Today’s librarians face many challenges that we have no control over, the most obvious being book bans and restrictions. In this time of uncertainty and change, the most productive thing librarians can do is focus on what we do have control over: our spaces, our program offerings, and our unique ability to bring joy to student learning.
To do a self-check on your work and library program, I recommend reviewing library best practices. The Translation of Practice, a set of guidelines created by my city’s school library system and endorsed by the state department of education, offers clear and practical guidance that applies to both in-person and remote learning. Here are six key considerations:
1. Create a welcoming environment. The very first place to start in this work is to create a welcoming and respectful climate for students. When politicians restrict books that speak to our kids’ lived experiences, it might make them feel unseen, unheard, or unimportant. Making the school library a place where all voices are heard and welcomed is a step in the right direction toward creating a “third place” that accepts members of the school community as they are.
Consider the book displays, programming, and voices that are centered in your library. Books have always been banned, but despite censorship, the library can be an oasis of acceptance and equitable access. Part of being a place for everyone is offering a text for everyone.
2. Provide a rich variety of texts. When we think about the diversity of reading materials, we often focus on the voices and perspectives they amplify, but we don’t always think about the diversity of formats for these materials. Some students might prefer reading a printed book, while others might prefer an e-book, audiobook, or even a large-print-format book.
In New York City, our school library system is teaming up with teachers to offer classroom collections of books in a variety of formats. Programs like this give students the agency to choose the format that best suits their needs and abilities. Students might read the same title, but they can pick their preference for how they want to engage with that particular work. We’ve also added large-print titles as one of the options. Some students have problems with their vision that haven’t been diagnosed, while others simply struggle to read standard-print books.
Sometimes when students say they don’t like reading, it’s not because they’re not engaged in the content—it’s just that the act of reading itself is uncomfortable for that child. Large-print options can alleviate this problem, and, in fact, research suggests that students of all ages and abilities can benefit from reading large-print materials.
Diversity can also come from the structure of the text itself. For example, students can explore The Odyssey as an epic poem, as a retelling in James Joyce’s Ulysses, or as a graphic novel. Some students may prefer narrative nonfiction or a hi-lo book, meaning it’s designed to engage struggling readers by exploring complex, age-appropriate themes at a lower reading level. And of course, an essential part of diversity is linguistic: When considering a text’s format, always consider the languages in which it’s offered.
Providing these diverse texts not only helps students strengthen their empathy muscles and be more accepting and open to people around them—it leads them to discover the joy of reading through texts that feel made for them.
3. Connect to the curriculum. A powerful way for your library to connect with students is to connect to the curriculum they’re learning. If your school district has decided to focus on literacy or science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, create resources that focus on these initiatives.
Librarians’ work can’t be conducted in a bubble. It should feel necessary and relevant to the work students are currently doing.
4. Offer student-centered programming. A school library is a place of learning, but it also needs to be a place where students can explore personal ideas and pursuits. The last library I worked in hosted book clubs, crochet groups, chess during and after school, service-learning opportunities, and independent study. When your school library focuses on student-centered programming, young people organically become part of the community.
In that same library, we also had a department of motor vehicles program that enabled students to take the written test to get their learner’s permit. Students I had never seen in the space would show up and study for the test—and some even checked out library books.
I had one student take the test so many times I wasn’t sure if they would ever pass. They came in diligently, studied every day, and failed 13 times. Finally, I considered our options and offered the test in Spanish. They passed on the first attempt. The lesson here: If you ask students what they want to see in the library and provide what they ask for, you’ll become a part of their education one way or another.
5. Collaborate with outside organizations. Partnering with outside organizations makes our school library and programming stronger and more appealing to students. We can partner with public libraries, nonprofits, higher education institutions, bookstores, publishers, authors, and more.
If a book doesn’t fit with our collection-development goals or is banned, it might be available at the public library. The Brooklyn Public Library, for example, is now offering library cards to students anywhere in the country to ensure they have the freedom to read.
6. Share advocacy resources. For students who are passionate about protecting the freedom to read, the library can provide information about advocacy organizations like PEN America and the #uniteagainstbookbans efforts from the New York Public Library and the American Library Association.
Librarians can build community by teaching students how to advocate for themselves by writing letters to their elected officials and attending school board meetings. The PEN America Tip Sheet for Students offers some clear guidance. In these uncertain times, schools and their libraries need as many voices as possible to speak up for the freedom to read and the joy it brings teachers and students.