School & District Management Leader To Learn From

Reinventing the School Librarian’s Role: How a NYC Library Director Adapted to Change

By Sarah D. Sparks — February 16, 2022 7 min read
Melissa Jacobs, the director of library services for the New York City school system, takes a breather at the Murry Bergtraum High School Campus Library.
Melissa Jacobs
Recognized for Leadership in Literacy Support
Literacy Support
Director of School Library Services
Success District:
New York City Department of Education, N.Y., N.Y.
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What’s a librarian’s role in school when children can no longer go to the library?

That’s a question many school librarians across the country had to grapple with when the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools into remote learning in March 2020 and they had to figure out how to continue serving students and teachers as the K-12 landscape abruptly changed.

Nowhere was that disruption more widespread than in the country’s largest school district, New York City, with its 1.1 million students.

Teachers scrambled to find ways to adapt print materials for virtual classes, while many students, who may have had more time to read—as nearly everything shut down—no longer had access to school books. 

For Melissa Jacobs, the director of school library services in New York City, it was a golden opportunity to rethink how her staff supports instruction for students and teachers. 

“We are trying to get our students to be able to function in a world where digital plays a really important role,” Jacobs said. “To do that, we need to be immersed in that world. In retrospect, the pandemic gave us that opportunity to say, ‘OK, we can create a climate conducive to learning in school, but we can also create a climate conducive to learning online.’ ”

Lessons From the Leader

  • Leverage Your Librarians: Media specialists are well positioned to help teachers navigate and curate new digital instructional tools. Provide opportunities for teachers to work with librarians on building online curriculum.
  • Build a Pipeline: To prevent staff shortages, provide career pathways for teachers and paraprofessionals to become librarians, and vice versa. This helps build empathy between teachers and media specialists and helps retain talented staff looking for a change.
  • Literacy Goes Beyond Books: Offer popular materials in multiple formats (i.e., print, digital, and audio) to provide more equitable access and to build literary habits in children.

The shift was also a chance to ensure that students, who would be spending more time online, understand netiquette and the rules of digital citizenship.

“There’s a connection between these same social skills needed in school, in person, and the social skills that you have to master online,” she said.

Curating, vetting, and supporting shifts to virtual

Jacobs led a team of district educators and media specialists in translating each librarian’s regular duties into practices for remote and hybrid instruction: everything from how to collaborate with a teacher in a Zoom class to how to ensure teachers and students can use digital materials in the classroom without violating copyright or privacy rules. While a librarian on campus teaches students to use the Dewey decimal system or format citations, for example, a digital librarian teaches students to use online annotation tools and curates e-books and electronic materials by subject to make easily searchable platforms.

“Using digital tools has always been a big part of the instructional role that we play in schools,” Jacobs said. “This is the work that librarians do. We should be curating. We should be vetting. We should be demonstrating how to use these tools in the classroom, how to use these tools for one-on-one student instruction.”

Jacobs didn’t stop there. She codified her team’s work into a “Translation of Practice,” a guide for media specialists around the world on how to support instruction across digital, hybrid, and live classrooms. Schools as far away as New Zealand have relied on it during the pandemic.

It “really helped colleagues learn how to actively reach out in a remote environment,” said Russell West Jr., a legal counsel and deputy director of instruction for New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit that works with the New York City district on professional development for educators.

“Librarians knew where all the digital resources you needed for research and reading were, and they learned how to reach out to teachers rather than wait for them,” West said.

We are trying to get our students to be able to function in a world where digital plays a really important role. To do that, we need to be immersed in that world.

Jacobs secured more than $4 million during the pandemic to build a Citywide Digital Library of more than 20,000 unique books in multiple languages. The collection also includes specific catalogs for culturally responsive and LGBTQ books, in response to data suggesting students of color and LGBTQ students have been particularly at risk of becoming disconnected from school during remote instruction.

Through the digital library, students can access digital and audio books, as well as tools for note taking, cross-referencing, and discussion, from home or any school in the district. Moreover, the library has anywhere from 100 to 400 copies of the most popular titles, which has reduced wait times for borrowing, according to Patricia Sarles, an operations and instructional coordinator for the library system.

The expanded access dramatically increased the number of books students read. From January to December 2020, students checked out about 138,400 titles, but during the same period in 2021, they borrowed more than 850,500 titles. That number has risen to more than 1.3 million titles so far in 2022.

“There’s definitely been a complete change in the way we are teaching now, and I think many more teachers are aware of the digital practices and providing online opportunities for their students,” Jacobs said.

“It’s not just like, here’s a PDF of that book that you should use, but here’s a platform that provides access to the title, that also provides audio, that also provides note taking, that also provides the ability to highlight and define words, and it changes the way you’re interacting with texts.” 

Ciro Scardina, a new library media specialist at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn and a former elementary teacher, called the digital library “probably the most amazing new thing that’s come along in a really long time” in his teaching career.

“It came at a time [when] we really needed books to loan students at the beginning of COVID,” Scardina said. “When we first went digital, we relied on the kindness of corporations, and book sellers, and stuff to sort of give us freebies,” which required students to use a mishmash of different sites and procedures. 

Training the next generation of school librarians

Like many districts nationwide, New York City has experienced a shortage of school librarians in recent years, with the numbers falling from nearly 1,500 in 2005 to 450 today.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s effort to break up large comprehensive schools into smaller ones in the decade from 2005-2015 resulted in massive staff cuts and meant that one campus may house multiple traditional and even charter schools that share resources. As a result, one librarian may serve as many as 10 school populations, cultures, and leaders, Jacobs said.

“It is a unique individual that can work in that environment,” she said.

To grow media specialists who would be comfortable in the city’s schools, Jacobs partnered with Syracuse University in 2019 to create Teacher2Librarian, a pathway program for teachers to earn a master’s degree in library and information science, meet the academic requirements to become state-certified school library specialists, and ultimately serve high-need New York City campuses. 

The city is expanding the program to John Fisher College in Pittsford, N.Y., next year.

Between John Fisher and Syracuse, the programs will train 73 teachers to become librarians by the end of this school year, and Jacobs is working to add 100 more over the next two years

“To me, that’s a huge success, because now these students have equitable access to resources and instruction and a qualified librarian,” Jacobs said.

Still, she added, “there is so much more to do.” Hundreds of the city’s 1,850 schools operate without a media specialist, relying on teacher and student access to the Citywide Digital Library.

Scardina was one of the first 20 graduates of the Teacher2Librarian program. He and his peers now run libraries in six of the district’s highest-need campuses, including about five schools each that hadn’t had a librarian for four years or more.

A classroom visit from Jacobs was critical to his decision to enter the program, he said.

“She came into my classroom, saw my library, and asked me if I was interested in being a librarian. And the thought had never crossed my mind,” said Scardina, who taught 3rd grade at the time.

A ‘formidable leader’ and advocate for librarians

Jacobs, 49, has spent her entire career in Big Apple libraries: first as an elementary school librarian in Brooklyn; then 14 years as a library coordinator across the district; then stepping in to direct the district’s library system four years ago. 

“Melissa is a formidable leader,” Scardina said. “When it comes to business, she is a total New Yorker. She knows what we need and really advocates for us.”

She has always been driven to help media specialists to become more connected, both to each other and the schools they serve. As a local library coordinator nearly 20 years ago, she created the first listserv for school librarians in the city, which is still used today. She is dedicated to ensuring her colleagues have a voice in school decisions, even when being supervised by five to 10 principals.

“She knows how to meet everyone where they’re at,” said Rachael Chapman, a secondary school librarian at the Westinghouse Campus in Brooklyn.

“She can do the feet-on-the-ground work, sit in your library and literally dust the shelves with you. She can be the spokesperson and help you get your program together. She can do it all and, … while obviously she has to prioritize, whatever you’re working with her on seems like it’s her priority.”

Her biggest challenges remain the sheer scale of work and sustainability.

“We have made enormous strides in the programming and opportunities we offer, but when you drill down to the number impacted, it only reaches the tens of thousands [of students], and we should reach the hundreds of thousands,” Jacobs said.

“Our students need equitable access, instruction that leads them to become digitally fluent citizens engaged in democracy, and strong school library programs that connect them to inquiry and learning about the world around them.”

Coverage of strategies for advancing the opportunities for students most in need, including those from low-income families and communities, is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 2022 edition of Education Week as A Director Reinvents the Librarian’s Role In the Nation’s Largest School Library System

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