We Need Universal School Library Programs


Recently I have been touring public elementary schools around New York City because in the fall my daughter will enter Pre-K. As a Children’s Librarian, I am most interested in each school’s unique relationship to the role of the library– and librarian, if there is one on staff. In New York, school library programs are as diverse as the institutions in which they are housed.


While some programs offer once-a-week library visits beginning in Pre-K, other schools do not offer library time until Kindergarten or even First Grade. The visits frequently range from a block period of twenty-five to forty-five minutes and tend to offer a combination of bibliographic instruction, research skills, a curriculum-based lesson, a story-time, and time to check out books.


On average, children are able to check out 1-3 books per library visit. In order to check out more books upon their next visit, any outstanding books need to be returned. Quite a few of the schools do not allow Pre-K to check out books.


The Dewey Decimal Classification is utilized to organize most of the school libraries I visited, however Lexile levels are also used at some institutions. Children at these schools are encouraged to choose books from clearly delineated sections where they will browse books on their reading level.


While many of the schools offer computer use in the school library, as well as some general instruction related to online research for the upper grades, a few of the schools have opted for a screen-free school library, where students are encouraged to associate the library with reading books and hearing stories read aloud. (Teachers may choose to bring a cart of laptops or iPads into the library to conduct a lesson, but these forms of technology are not housed in the school library, except for the computer used by the library staff for circulation.)


An open access period where students are free to check in/out books, browse, or just hang out in the library, is uncommon in public schools. I am familiar with a private school where children and parents may browse and return/take out books in the morning during drop-off and again during pick-up time.


Most public elementary schools I have visited do not have a full-time DOE-certified librarian on staff. (I also visited one school where there is not a school library in the building; the children may take home books from their in-class libraries.) Many schools have a PTA-funded librarian, who is hired part-time. The librarian may not have a degree in Library Science, but instead might be a parent or group of parent volunteers, who rotate running the library. Some schools do not have a librarian, and may depend on the lead teacher to bring his/her children to the library to conduct library time.


Although I did not ask about acquisitions at every school, I learned that some schools depend on their librarian to choose and purchase books, others rely on parents to obtain new books each year, and some schools build their libraries through donations by families and the community.


One of the schools I visited is part of an exciting pilot program wherein each student receives a New York City library card, which they can use from Kindergarten through the age of eighteen to check out up to ninety-nine books at the school library and at any public library in the five boroughs. This program includes fine-free borrowing, and books may be returned to the school library or any public library within the city. (In order for a public school to participate in this program, the school must have a Full-Time DOE-certified librarian on staff.)


I was a New York City public school librarian for four years prior to touring schools for my daughter’s admission into Pre-K. The school where I worked offered library periods to every class beginning in Pre-K for twenty-five minutes once a week. Pre-K and Kindergarten students checked out one book at a time, and First through Fifth Grade students checked out two books, although exceptions were made for students to take out more books in special cases. New books could not be taken out until checked out books had been returned. Primarily the school library was organized by the Dewey Decimal System. If students asked for books at their Lexile level, I explained to them that I did not follow the leveling system in the library, and that their best bet was to find books that looked interesting to them by reading the back cover and some of the content of the book. Although we had two computers in the library for student-use, mostly they were not turned on during library time. I offered some bibliographic instruction, but every class in every grade could expect to hear stories read aloud during library time. Two times a week, I offered an open access period during the school day for children to browse, check in/out books. When I began my work at this New York City public school, I had not completed my Master’s in Library Science, and upon completion, I decided not to obtain DOE certification. My job was contracted by the school’s PTA, and was not full-time. I was responsible for all acquisitions with a substantial yearly book-buying budget provided by the school. I worked with an unusually economically and racially diverse demographic. I encountered many students who had never been inside of a library until they attended this public school. (Other students came from affluent homes lined with bookshelves.)


After touring many elementary schools in New York, I am dismayed by the lack of cohesion in the DOE’s approach to school libraries. It is disappointing that there is no policy in place to ensure that each school houses a school library, let alone requires the services of a certified school librarian. With so much research about the importance of hearing stories from an early age, and reading independently each day as markers to success, I am saddened that school libraries and librarians are playing peripheral roles in many of New York City’s elementary schools. It is tremendous that Mayor de Blasio has implemented a UPK program in New York City, but access to school libraries should not be determined by a PTA’s ability to raise funds or write grants. Children zoned for schools in lower-income neighborhoods need school libraries and school librarians to enhance learning, to develop a passion for books, and to become life-long readers. Mayor de Blasio should consider a universal school library program.