to have books available for eager fingertips.

Mapping Out the Collection

When the library is in disarray, it takes time to discard books, rearrange the shelves in order, and inventory. If you are working alone with scheduled classes (as many elementary librarians are), finding the time to fix the shelves is challenging. But one crucial suggestion I gave the librarian was to know where things will go. As long as you have a plan for the collection layout (using post-its), it gives you a step-by-step plan for getting the library in order. Decide what sections you want (fiction, graphics, biography, nonfiction, picture books, early chapter books, etc.) and where they will be.

Seek Out Help

Befriend your custodial staff! Not only will they support the removal of stuff, but they can help dispose of weeded books. Seek out teachers, library directors (if your district has them), library students, and parent volunteers to help arrange the library and work on time-consuming tasks like the inventory.

Buy New

Nothing attracts students more to the library than new books with engaging titles and covers. Buy them or write grants as soon as you can. Once the books arrive, display them by topic, theme, series, author, a provocative question, movie/TV show tie-in, or however you can to draw students to open the cover and take in words. Replicate your displays online via social media, your library website, and the catalog to reach students and teachers where they are.

It Takes Time

Revitalizing a neglected library space takes time. But keep this in mind: our students need and deserve an engaging and safe space to relax, explore, collaborate, and imagine. They deserve it after what they’ve gone through.

We all do.


Author: Leanne Ellis

I am a School Library Coordinator for the New York City Department of Education’s Department of Library Services. I plan and deliver workshops, provide on-site instructional and program support to school librarians, coordinate programs, administer grants, and am program coordinator for MyLibraryNYC, a program administered with our three public library systems.

Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Blog Topics, Collection Development, Community/Teacher Collaboration

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1 reply

  1. Thank you so much for this Leanne. I have been feeling overwhelmed by this library with everything out of order. The collection is very old and I am trying to find my way around it. This article was a lot of help to me. I am going to follow this as a plan until I can get the library in some sort of working order.

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