and the recipient of a 2017 Super Librarian award.
Recently I went to a book launch at Newtonville Books, a smart, adorable independent book store - like something out of a Nora Ephron movie. As I was waiting in line to have Mitali Perkins sign my copy of You Bring the Distant Near (which you should be reading right now!), I listened in to the conversation of the two well-heeled women in front of me in line.
Super Well-Dressed Woman [seriously, lipstick on a Sunday afternoon? Why??]: Look at that display of banned books. Hmmm... I guess there must be issues going on in the high schools so they have to ban these books.
Slightly Hippie-Dippie Woman [Indian print skirt, birks, dangly earrings – ever so patient]: These probably aren't books that are banned here, just books that have been banned in other places.
S W-D W: Well, if schools are banning them, there must be a reason...
Me [and every other school librarian on earth]: *FACEPALM*
This may come as a shock to you, fellow school librarians, but there are some people out there who have no idea what we do.
If you are working in a library where you are busy every minute, where you have so many irons in the fire that you never have time to worry about making people aware of what your library can do for them, then stop reading now. Get back to work! However, if you are lucky enough to be in a library that has systems that work, that - can it be said? - practically runs itself, then this article is for you!
There are many ways that you can make people aware of what goes on in your school library. First and foremost is by providing excellent service - collaborating with teachers, providing resources smoothly for students and creating a welcoming space for all users. That is the dream! But what about the community beyond your building? In these day of budget cuts and educational changes (not that these are new...), we need to make sure that stakeholders in our area are aware of the ways that our libraries enrich our educational communities. Three groups it is critical to reach are parents, public library staff and the elected officials who make decisions about education.
Parents are fairly easy. If they hear about us from their kids (in a positive way, of course) then we are as golden as Ponyboy. Now I don't know about your kids, but I am pretty sure no one in my house ever said at dinner, "Mrs. Babb gave me the greatest article about Napoleon's military strategey today!" But last year when the local cable access show ran the "Quiz Bowl: Seniors vs. Teachers" contest, I heard from a lot of parents. Being a club advisor is a great way to connect with students, and it also lets parents know that you are going above and beyond to make an impact on their children.
There are some clubs that take a lot of work to run smoothly - drama, National Honor Society, and don't even get me started about Model UN - and they generally have a stipend involved to take some of the sting out. But student run clubs are less work and often mean more to participants because of the student-directed nature. At my school the Videogame League, the Refuge Bible Club, the Quiz Bowl Team, the Philosophy Club and the Student Book Club all meet on the same day. They are nearly completely student run and they provide a safe, fun social activity for students. The amount of work I have to put in is minimal. The students set the agenda, run the meetings and provide the snacks - all I have to do is be there in case someone sets the library on fire. (Okay, I do attend the book club, but I try really hard not to be bossy and they make sure I don't take more than my fair share of the cookies.) Staying a couple hours late one day a week is a small price to pay for the opportunity to make these connections between kids. And their parents notice.
Have you ever had a conversation with a parent about "all the sex and violence and depressing content" in YA books? That conversation is so fun! However, we are sometimes forced to have it. All you can do it allow that parent to say their piece and remind them that while their child is coming from an obviously perfectly-parented home where these issues never rear their ugly heads, not all students have been blessed that way and these books can help them navigate their own experience. Blah, blah, blah...We know the drill. I had a three-hour (not even kidding) conversation with a parent a couple years ago on just this topic and, while it was initially uncomfortable, it developed into one of my favorite community outreach programs.
It is called "The Not-So-Young Adult Book Club". Once every six weeks or so, a group of high school parents meet at a local restaurant and discuss a current YA title. It has been a great way to get a perspective on the different types of concerned parents in the district. It also affords an opportunity to evangelize for authors and titles that I love and it reminds me that my students are not learning in a vacuum. It has led to some fascinating discussions and has also engendered a lot of support for the summer reading program that is my very favorite program at the high school.
The Parent Teacher Organization is just a no-brainer. These are the parents who are volunteering to make sure students have enrichment activities, supplies and services above and beyond what the community can fund. In spite of the "T" in PTO, there are few teachers who can spare the time to attend all the meetings. Even reaching out to attend one can draw attention to the work you do, and often lead to them just throwing money at you.
Public libraries can be a wonderful resource for school librarians. But sometimes we, or they, can get territorial and it is important to have honest discussions about how we all can work together. I'll never forget when Alix Woznick (the middle school librarian in my district) and I went to a Youth Services conference (which shall remain nameless) and the session on "Working with School Librarians" turned in to a no-holds-barred gripe session about how school librarians don't want to collaborate. Alix leaped to her feet, threw her fist in the air and shouted, "Je suis a school librarian!" and then we ran to the window, burst through it and threw ourselves into the air like Butch and Sundance going over the cliff. Okay, I may be remembering it a little wrong. I'll have to check with Alix. I do remember the feeling of self-righteousness and perhaps a twinge of guilt. I could see their point. These are my kids. Who do these Bolivian Army librarians think they are recommending books to them??
On the way home from the conference, we brainstormed ways to connect with our local public librarians. First and foremost, we needed to focus on ways we could combine forces.
The simplest way is through promoting public library events in our school libraries. Alix runs the communications portal for her school, she regularly puts public library youth activities in her announcements.
We also started a book club for our town's librarians. I know, I've got way too many book clubs... But this one is wonderful. We read something middle grade or YA and discuss it, but we also bring what we are reading and what we have read recently. Our group is not limited to YA and children's librarians, we also have two women who work in circulation, the assistant director and even the book-mobile librarian in our group! It is a great way to find out how the citizens of our town read and at the same time share new titles and little-known writers.
Since Alix and I run the summer reading programs in our schools, we have developed close ties with the public librarians on that front. They help with recommending titles, they purchase multiple copies for their collection (that are re-used for literature circles and small group reading books at both schools) and when those summer reading projects come pouring in, they help us choose the cream of the crop for an art show that we put up in the public library gallery. For the "opening night" of the art show, we have a party with all the participants and their families. We also invite administrators from all the schools in the district, the school committee members, city councilors and even the mayor - and they show up! And not just for the snacks...
Sometimes it can be hard to communicate what we do to people outside of education, but is important that those in our local government know the value of school libraries. The most annoying way I get to highlight my library is by having it used for public meetings. I kind of lucked into that by virtue of having a really great space, and I do complain about having the furniture moved around, but it gets people in there where they can see clear signs of use.
The most fun way I have been involved in town politics was during the holiday parade when I got to sit on a float, dressed as Mrs. Claus and threw molasses candy to the crowd to promote a town-wide read of Dark Tide by Stephen Puleo - turning historical tragedy into tooth decay!
By being willing to sit through meetings on things like the public library five year plan or local educational initiatives, we get to be part of the conversation. Sometimes just taking the time to show your face reminds the powers that be of your commitment to the community you serve.
I am lucky to live in the town where I work, in the school my kids attended - I honestly don't know how much effort I would put in to some of these things if I didn't. But I do know how it has paid off every time I have gone beyond my comfort zone in reaching out to community stakeholders. I recently was asked to bartend at the public library's mini-golf fundraiser. While there, I met an elementary parent who had been unaware that our city has no librarians at the elementary school level. Our conversation led to him promising to start advocating vocally for staffed elementary school libraries in the city and to try to raise awareness with other parents. It was totally worth the hangover the next day.