The Death of the School Library Is Easily Reversed

Years ago, my school library closed.  The administration declared that no one was using the library and that it had become “obsolete” with the age of the Internet.  The room that was once a library is now a computer lab.  And the administration probably still feels proud that they are being “innovative” and keeping up with modern technology.  The irony, however, is that the school library was only ever as obsolete as the administration and faculty made it.  And, if they had wanted to, they could have saved the school library within a few months.

My school library closed because no students ever used it.  No students used the library because it was primarily open during school hours and briefly after–and no teacher ever seemed to think about bringing their classes to the library.  Students were not allowed out of class for essentially any reason (except, of course, sports), so could not go to the library by themselves.  In short, the school itself prevented students from using the library because they blocked access to it.

Keeping the library open for a half hour or so after school may have seemed like a generous initiative to the administration.  But this was not enough to help because many students have to go directly to extracurricular activities or to catch a bus.  Even if a student had managed to squeeze in a rushed visit, they may have been afraid to check anything out, in case they were unable to go back to return the materials.  The administration ignored the realities of the students when selecting library hours, again effectively preventing the average student from being able to access the library at all.

If students did manage to get to the library, however, they would have been sadly disappointed by the limited and out-dated selection.  The books were decades old and were almost all academic titles–there was no indication that anyone expected students to read for fun.  One visit to the library was enough to convince me that I had no reason to return.  It was clear that the school had neglected the library for years.  And then the administration wondered why students were not utilizing its “resources.”

The school caused the death of the library by restricting student access to it and by choosing not to purchase new or relevant titles for the shelves.  The administration then chose to “solve” this problem by closing the library down completely–and thus showed that its true priorities never included instilling a love of reading in the students.  However, saving the library would have been ridiculously easy.  All the school needed to do was to get teachers to bring classes to the library and to provide them with more opportunities to access the library on their own–before, during, and after school.  Students would have used the library if the faculty had taken the time to convince them it was worth it.

Updating the library collection would have taken more work, but would have also been an attainable goal.  To start, the school could have done a fundraiser, sought out grants, and solicited donations.  The school regularly finds money and does fundraisers to pay for their sports teams.  It would only be fair for the school to find money for a project that would benefit all the students, and not only a select few.

It seems silly that so many school libraries are closing when getting students into the library can be as simple as scheduling a few classroom visits.  And one has to wonder why.  Is it the pressure to teach to the test?  Is there no administrative support?  Or is it something more fundamental?  Denver librarian Julia Torres was recently featured in School Library Journal for asking her teachers if they were not bringing students to the library because they themselves were not reading.  Her direct approach worked.  Asked to reflect on their own reading lives, the teachers were soon bringing their classes back to the library.

Teacher support for the library becomes crucial when we remember that not every child has access to books at home.  Some do not own books.  They may not have transportation to the public library. They may live in book deserts, where print materials are not readily available to sale.  The school library may be one of the only places some children have access to books at all.  So, when students are not given opportunities to check out books at school, they may have nothing to read at all.  Teachers and school administrations need to remember this, and not assume that students will be able to read on their own.

It seems like schools are always firing their librarians and closing their libraries.  But doing so sends a clear message to the students: reading is not important.  Certainly not important enough for schools to bother funding libraries and not important enough for schools to ensure that their libraries stay open to guarantee their students access to books.  But if schools believe they must close their libraries because they have become “obsolete,” they must first ask themselves how they may have been complicit in the library’s demise.

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22 thoughts on “The Death of the School Library Is Easily Reversed

    • Krysta says:

      I’d love to see the library make a comeback, but my school is primarily focused on sports. It’s actually kind of sad. Like if you don’t play a sport, the school doens’t seem to care about you, even if you are doing something super awesome.

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  1. Stephanie says:

    Excellent post! School libraries can be a wonderful resource. I went to a small private grade school and our library was pretty outdated (I’m really curious as to what it’s like nowadays). My public high school’s library was pretty musty and outdated as well. Now, my son’s public high school’s library is AMAZING. They have shelves upon shelves of new books, both fiction and non, they just received a grant to get MORE new books this past week, they have an ebook system similar to Overdrive/Libby where the kids can check out books on their school-issued iPads, it’s really amazing compared to the books from the 1950’s my school library had when I was a new reader in the mid-to-late 1980’s. My son uses his school library and the ebook system as well, and his school just announced a book club for next year. I’m majorly jealous of (and thrilled about!) what those kids have access to!

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    • Krysta says:

      Wow! That sounds like a great library! Sadly, no school I attended had a good library and I don’t know if any of them even had a librarian with any sort of library degree. So the schools really didn’t prioritize the libraries and the librarians certainly weren’t doing all the cool things you hear about today like starting coding clubs and everything.

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  2. Katie says:

    This is a great post! My elementary school had a weekly “library class” and the space was used for after-school care, so it didn’t occur to me how difficult access could be if those times aren’t carved out.

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  3. Never Not Reading says:

    I think the librarians are also partly to blame. They should have been advocating for their program, finding ways to bring teachers and students in, keeping their library current, going out of their way to do ALL of those things, not just expecting admin to do it. That makes me very sad, but the reality in schools these days is that teachers and administrators don’t really understand what a library is *for*. It’s the librarian’s job to make sure they DO.

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    • Debbie J says:

      I completely agree with you here! Whilst my old librarian was lovely, we got a new one a few years ago now and the change seen in our library is really evident. I think a key reason is that our new one engages with students more to see what they want on the shelves and leading a book club for the younger students, as well as reading and keeping up with the new releases for the age demographic (teen/YA).

      Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I don’t think my librarians were qualified to advocate for the library as I’d guess only of of them, if that, even held any kind of library degree. The schools had a tendency to hire people’s mothers, I think because they imagined they just needed someone to sit in a room and check things out. The schools definitely didn’t see a need to hire skilled or knowledgeable librarians and so the librarians certainly weren’t equipped to explain what they were doing or why it might be important.

      I still have this conversation with teacher friends, sadly. I know one school were the librarian decided they were too busy to have library class and so they just collected all the books and stopped having library class. So…the message you’re sending is that access to books and reading are not important? You have…something else that’s more important? And your administration agreed? It’s scandalous, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Never Not Reading says:

        Yeah, in small towns especially there is a tendency to fill the library with whatever community member likes reading. I was talking to my husband about this today, and we agreed that it’s a shame that administrators don’t bother to find out on their own what a librarian SHOULD be doing, and so this kind of book-monitor-librarian continues. :/

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Debbie J says:

    This is really sad to hear as I’d heard my friend talk about how their school libraries weren’t the best but never actually considered a school closing the library completely. My school recently built a new library and whilst it was busy before it’s much more popular now as they’ve made it a really nice space to work in. On top of that, they’ve integrated more computers and study spaces so it can be used for a much wider range of uses, e.g. teaching like you mentioned and allows them to stay modern and “up to date” whilst respecting service the library offers.

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  5. Michael J. Miller says:

    When I began teaching at my school (I’ve been there eight years now) this was the “trend” they were following. Our library was our “Info Center” and computers were favored over the often ancient books in the stacks. Being an IB school (International Baccalaureate as opposed to AP (Advanced Placement)) we’ve had to make a conscious effort to change this. One of IB’s main priorities is that a current, well-stocked library has to be the center of an IB school. So we began a multi-year process of fundraising to renovate our library. Now it’s comfortable/inviting and we’re housing more books the kids are interested in – general/current fiction, YA novels, graphic novels and comic trade paperbacks, etc. – in addition to academic texts. We updated the academic works too. It’s an ongoing process and one I’m very proud we’re taking seriously.

    This piece has made me think of what I, as a teacher, can do to encourage my kids to use it for pleasure reading more though. I know I’ve had casual conversations with my kids where I’ll tell them we have comics or YA novels or a big section of Star Wars books (built for our Star Wars class) and they have no idea! Then they go and regularly check stuff out :). Figuring out how to make this sort of awareness part of all my classes is a challenge worth considering.

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    • Krysta says:

      I think there was a trend for a long time where all technology was seen as good and progressive, even if schools had no particular use for some of it and even if teachers weren’t sure how to utilize it. I know my schools got a lot of tech and no one was using it effectively. It was a waste of money because they were teaching the same way, just with something techy. I would like to think that we’ve mostly realized now that tech isn’t good inherently; it’s good based on how you use it, which, in turn, requires training. But sometimes I wonder if we’ve come that far.

      I think it’s surprisingly easy to forget how unfamiliar people may be with the resources available to them. I know I’m constantly shocking people when I mention stuff about the public library like, “Yes, you can get a book from anywhere in the country with interlibrary loan” or, “They have music and video games, too, not just books.” And I think maybe even public libraries need to consider…telling people this. Even if it seems silly and obvious to write something like, “We have manga! Come check it out!” on their social media.

      But, when you use the library all the time, it seems like a second home! And it starts to seem like, well, yes, everyone understands how this works and how awesome it is! Yet I know I can shock people just by telling them it’s all free. That’s literally the only thing keeping a bunch of people from getting a card/going to a program. Maybe the library needs to write, “It’s free!” on all their advertising??

      But I think casual conversations work really well for telling people about the library, actually! I think people are more likely to go if someone they have a connection with recommended it. Maybe students feel awkward walking in, but they can say, “Um, hi, my teacher recommended I check out some comics…” and that gives them some confidence, that they can fall back on you as their reason for being there! You’re like their ticket in if they’re worried they “don’t belong.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • Michael J. Miller says:

        Oh, I hope so! That’s a great way to think of it. And I think that’s true across the board – in so many cases there are few forces more persuasive than a casual conversation with someone.

        I think the library should absolutely be more vocal about everything too – especially the FREE part. Because, while we have easier access (in theory) to so much information, it’s also easy to tailor the information we receive to what we already like/use/know. The more vocal and visible libraries are about this stuff, the greater their chance of bringing in new people who will, in turn, have casual conversations with others about how great it is!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Gosh- it’s shocking to me that administrators could be glad at such “innovation”. This whole story is actually shocking. I can completely get what you mean about school libraries also having a terrible selection of books as well. It’s a very depressing the message all this is sending to students.

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    • Krysta says:

      I noticed my schools were very good at sticking computers and other devices everywhere, with no clear understanding of how to use them to teach. It was a waste of money because putting a computer in front of someone doesn’t magically make learning better. It’s how you use the computer.

      Interestingly, though, I’ve seen news articles suggesting the new class divide will be between rich parents going for hands-on learning and poorer students being placed in front of computers.

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