Challenge Monday: Ask Not What School Libraries Can Do For You, But What You Can Do For School Libraries

This whole month, we’ve been spending our Challenge Mondays talking about school outreach, and all the travails that come with it. Experiences can be mixed, at best. There are many challenges to forging partnerships and getting in front of teens at the schools — from busy scheduling, understaffed libraries, to even administrative hurdles. The value for us, as teen staff in public libraries, is obvious. A huge percentage of our service population must be in this building 8 hours a day. AND WE WANT AT THEM!

Ideally, we would go in with our endless lists of projects, programs, and services, and promote to an already captive audience. But as mentioned, school librarians are overworked, understaffed, and all too often, endangered. Libraries are one of the first places to cut back when budgets are tight, and there is sadly an all-too-common misconception that the public library can replace school librarians. (I hopefully don’t need to tell you that, unequivocally, they cannot. But just in case, read this. And this. And this.)

Like this, but actually  a rational concern
Like this, but actually a rational concern

It’s sad when two groups – school and public libraries – with such overlapping missions, can’t find common ground to work together. It’s also frustrating, from the public librarian perspective, when so much of these challenges are out of our control. What can we do, then? How can we show our colleagues at the schools we serve that we are there to support them?

Public libraries, as a rule, have greater access to materials than most schools. Your print collection is almost definitely bigger than theirs, not to mention media. Your databases are likely bigger, faster, and stronger. If nothing else, public libraries have easier access to interlibrary loan (ILL) and consortiums for sharing materials. Set up a lending program where you can get the school library whatever materials they may need. If there aren’t teacher cards, or teacher bags, or school accounts, advocate for their creation! Those school libraries are full of potential users, far more than you’ll ever see come through your doors. Getting the books and information they need or want into their hands will help you reach more teens than you’d otherwise be able. In the end, it’s not about you, but about best serving your population. (That said, track and report those services to your supervisors. Just because you’re working behind the scenes doesn’t mean you aren’t supporting the public library mission, and you need to make sure your administration sees that.)

A big part of this necessary shift in thinking is a willingness to take a back seat and become a silent (or at least quiet) partner — at least at first. The school librarian will be more secure, as you’ll be supporting rather than replacing what they do. You’ll also be laying the groundwork for your further (and hopefully more visible) involvement in the future.

Let me tell you a story. A Tale of Two Public & School Library Relationships, if you will. Just sit right back…


Several years ago, I was a library assistant at a medium suburban high school. My first year there, we were putting together a lunch time book club to meet every month or so, and were in need of numerous copies of each title we read. We tried numerous times to partner with our public library to set up a way for us to interlibrary loan the books and have them at our school library to check out to students. And every time we received an emphatic “NO”. We forged ahead on our own, and through support from elsewhere in the school and setting up our own ILL system, were able to get enough titles for a group that had more than 40 members after a year.

A year or two after, the public library had a new teen librarian who wanted to come meet with us. She came over to visit the school library and to talk about ways we could partner. What she really wanted was a chance to come over and book talk to our kids and promote her programs and services. I’m not saying we laughed her out of the building, but…in the end, we made like Little Red Hen and baked that bread ourselves.

Contrast that with the large public library I work at now. Each school we serve has its own library account, and they will request items that we check out and send over on a near-daily basis, with the occasional ILL request for good measure. Because these relationships are so well established, our partnerships have branched out in multiple ways. The schools regularly promote public library programs, hanging flyers and even talking them up during morning announcements. Classes will often take field trips to the teen space in the library, and we visit classes to give book talks and database presentations. This past school year, we have even partnered with a middle school on a 3D printing class.

I know each library is different, with varying capacity and available resources, and I know not everyone can do all that’s been discussed above. What I want more teen librarians working with schools to realize is that the goal is creating an equally beneficial partnership, and to understand many of the constraints under which school librarians work. And I’m happy to report that the school library I used to work at now has a much more fruitful relationship with its public counterpart, so don’t feel burdened by how these relationships have previously played out. These foundations are built slowly, but you’ll do better to go in offering ways you can help, instead of looking for what they can do for you.

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