The Role of the Library
At a school using a balanced, comprehensive literacy program the library is the heart of everything. I would like to argue that the library should always be the heart of a school regardless of curriculum.
These are some truths I believe about school libraries. I would like to say that I am not a trained librarian but a classroom teacher. If you are a school librarian, please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below. Learning from one another is extremely important.
Readers Should Have Free Choice
The only time in my classroom that students don’t have choice is when I choose guided reading books and a few rare other times when I select texts for students. I often recommend texts to readers but they can always turn down my choices. Not all classrooms offer students choice and power over the books they read. Libraries need to be the safe haven that always allows choice.
Students should be allowed to explore their own interests. They should be allowed to check out books that are far too difficult and far too easy for them. They need a space where they are allowed to be a reader. No one prevents me from checking out certain books at the library. Students should have the same privilege.
Just Say No to Levels
I don’t believe that levels are for students and I do not believe levels have a place in libraries. If kids are allowed free choice, their reading abilities shouldn’t limit them.
When I was in elementary school there was a picture book and chapter book section of our library. We had to check out from the picture book section in grades K, 1, 2 and then were no longer allowed to check books out from there in grades 3, 4, 5. In second grade the top three readers were allowed to check out books from the chapter book section. I was so excited to hear the names announced Allison, Grace, and Daniel. It wasn’t me. My teacher later told me that I was reader number four. I was so upset and I spent the entire year checking out books (because we had to) and returning them without reading them. That year I also spent a lot of time at the public library checking out Boxcar Children and Amber Brown. Don’t limit kids because of their reading level. Let them love books!
Checkout Limits Need To Go
If the goal of school libraries is to create book lovers and readers then why do we limit how many stories a child can take out? Don’t we want more books in the hands of readers? Checkout limits are counterintuitive. Of course, some students will need guidance but I’ve found that even without checkout limits kids figure out how many books is right for them. Teaching kids how to self-regulate is an important skill and book check outs are the perfect place for it.
EveryDay Is Library Day
My class visits the library once a week for class. During that class our library media specialist reads a story and reinforces a concept we’re teaching in reading or writing. Then students are allowed to browse the library and check out books. But everyday is library day. So if students go home and read all of their books they can always check out books during the first and last half-hour of the day. I have students who visit the library daily and check out what I’m sure is a ridiculously large number of books a year. Every child has the opportunity to visit the library every day. That is what matters when creating readers.
The library also shouldn’t shut down for large periods of time where it is inaccessible to students. Libraries that close the last month of school aren’t helping create more readers. I know that inventory is an important process but kids having access to books is even more important. Think about the policies of your school library. Do they support growing readers or do the polices stand in their way?
Students Should Be Allowed A Clean Slate
My favorite librarian Barb always had a clean slate club. Each and every school year she welcomed students back into the library and declared that they each had a clean slate. That meant that all of their past library activity was wiped clean. If you had late fees- gone! If you lost a book and never returned it- don’t worry! Every child was guaranteed a clean slate. Clean slate announcements happened throughout the school year as well.
When books were lost and fines weren’t paid Barb didn’t shame children and she didn’t restrict their access to books. She said they were simply building their home libraries. Books are consumable resources. We know that they become well loved and pages fall out or they become lost at home and get added to a home library collection. Not returning books and not being able to pay late fines shouldn’t hinder children. If we don’t allow those kids to check out books we are often limiting our most vulnerable readers. That is against our goal of creating more readers!
The Library Should Be Filled With Book Lovers
You can tell a successful library and a successful literacy program by the whispers and sometimes shouts you hear at the library. Kids should be talking about their interests. They should share recommendations with other students. They should jump up and down when they see the new texts being added to the library. The feeling in the library should be one of loving books. Do these kids love books? Are they given opportunities to share their reading life with other readers?
Books Should Mirror the Diversity of the World
Kids need windows and mirrors. This isn’t a new concept but it still doesn’t happen in all classrooms. Students need mirrors to see themselves and their own cultures reflected back at them. They also need windows to look out and learn about lives that are different than their own. We grow stronger by reading books that are both mirrors and windows.
When I taught grade 3 my class wanted to do a classroom library audit. We dumped all of our books out onto the floor and started sorting by type of characters- animals, white people, Black people, First Americans, etc. One of my First American students was so upset to only find one book that represented First Americans in our library and even more upset when she realized it didn’t represent the Ojibwe tribe. Representation matters. She couldn’t read stories about her own culture in our classroom library and no other students could read about her culture. That isn’t ok. Kids need to see representation across the genres as well. I should see myself represented in historical fiction, poetry, realistic fiction, narrative nonfiction, biographies, fantasies, thrillers, mysteries. You name it and I should be able to find a mirror book and several window books. As a white woman I don’t have too hard of a time finding mirrors but finding windows can be tricky.
Our school consciously purchased more books about Black Americans for our biography unit but then we realized they bought stories about slavery or stories about civil rights. Want to know which biography was the most popular? Gabby Douglas. Kids wanted more biographies of Black Americans of today. By only showing times of struggle the window and mirror view of the Black experience was warped.
Support Reading in All Forms
Magazines, eBooks, audiobooks, printed books, whatever kind. All books are created equal. Earlier this year I was told I shouldn’t put the book I was reading on my door for literacy week because I was “only listening to it.” Sometimes the only way I get to read is by listening to stories as I walk around the city. Each morning on my way to the taxi I listen to an audiobook. I also read book on my iPad and I have paper books as well. Libraries should celebrate all readers and all types of readers!
There Should Be No Censorship
We shouldn’t exclude books from our collections just because it might be controversial. In fact we need to include controversial books. We can’t exclude texts about LGBTQ people. Their lives aren’t inappropriate. We can’t exclude texts on police violence. We need an inclusive library without censorship.
When I was in middle school I went through a phase where I only read really depression books about drug addicts, violence, and teen pregnancy. I read Smack and Go Ask Alice, Speak and Cut. These books were deemed inappropriate for me and I didn’t care. I loved reading those book so much. They were the windows I must have needed at that time in my life. My sister had a teacher call home to tell my mom the Gossip Girl books she was reading weren’t appropriate. Thankfully, my mom does not mess around when it comes to reading. She didn’t care what we were reading as long as we were reading. After going through my dark books phase I started reading the Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging series. Readers go through phases- its ok. Let kids explore and figure out their identity and place in the world through books.