back to school. color pencils

Labor Day is over, and the majority of us are back in school. We are eager to welcome students to the start of a new year and want them to find the library a safe, welcoming environment. It’s so important that students and teachers feel this way about the library that the phrase is in many school library’s Mission Statement.  But are we doing everything we can to make it a reality?  Are we inadvertently doing things that create barriers to achieving this goal?

Let’s start with the term “environment.”  Some people say, “A safe, welcoming, space,” which is significant. The room needs to convey that atmosphere, greeting everyone who walks into the library.  As you enter your library this week, try to see your library with fresh eyes.  Walk in and look around. What do you see? What feelings does it communicate?  When I first walked into a library I was about to take over, I immediately noticed some old shelving stored on top of the high bookcases along the wall. Despite the library being summer-neat, those old shelves sent a message of disuse.

Libraries don’t have to be neat.  Good ones rarely are during the school year. But that kind of disorder conveys the feelings of activity with students and teachers exploring ideas and information for academic needs and personal interest.  The message you don’t want to send is one of dusty and musty, which is what the old shelving were saying.

What else does your library say to those entering?  I once visited an elementary school during the summer as part of a district-wide evaluation of the school library program.  The “rules” were neatly printed and posted on two different walls.  If I remember correctly every rule began with the word “No.”  And that was my reaction to the library – NO.  Even as an adult I felt unwelcome.

Your room may be safe and welcoming, but are your policies?  Too often we have set rules that are barriers for many students.  Just as you looked at your library with fresh eyes, you need to do the same for these rules. To make the library a safe, welcoming environment for all, rules (or guidelines) should preferably be developed with student input.  When reviewed with the incoming class, students should be asked whether they agree with the rules. What would they change? Add? When you do this, you give the students a stake in the library and the success of the program.

Recently, a regional library system eliminated fines because these were a barrier for patrons.  Although a large percentage of your users don’t think twice about the minimal cost of fines, for some every penny counts.

Having to pay for lost or damaged books can keep students from using the library the way they should.  Yes, they should be responsible, but it’s better if you can find alternate ways for them to pay for these items and do it in a way that won’t cause them to feel embarrassed. Some libraries allow students to “work” off the cost by helping around the library.

Not allowing students to borrow a book if they have overdues detracts from the library being a safe, welcoming environment.  What is more important — reading or being responsible for what was borrowed?  So many external dynamics can make it difficult for students to bring back books in a timely way, whether that’s custody arrangements, homes that are in turmoil due to substance abuse, physical abuse or illness or any of a number of challenges that are impacting their success.

Which brings me to the issue of diversity in your collection.  Students need to see themselves in the books they read as well as see others who are different from themselves to engender empathy and understanding. We have become more alert to this issue and I am heartened to read of the ways librarians are working to ensure that their collections have books about different ethnics, lifestyles, and home conditions. It can be difficult to accomplish the desired level of variety in some districts, but it’s imperative that we do the best we can to add as many titles of this nature as possible. From books, I learned about rural life, single parenthood, and many other lifestyles far removed from my own world.  It helped me become a more tolerant, empathetic adult. Think about the people and situations you encountered in books long before you encountered them in the world. What can you bring to your students to give them a broader view of the world?

Don’t forget to address students with disabilities especially in the physical layout of your library.  How high is your circulation desk? Are there students who have difficulty accessing computer-based information.?  What changes can you make to address these challenges? Speak with a guidance counselor to get a good handle on issues your students are facing. Then assess your collection and library arrangement to determine what changes need to be made.  If money is a problem –and it usually is—look for grants to help.

Another way to support student connection is to display student-produced work throughout the year which shows you value them and the many varied contributions they make.  Collaborate with the art teacher to bring these projects into the library, rotating them monthly. You might consider having a bulletin board for student achievements whether it’s a sports’ team, academic competition, the drama club production, or student-participation in a community service event.

There are many big and small ways to create a library with a safe, welcoming environment for all, and when you do so you create a lifelong difference for your students and teachers.

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