For the past seven years, I’ve worked as a library clerk for a public school district. I spend my time in three different buildings working with elementary and high school students. I love my work and believe it can make a difference.
When you think of a school library, maybe you think of old books, slow computers, and encyclopedia sets from 1982. Perhaps you imagine the librarian glaring at you for talking too loudly, or you still feel a bit guilty about all those library fines. If you don’t have good memories of your school library or maybe never even used it, you might wonder if they matter. I think they do, and here’s why.
STUDENTS CAN SIMPLY BE IN THE LIBRARY.
There are many demands placed on students by their peers, parents, and teachers. There’s constant pressure to perform and excel. While such pressure is necessary for success, kids need a break from it sometimes. The library offers students something unique because when they walk through the doors, they can just be. They can come in with friends to chat and study together. They can come in and sit alone, enjoying some quiet time. They can read, listen to music, do research, play computer games, flip through a graphic novel, or create something. In short, they can relax. I don’t care about homework, grades, reading level, or popularity. I care that students can visit the library and feel free to be themselves.
A LIBRARY IS FREE FROM JUDGMENT.
Not all libraries are judgment-free zones, of course, but that should be the goal. Students should be able to use the library to learn and discover without being evaluated. They should feel free to research what they’re interested in without raised eyebrows. They should be able to choose books about tough topics knowing that what they read will stay confidential. I hope when students use their school libraries they’re greeted with kindness and warmth. Kids know when they’re wanted and when they’re not. Those of us who have the privilege of working with students every day need to remind ourselves that our small acts of kindness toward them make a more significant impact than we know.
STUDENTS CAN BE CURIOUS IN THE LIBRARY.
Whether a student wants a book or online resources, they can use the library to examine what they’re curious about. I’ve had students ask me for information about many different topics, including computer coding, drawing, writing, religion, mythology, and so much more. Once I had a student ask for books on World War III, and I had to reassure him that hasn’t actually happened yet. Kids are naturally curious. The library provides a place where that curiosity can be fostered.
THE LIBRARY IS FUN!
Focus and hard work are essential if a student is going to succeed, but having fun is important too. If we want kids to love reading and learning, they have to enjoy themselves in the process. I’ve worked in libraries where elementary students have access to stuffed animals, bean bag chairs, puzzles, games, and art supplies. A high school I worked in had computers with specialized software so students could edit photos, videos, and music. The high school I’m assigned to right now offers chess sets to kids. Learning is a big part of the library, but fun is vital if students are to be lifelong library users. I’d hate to think someone never sets foot in public libraries as an adult because they were so bored in their school library.
STUDENTS ARE REPRESENTED IN THE LIBRARY.
The schools I’ve always worked in have been predominantly white. That’s why it’s so important that when I do social media posts and book displays, I feature people of color. Students who look around at their peers might not always see other kids or teachers who look like they do, but it’s essential that they see themselves reflected somewhere. I want students of color to recognize themselves in their library’s book collection. I want them to see lives and stories like theirs in the titles we display and the posts we share. People have an innate need to feel seen, and school libraries can help as long as they make diversity a priority in both their collection and marketing.
THE LIBRARY IS A PLACE WHERE STUDENTS HAVE A VOICE.
Another way libraries make sure students feel seen and represented is to give them a voice regarding the library’s direction. After years of research and experience, I’ve developed a little trick I like to call asking. Ask kids what books they’d like to see on the shelf, and they’ll know you care about their opinion. Ask the ones who always run toward the computers what kind of programs they’d enjoy, and they’ll know you noticed their excitement about technology. Ask the student who says your horror section is too small what books she’d suggest the library purchase next and she’ll know you care about her favorite genre. Asking for feedback is such a simple thing, but it helps students understand their opinions count for something.
I could go on (and on and on), but these issues are the ones I’m most passionate about at the moment. How do you feel about school libraries? What did you like or dislike about the library as a student?