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Having access to books is a game-changer for students, making investments in book fairs and literacy funding essential.

Boycotting book fairs no more

Having access to books is a game-changer for students, making investments in book fairs and literacy funding essential

Key points:

When I was a kid, my dad never let me shop the Scholastic Book Fair. The avid reader in me didn’t really care that he saw the Book Fair as competition to our family business and an unnecessary purchase. I just wanted the new Baby-Sitters Club book! Yet, this is hardly a ‘woe is me’ story. Growing up, I had more than my fair share of books in my home library and my mom took us to the public library regularly. And just because my family didn’t support the book fair fundraiser, they found different ways to contribute to my elementary school. 

A generation later, I know I won’t force my son Holden into a book fair boycott because I know how important it is for schools to supplement their funding through fundraisers. In a recent market study, librarians shared that they get approximately $10 per student to spend on books. To better meet the needs of their school communities, they run fundraisers and partner with nonprofit organizations with the goal of adding as much as an additional $5 per student.  From that study, an anonymous librarian in Michigan said, “We lost our budget during COVID because we were remote for a long time. The workaround I’ve found is that now a big part of my job is fundraising.” 

Headlines since 2020 have highlighted the federal investment of ESSER Funding in schools. In a nation where an unprecedented amount of funding was bestowed upon public schools across the country, why is fundraising still necessary? 

Many districts initially used pandemic relief dollars on PPE to get students back into the classroom, and then they transitioned to large capital projects like HVAC and improved school security. A second unnamed librarian, this time in New Jersey, explained, “My school got a significant amount of funding from ESSER, but funds earmarked [by my district] for libraries ended up being used for other purposes like air purifiers and other infrastructure and tech.”

When I asked William Schaller, an Information Literacy Specialist in Houston, how he used ESSER dollars to replace print books lost when schools shut down during the pandemic and students went home, he said, “Many of our materials were misplaced when students were at home learning or moved away from our school.” He added, “We will continue to advocate for school libraries to be included in our school district’s budgets, sharing the positive impact libraries have on our students. We will continue to write grants to hopefully be funded by literacy supporters in the community, and advocate and promote all the powerful literacy events taking place in the heart of our school, the library! You can never have too many relevant, new, and inclusive books in the library.”

As ESSER Funds face expiration later this year, districts like Schaller’s that previously used pandemic relief funds on book purchases are finding new ways to ensure a continued investment in reading materials, because given the reading scores reported in the nation’s report card, no principal or superintendent wants to be seen as investing less in books.

But as with any operation, the expiration of ESSER Funding will force districts to do more with less. John Chrastka, the Executive Director of Every Library explains, “The costs of running and maintaining a library have risen since the pandemic and show no signs of slowing down. Post-ESSER, schools will have to rethink how they operate, but administrators and principals should not be allowed to balance the budget by cutting libraries and librarians given the value they bring to the community.”

Meredith Hill, with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, encourages district leadership to take a hard look at how they allocate their budget dollars post-pandemic and continue to make reading materials a priority. “The criticality of funding school libraries during the upcoming expiration of ESSER funding cannot be understated,” said Hill. “District-level decision makers must prioritize ongoing, annual funding of school libraries to maximize the impact certified school librarians can have on every student and teacher in the district. Not providing that reliable annual budget and asking school librarians to seek their own funding through grants, book fairs, or other funding sources leads to increased inequities in the services and resources available to staff and students at different schools within the same district. This is antithetical to the philosophy of equitable access that underlies the foundation of library service.”

Yet, school librarians recognize fundraising is now simply part of their job description and it’s never been more important to demonstrate and advocate for the value libraries and librarians bring to the education system. “Schools with well-funded school library media centers, updated collections, and certified school library media coordinators are able to spark student learning in high-impact ways,” said Hill. “These include providing curriculum-aligned resources, collaborating on research and tech-rich projects with teachers, sparking student curiosity and problem-solving with Makerspace, guiding the ethical implementation of AI, and creating a school-wide culture and lifelong love of reading.”

Being well-funded can take work and creativity on behalf of the librarian, but can be accomplished through effective community partnerships–a cornerstone of the Future Ready Library Framework. Schaller relies on various funding sources outside of district allocations. “Grant writing is another wonderful way for libraries to collect diverse titles,” said Schaller. “Our school has received grants from author James Patterson and Scholastic Book Clubs to help get more books into our schools, granting literacy to our readers. DonorsChoose is a fast way our library has been able to write specific projects for materials. Donors can select projects that inspire them by searching keywords, such as ‘library books’ or ‘STEM’ and donate to schools across the country. Through DonorsChoose, our library has received grants for books in November about voting and the importance of elections, many Spanish translations of popular titles for our Libros en Español section of the library, and even Young Sheldon from CBS has funded STEM and makerspace projects for our library’s hands-on learning area!”

Johnna Gregory, the Librarian at Trinity Lakes Elementary School in Hurst-Euless-Bedford ISD in Texas, recently put community partnerships to work to put the “fair” in her book fair.  Each of the 650 students on campus had the opportunity to choose TWO books to take home, for free. To make the book fair “fair,” Gregory solicited donations from the community, PTA, and board members; took advantage of vendor book sales; and used the rewards from her for-profit book fair to purchase the books so every student left with a book in each hand.

Whether the funding comes from municipal tax dollars, state or federal allocations, grants, physical book fairs, eFairs, bake sales, DonorsChoose, corporate partnerships, or combination of them all, access to books changes lives–and that’s an investment each of us can’t afford not to make.

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Britten Follett
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