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School libraries play a pivotal role in school buildings and communities--what direction will they take as schools return to in-person learning?

A tale of three cities: Emerging from the pandemic…or not


School libraries play a pivotal role in school buildings and communities--what direction will they take as schools return to in-person learning?

New York City, New York. Cleveland, Ohio. Williamston, South Carolina.

In the height of the pandemic, nearly every community looked similar. Schools were closed.  Restaurants were closed. Families stayed home. 

As our world is emerging from the pandemic, there is a distinct division in our communities that was clearly articulated by the three librarians who participated in a recent panel for publishers who create content for schools and public libraries.

Let’s take a trip down the Eastern part of our country starting in New York and share what we learned at a recent publishers’ panel about teaching and learning in American schools.

Melissa Jacobs, the Director of Library Services in New York City, joined the panel from her private office wearing a mandated mask. She says, “Life in New York City is very masked up while we are attempting to navigate chaos. We’re in crisis mode.” 

New York City schools are managing staffing shortages and vaccine mandates. Jacobs says she’s living hour by hour and hasn’t slept well in weeks because her team has four people out and those who are working are waiting to find out if they’re going to be redeployed to schools due to teachers and administrators refusing the vaccine. Jacobs spent her weekend waiting to find out if she would go to work Monday in her current job or as an assistant principal or first grade teacher.

In Ohio, Felton Thomas’ public library system is open for patrons but has yet to get back to full capacity.  As the Director of Cleveland Public Libraries, Felton is emerging from the pandemic wearing a new hat—supporting local high schools where the school district chose to shut down 30 school libraries and repurpose them as community/career centers. Felton explains, “This isn’t something I’m supportive of; but I have to support it. Schools are looking to transform themselves in many ways. Unfortunately, that’s come in the form of the school libraries in our high schools.”

Starting this school year, Felton’s public librarians are meeting with their local high schools to figure out how to get print resources to students and teachers where the school library is no longer an option. The public library is now dropping off piles of novels or working with teachers to encourage students to come to the public library to pick up books they need. Felton explains, “We’re going to have to buy differently.  Students and teachers used to walk down to the library to get what they need. But this is the wave of the future for Cleveland schools right now.”

This news frustrated Jacobs, a vocal advocate for the role of the school librarian, “School libraries extend beyond the books on the shelf. It’s an unfortunate choice. The school librarian is a teacher who is familiar with curriculum and instruction and is not grading students but teaching them.”

Meanwhile in Anderson School District in South Carolina, Tamara Cox says life is as back to normal as it’s been in two years. “We’re living in a world where we are acting like there’s no pandemic,” said Cox. “Our lack of pandemic protocols and low vaccination rates is dragging this on longer than anyone would like.”

Cox’s librarians haven’t started ordering books for this school year as they are covering classes because the district can’t find substitute teachers. Yet, once they have time to focus on ordering, Cox is optimistic because her budget has increased. “I need to replace the books that were lost through the pandemic,” she said. “Then I need to get all the print books students are excited about and asking for.  Finally, I will spend my remaining budget on digital resources.” 

Speaking of digital resources, despite the vast differences between these three cities, each panelist agreed there will be a shift back to purchasing print content at least for this year. But the emphasis on print will be to complement eBooks and audiobooks as an additional, acceptable format. Cox says her students choose print for recreational reading. “Our kids still prefer print and even more so now because they just want to get off the computer,” Cox said. “But I will still buy eBooks because I don’t want to get caught unprepared again.”

Jacobs adds, “We want to empower kids to self-select the format they want to read: print, eBook or audio. There are benefits to digital and audio that surpass having the print in front of you. We want kids to be able to choose this themselves. I love audiobooks. I love read-alongs even more. I encourage teachers to have kids listen to audio and have the print in front of them. Having choices is extremely important for our kids.”

Thomas agrees. “eAudio has been extremely important for our senior centers and our older community during the pandemic. We’ve been able to reach that population throughout the pandemic in a new way.”

Another similarity: All three panelists have increased budgets to spend this year, but continued uncertainty associated with the pandemic is forcing district officials and site-level librarians to delay purchasing decisions. 

Yet, when they do buy, they want publishers to understand the accelerated need for more diverse authors and characters. Cox explains, “We are buying more and I’m in the deep conservative South. We are being very intentional about diversifying our collection. We don’t want just realistic fiction that’s a sad story about a kid coming out. We want different genres.”

Thomas says some communities may be pushing back and small pockets are working to ban controversial titles but building a more diverse collection is a priority in Cleveland, “We know we just don’t have the number of titles for a community like Cleveland which is more than 50% African American.”

“We need to move beyond just having a black character on the cover a book and calling it diverse,” Jacobs added. “There needs to be a level of inclusivity in our material. A book with an LGBTQ character shouldn’t just be about coming out. There should be an LGBTQ character in a book just because that’s life. I’m going to buy books that reflect the culture of our community.”

And that culture is changing daily. Back in New York, on Monday, Jacobs was the only person in her department who stayed in her role. All her district library coordinators were deployed to classrooms. While they are still having an impact on students’ lives, the crisis continues. 

Jacobs says, “Every other challenge I have is taking a back seat to the pandemic.  That’s the crisis that’s on the table. Our kids have a steep mountain to climb, and we must figure out how to help them.  That’s going to take money, time. and people who are qualified to provide that level of instructional support.  I hope we understand that we have to invest in education and libraries.” 

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Britten Follett
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