Recently, JCLS employees have been sharing thoughts and stories about the importance of school libraries.  I’ve got one really vivid memory of school libraries from my school days:

When I was little, I was strange (still am, I guess).  Like many strange kids, I had a hard time making friends. I remember in 3rd Grade I was having big struggles at lunch with the other kids.

Somehow my parents and my teacher worked together to have me take my lunches in the library. I know none of the mechanics behind how this happened; I just know that one day I was blissfully having lunch in the school library and that this had an amazing impact on my wellbeing. I have no idea whether the lovely human who worked in the library had a “librarian” title or not; all I know is she made my life a whole lot easier that year. I don’t even remember her name. I went to public school in California in the years leading up to and immediately after the passage of Proposition 13, which “rolled back most local real estate assessments to 1975 market value levels, limited the property tax rate to 1 percent plus the rate necessary to fund local voter-approved bonded indebtedness, and limited future property tax increases to a maximum of 2% per year,” according to the San Luis Obispo County Assessor’s Office.

It passed in June of 1978 when I would have been a rising 2nd grader. My memory is of knowing 100% that when school funding is affected, what gets pulled right away is instruction in the arts and libraries. It is, therefore, not surprising that this is my only memory of a library staffed by an actual human at any public school I attended all the way through high school. (So much so that it took me a long time to realize that librarianship was a profession that might be a good fit for me, even though it’s objectively obvious that, really, I don’t fit anywhere else!)

I thought I’d ask my colleagues for their memories of their school library experiences. I thought one or two people might share, but I had collected 7 stories within an hour, and they continued to flow in. Here are just a few:

“I was such a fan of libraries in school, in middle school I used my 1 elective credit to volunteer in the school library…. How did it take adult me until I was in my 30’s before I knew I should become a librarian?”

“I LOVED my elementary school librarian…. She was beautiful and kind and read to us and taught me how to use a card catalog and helped me find books. I remember feeling safe and at home in the school library. Later, in middle school, the school library was a refuge at lunch recess. I didn’t always feel like I had a safe place in the social stratigraphy of middle school, but I knew I could find friends in library books”

“In the second grade, I had to move to a new school. I didn’t know anyone there and I was terrified…I was a shy kid in school, especially around the people I didn’t know. I vividly remember walking into the library for the first time. …[T]he school librarian, recognized that I was new…She walked up to me, introduced herself to me and showed me a whole new world. She asked me what I liked to read and I told her about my favorite books. She let me know it was okay to be scared to try to new books but I should give them a try anyway. And, oh, I am so glad I listened to her. That year, I read The Phantom Tollbooth and The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe and so much more. Not only that, but I also met new friends- not just the imaginary ones in the books, but real ones in my school. All because my school librarian taught me that it was okay to be scared to meet new people, but I should give them a try anyway.”

“To put it lightly, I was an awkward kid. Between an extremely secluded early childhood, being homeschooled and having a pretty bad speech impediment, the transition to public school  was hard.  But I knew the library. Didn’t matter if it was a small town library, rural library, Medford library or school library, it was home. They didn’t make me talk or scold me for how I spoke when I chose to, they just gave me mints, and arranged for me to come to the library to “help” instead of going out to be bullied at recess…I could go on and on about the wonderful school librarians I’ve had in my life but instead I’ll say that they are amazing and have literally saved my life and made me who I am.”                    

“The only school library memory I have was like second grade, I was living … in Massachusetts. Our class had to go back to the classroom and I didn’t realize I did not check the book out until I was at my desk and cried expecting to get yelled at (I was not yelled at). By the time I moved back in with my mom across the country LAUSD had already totally gutted libraries and music classes for the not rich schools, so I never had a school library again until college.”

As I read through these memories, I noticed several trends:

  1. I found a profession
  2. I found books and a love of reading
  3. I found a haven
  4. I noticed that there wasn’t adequate funding

While I love talking about libraries as havens, I think recognizing that, as adults, young people do look back and remember where their schools cut when they did have to make hard decisions is also an important takeaway.  Kids notice. Kids also need their libraries.

These are the qualitative things that make school libraries important, but there are also studies that point to positive outcomes that result from having well-funded school libraries with certified librarians on staff…more on that in my next post!