The secret cultural institution in your school: The school library
A variety of best practices and imaginative ideas that the school librarian can use to create an environment where students fuse together required learning with learning that is driven by individual interest.
A favorite professor of mine once wrote “libraries are places where learners are destined to become free to live on their own horizons; they are our most lasting institutions for the exploration of possible worlds.” In the same piece, he also wrote about places that assist “the free explorer of the emerging senses…without external evaluations, impersonal curricula, artificial boundaries, constraining agendas, or ringing bells. This informality permits serendipitous discoveries and unplanned knowing to change the learner’s mind.” My professor, Dr. David Carr, was writing about the nature of learning that is possible in cultural institutions, including the cultural institution that lies within the heart of the school: the school library.
What are these wonderful “cultural institutions” where learning can happen with abandon and become an adventure? Cultural institutions are those places that carefully develop and organize collections (of art, of books, of animals) according to scholarly principles and make them freely available to the public. Examples of cultural institutions are museums, zoos, art galleries, historical societies, botanical gardens, and libraries of all kinds. Read that last part one more time: libraries of all kinds. And remember that this includes school libraries.
Cultural institutions, including school libraries, create environments and craft opportunities that inspire learners to wander down their own customized and self-selected learning paths to new bits of information, different sides of stories, and special moments in time.
This article lays out a variety of best practices and imaginative ideas that the school librarian can choose from to create such an environment, one where students can fuse together the required learning that necessarily goes on in schools with learning that is driven by individual interest and encouraged by cultural institutions. This article also contains suggestions for creating reflections of other cultural institutions in the school library and for developing relationships with these organizations in your community.
The school library should first and foremost be an inviting place for students to spend time wondering. If we expect to open doors for students, ours should always be open.
When students enter their school library, they should feel welcome and as if it might nice to stay awhile. Provide alternatives to institutionalized seating. Wouldn’t you rather seat yourself in a scruffy, overstuffed chair or stretch out on a colorful rug with a bright cushion than sit upright in a hard, unyielding chair? Plan for both formal and informal areas that can accommodate the individual learner as well as learners in groups and classes. Find places and outlets where overhead fluorescent lighting can be supplemented with the softer, golden light of table and floor lamps.
Fill the library with specimens from the natural world that invite investigation: plants, fresh flowers, terrariums, tiny living creatures, planets, and galaxies. Create a mobile of hand-made butterflies swirling to the sky and a trail of shiny beetles marching across the shelf. Cover the walls with framed pictures, posters, and maps that inspire questions and further research.
Let your imagination run wild, but thoughtfully. Your students should be surrounded with numerous and ever changing options for exploration and there should always be something different, something new to excite questions and stimulate free-inquiry. But make sure that, just as in a well-organized and attentive museum or botanical garden, there are tools at hand to help the learner follow his or her question: plaques describing the item and providing context, books and websites for more information, pamphlets, and informational handouts.
Mark your sections well. Post big signs that guide students toward fiction, biographies, and other topics. Don’t just leave it at that. Post teasers and notes all over the library that highlight special items, that ask questions, that encourage students to make connections, and that suggest consulting other resources in different areas of the collection, the librarian, or another information source.
Many elementary school libraries have comfort areas, plants, and animals for student enjoyment, but it is important that junior high and high school students have these special features in their school libraries as well. We all take joy and feel inspired in a delightful atmosphere.
A collection of cultural institutions in the school library
Create your own museum. Designate an area, even a corner, as the school museum. Like all good museums, the exhibits should change frequently and provide contextual information to the items on display. This area can showcase the history of the school’s football team; images of graduating classes over the years; a natural history display of fossil, rocks, and minerals; or an interactive exhibit of simple but revolutionary inventions. Encourage students and teachers to bring in their own collections for presentation in the school museum. Work with local museums and other cultural institutions to arrange for collections that may be available for loan for a special feature. For example, the North Carolina Museum of Art offers classroom resources on loan for two week periods, the Greensboro Historical Museum lends traveling trunks covering a multitude of North Carolina topics, and the North Carolina Museum of History offers History-in-a-Box Kits. For additional information about resources like these and many other opportunities, visit Discover NC.
Develop an art gallery. Set aside a wall or an area in the library for artwork. Modeling what would be seen in a gallery or an art museum, include signage that describes the medium of the art as well as historical and contextual information. The artwork in the gallery could not only feature the works of the school’s art classes and collections of works by individual students but also local artists. These members of your community may respond enthusiastically to your offer to display their works and to arrange for them to make a special visit to discuss their art and the practice of being an artist with students. The slideshow that accompanies this article includes images from Highlands School Media Center in Highlands, North Carolina, where Media Coordinator Carol Bowen has worked with art teacher Sallie Taylor to create an art gallery of student work in the school library.
Grow a garden. Work with a nearby botanical garden or a local gardening expert to create a botanical garden with your students. While this project could take place anywhere on school grounds, the ideal garden would be just outside an accessible library exit and include benches and areas for students to relax, study, and enjoy the natural area.
Construct your own special collection. Separated from the main body of the collection, a special collection can offer students an opportunity to explore in-depth a particular genre or theme. While a collection of state-related books may facilitate classroom studies and projects, collections of vintage children books or graphic novels and comic books may capture the independent interest of students. In the slideshow, you’ll find an image of the North Carolina Collection that Media Specialist Di Anna Kruse created in the Cedar Ridge High School Media Center in Hillsborough, North Carolina.
Not just book exhibits…interactive or value-added exhibits. Get the books out of those dusty, old, and often locked glass cases and set up accessible book exhibits that actually encourage students to pick up the book, thumb through it, and check it out. Have some knowledge about what is on display and include summaries or reader recommendation cards. Complement non-fiction books with related items that a student can examine: a geode to accompany a book about rocks and minerals, a bare lamp with a light bulb to emphasize a book about Edison. Provide leads to additional information and other items that may interest the student. The school library’s exhibits do not need to be confined to the library but can find places for themselves all over the school.
Plenty of thought is invested in making a museum, a botanical garden, an art gallery an attractive, compelling, and constantly evolving experience. The school library should reflect these qualities as well.
Website. These days one of the first places a student goes for information is the internet. A school library must have a website. The website should be constantly updated to reflect what new items have been added to the collection, what is on exhibit in its museum and art gallery, and what special events will be taking place, and what guests will be visiting the library in the weeks to come. The website could also be a portal to local cultural institutions and for quality information on the internet. Begin a collection of great websites that complement the curriculum and are interesting sources of information. Annotate these websites so that teachers and students know what they can expect to find and how to use the site. Create online pathfinders, which are aids for locating materials about a particular subject, that include both websites and materials from your collection as well as those from the public library and other nearby cultural institutions for those big projects that come up year after year in classes.
Publish a newsletter. The newsletter can contain much of the same material as the website, noting special events and new acquisitions. Mail it home to parents, make it available in the library and other areas in the school, and create a subscription service that allows it to be sent via email. Tammy Young, media specialist at Charles D. Owen High School, shares a great example of her September 2005 newsletter for teachers: view pages 1 and 2 and page 3 in PDF format.
Advertise. Advertise your special events and exhibits all over the school with posters and brochures, articles and press releases in the school and local newspapers, messages over daily announcements, and fliers that go home to parents and teachers.
From the very beginning of the school year, school librarians must find out what teachers have planned for the upcoming year and visit them regularly to learn what has changed and what they have going on in their classrooms and keep track. Often times, unless they need a group of books assembled around a particular theme, a video viewing arranged, or a technical problem answered; they won’t consult with the school librarian or ask for assistance with their classes. While building a relationship with a teacher, the school librarian may need to be the one doing the outreach and constantly offering assistance and ideas.
When asked for a bibliography or a collection of books on a particular topic, deliver them personally and spend some time in the classroom. Lure those reluctant teachers and their classes to visit the library regularly by creating a variety of opportunities to broaden and deepen the classroom experience.
Teachers often find themselves in pockets of isolation and experience stress from a demanding and challenging curriculum as well as from testing pressures. It is likely that a school librarian will often face resistance in efforts to provide a richer learning experience for students by suggesting more “library time.” It is thus essential not to keep the school library’s philosophies, visions, and goals a secret. Hold workshops and discussion groups with teachers about free-choice learning and how it contributes to the aims of lifelong learning. Take time to explain the goals for the school library and how it can help them and their classes individually. Just as teachers must model learning strategies to their students, the school librarian must model strategies to both teachers and students that allow a learner to control his or her own learning destiny while finding ways that this can be done within the constraints of a necessary but regimented curriculum.
Using a collaboration sheet when planning lessons or units with classroom teachers will help ensure that goals and expected outcomes are clear and responsibilities are identified. In the assessment portion of your planning, be sure to determine what worked well and what could use more work next time. In this way, you will be certain of continuing the collaborative relationship and improving your coordinated efforts.
In developing the school library program, students can be our best partners and allies. As school librarians, we should not attempt our projects in isolation but with the consultation and assistance of students. Developing clubs and drawing upon the forces of library volunteers and students, we can create a team of curators, marketers, writers, and artists who will make the library program successful. Capitalize on the strengths of students to develop the website and newsletter. Give them ideas and guidance as they act as curators of the collections in the museum and the art works in the gallery. Commission them to create that butterfly mobile and other works of art. Have a student group that is responsible for the botanical garden and others who write the suggested reading blurbs that pepper your collection and exhibits. Communicate with them about what you are trying to do and ask for their help.
With so many demands on our time and so many pressures to collaborate with classroom teachers, we may forget that our primary purpose is to serve students. Each student is completely individual and deserves the most warmth, generosity, and respect possible. Every action we take as school librarians should seek to provide them with the most and best opportunities we can create. By involving students in the process and in our program, we can ensure a school library that is rich, meaningful, and relevant to their lives.
In her article, “Bring the Museum to the Media Center,” Beth Blenz-Clucas points out that “a natural liaison in the school-museum connection is the school library media specialist. In addition to providing special programs and displays of museum objects in the library, the media specialist can act as the link between museums and teachers by keeping informed about the different resources and programs that are available and by providing museum directors with information about the school’s needs at all grade levels.”
Find out what cultural institutions are in your area and get in touch with all of them. These institutions include not only zoos, museums, aquariums, public libraries, and historical societies but also the libraries in the universities, their rare books libraries, special collections libraries, museums, and archives. Discover the scope and content of their collections and look particularly for areas that are directly related to curricular topics but also keep aware that many areas may be interesting to students on an independent level. Keep up to date on programs, events, and special exhibits.
Determine who is in charge of educational programming in each cultural institution and work on building relationships with these people as well as others in the institution with whom coordination is possible. Developing these relationships may create great opportunities to collaborate to develop educational programs that may better serve the needs not only of teachers and a curriculum but the students as well.
Keep a supply of their brochures and posters on hand and put them on display and available in the library and throughout the school—not hidden in a little-used vertical file.
Take thoughtful advantage of their lending programs and traveling exhibitions. Many institutions have collections for loan, videos for lending, and traveling exhibits and treasure boxes. These can be great temporary additions to your museum or arranged for use in classrooms.
Find out about opportunities for field visits. Even if an institution does not have a special education liaison that comes to schools to speak, more than likely a representative will be delighted to speak in the library and tell your students about their collections and how they might be used. Many professionals can visit classes that are studying a particular topic and speak to the curriculum. The school librarian may be able to facilitate a visit by an expert who can bring items not available for loan. Try to arrange for frequent special visitor presentations and talks. While often it may be possible to arrange speaker visits that relate to a subject that a particular class is studying, strive to make these special events available to all students. But also seek out speakers that are just plain fascinating, have great stories to share, and unique information to convey. Their discussion may not have to do with the current curriculum but can act as a reinforcement to the idea that learning is not always mandated and that we often learn just because we are interested. Speakers can visit during the school days and class periods but from time to time, host an event that takes place over lunch, after school, or in the evening to better ensure that access is granted to more students, as well as faculty and parents.
As often as possible, encourage and attend field trips to local cultural institutions with classes and teachers. This is a great opportunity to work with teachers to show students how to use their information skills and explore how meaning is constructed in a real world that does not use a curriculum to guide its learners.
Plan field trips for library volunteers and students and create a club that regularly visits cultural institutions in the community after school, on the weekend, or during the evening. Discuss what constitutes a cultural institution and talk about how learning is different in these places than it tends to be in the school. Take students not just to the art, science, and history museums but also to the university library to see how a Library of Congress classification system works, to an archives to compare using a physical finding aid versus an online finding aid, to a rare books library—just for the awe. Then take them to a zoo and a botanical garden to explore and discuss the similarities and differences between these types of cultural institutions and the others.
The school library may be the first cultural institution students ever enter and explore. By developing an environment that supports not only their classroom assignments but also stimulates their innate curiosity, the school librarian can foster a positive sense of what cultural institutions are all about and even open doors and create well-tread pathways to those other cultural institutions that will support students in their learning lives when they no longer need a hall pass or a student ID card.
- Blenz-Clucas, Beth. “Bring the museum to the media center.” School Library Journal, September 1993: 150–3.
- Carr, David. “Living on one’s own horizon: cultural institutions, school libraries, and lifelong learning.” School Library Media Quarterly, Summer 1991: 217–22.