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A Love Letter to School Libraries

“The library card is a passport to wonders and miracles, glimpses into other lives, religions, experiences, the hopes and dreams and strivings of all human beings, and it is this passport that opens our eyes and hearts to the world beyond our front doors, that is one of our best hopes against tyranny, xenophobia, hopelessness, despair, anarchy, and ignorance.” — Libba Bray

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There has always been something indescribable about walking into a school library — I can’t help but think about the incredible young hearts and minds that have walked those same halls, and touched those same books. The ethos of a library is unlike the other spaces within school walls. Of course, this is inherently related to my privilege. As a white female, it has never been difficult for me to locate books that feature characters like me, who lead lives as I do.

This is the power that libraries hold.

When intentionally designed, libraries are spaces where students see themselves reflected and their lived experiences validated. Libraries can offer refuge for children who do not yet identify as conventional readers but are readers and learners nonetheless. The complex literacies that all children bring become part of the tapestry that is a school library; after all, a library is a physical place but it is so much more than that.

It is in a library where a child’s reading level is not known or visible, as the purpose is simply to discover. I have written about the impact of reading levels on emerging readers here, and the power of school libraries in offering students other ways to “be” a reader regardless of their marked ability. In our schools, they remain one of the few places where students aren’t assessed. This freedom of assessment opens other opportunities, indeed.

When deliberately structured for inclusion, libraries are limitless — open to all regardless of circumstance or identity marker. A talented librarian can serve as a cornerstone of any school or community. School libraries are where students find representation in literature, discover their passions, and learn to love reading in its many forms. Democratic spaces where all students belong, school libraries empower students to make choices in what they read.

However, the opposite can be true. Libraries that do not consciously and intentionally select a collection in an effort to widen representation and dismantle bias uphold the status quo, rather than disrupt it. A library that does not strive to include all, will only be designed for some.

For this reason, this love letter is complicated.

In fact, libraries have not always been grounded in equity and inclusion. At their earliest conception, libraries were reading rooms that were intended to assimilate immigrant children into the dominant society (Rumberger, 2019). Libraries have evolved over time as our ideas about educating children have evolved over time. Nonetheless, decisions about what texts belong in a school library remain within the purview of the school librarian, and these decisions are both political and ideological.

Regardless, the premise of libraries — in our contemporary state — is to ensure that all students have access to information, and understand how to use that information to pursue their interests and communicate broadly. The American Association for School Libraries (AASL) has dedicated a significant portion of its framework to identifying points of view, respecting multiple perspectives, and reflecting on one’s place within a global learning community through literature.

School librarians offer opportunities for students to pursue inquiries, find evidence, engage with different perspectives, and to enjoy reading. They arrange visits with real-life authors, champion curricular efforts through collaboration with classroom teachers, and manage robust collections of digital and physical texts. As access to information widens, libraries and librarians are key levers in the fight against disinformation. The library is a hub of activity: questions, whispers, barcodes, and movement, as students acquire tastes for different types of texts. Importantly, they do so without judgment — there is no “wrong” book to choose.

During remote teaching, many of the librarians that I know engaged in “curbside checkout” — a distanced checkout procedure where students could request specific titles, topics, or genres for the librarians to compile for contact-less pickup. Especially during the pandemic and remote teaching, getting physical books into the hands of children has been paramount. If students didn’t request specific titles, librarians compiled a meaningful “surprise bag,” curated for that child. Children, seeking connection in a time of isolation, were delighted to have a stack of books selected just for them. Recognizing that reading takes many forms, librarians simultaneously began building a burgeoning audiobook library, aimed at breaking down barriers to reading. As American Library Association (ALA) President Julius C. Jefferson, Jr. stated: “Buildings may not have been open, but libraries were never closed.”

Unfortunately, in many areas across our nation, school library programs are underfunded and understaffed. A library program that ceases to exist no longer has the opportunity to validate student experience, nudge students to explore, or offer refuge. What does it mean when we begin to eliminate the only spaces within our school walls where students aren’t assessed? Where might students read free from judgment? Access to a robust library is a right for all students, not just those in affluent schools with the means to sustain them.

Libraries, I love you (and your complicated history). Thank you for existing.

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Alyson Rumberger, Ed.D

Alyson Rumberger, Ed.D

Learner, teacher, author, scholar and passionate advocate of education.