School libraries are still essential, even in this digital age
Irecently reached a personal milestone as a middle school librarian. I published the 200th episode of a podcast called Books in the Middle, a bite-sized book talk series that strives to inspire students to read. Working with younger students has taught me there’s a small window of opportunity to cultivate an appetite for reading. That’s why I share my book talks with teachers, families and other librarians as other resources dwindle and pressure on educators gets greater.
I release a new episode every week, at a time when there’s a rising tide of misinformation, censorship and book bans. After a pandemic that forced many librarians, including me, into other roles, I’m back in my library, but others haven’t been as lucky. The last three years have certainly exacerbated the devaluation of the school library, but schools have been cutting their library budgets for years.
There are 20% fewer school librarians now than 10 years ago, despite tons of research proving that engaged reading is one of the most important predictors of educational achievement and life success. I’ve found that before students consider themselves readers, they must first see themselves as successful at reading.
We greatly diminish those odds by removing libraries and the educators dedicated to reading.
An asset for teachers
Reading a book from start to finish is crucial to making recommendations that can make the difference between a student who becomes a lifelong reader and one who doesn’t. So I set a goal of reading 50 middle school books every year. Expecting teachers to do that kind of research, on top of planning, teaching and grading, isn’t feasible.
I help teachers build classroom libraries, but school leaders shouldn’t consider those as replacements for a school library, with curated collections that often take years to create.
“Students should be able to find themselves on these shelves, so I’ve been adding and weeding out books with a focus on mirroring the people in my building,” school librarian and former teacher Christy RushLevine told me. She’s taken over an elementary school library that was run by three different people over the last three years.
“Students with Spanish-speaking parents now have a section of Spanish-language books they can take home to share with their families,” she said. “By making room for a diversity of lived experiences, libraries welcome all while developing empathy and curiosity that builds community inside and outside the school. It’s also a reminder that a love for reading doesn’t have to be cultivated in English.”
It also doesn’t have to be cultivated with traditional books. My library includes graphic novels and quick-reads, and audio and large print books; research shows large print can be the key to growing reading skills and helping striving readers who struggle with standard print.
Testing new ideas even opened me up to “genrefication,” a system that uses genres to organize books. I pushed back at first, but my students wanted an easier way to locate books they were excited about. I wasn’t going to stand in their way.
From different ways of reading and finding books to emerging tech and digital resources, libraries are still incubators of innovation that can benefit entire school districts.
My colleague in librarianship, Jennifer Bromann-Bender, and I have watched innovation transform the library from a place of “Quiet Please” signs to one that’s buzzing with 3D printers, instruments, digital escape rooms and green screens:
“At my high school, I rely on fun activities to get students in the door. Then I can expose them to other resources as they get into the foundations of doing research,” Bromann-Bender said. “While students rarely go digging for information in books anymore, searching Google isn’t a replacement. It’s actually the reason students need designated time to learn about identifying primary sources, verifying what they read and discerning fact from fiction.”
Lifelong reading has the power to change lives, but it’s predicated on finding joy in it. That journey is different for every student. Without librarians to guide them, many students will simply turn back.
The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.