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Why schools still need libraries (and librarians)

I felt like a scavenger. There I was, in a prestigious private school’s library, picking through books they were getting rid of in order to make space for a new tech area. The staff was extremely kind, but I still resented what their students had and mine didn’t.

As I’ve explained in previous posts, the high school where I teach does not have a library. Since we’re housed in a renovated church from the 19th century in West Philadelphia, we literally do not have the space. Our solution is to create small classroom libraries within each teacher’s room to make books available for students to borrow.

Meanwhile, that private school’s library is vast, filled with natural light spilling through expansive windows. It is overflowing with books. It is staffed with four librarians. It will soon have a new technology area.

ribay_whyneedlibraries Photo: Randy Ribay

While we’re making do with what we have, I think it’s to the detriment of our school and our students’ education not to have a library or a single librarian. Even in the Age of the Internet, I have no doubt in my mind all schools still need libraries. Here are some simple reasons why:

  1. It is difficult to track and maintain books. To someone who’s never done it before, it sounds simple enough: students take books and put them back when they’re done. In practice, it’s insanely hard to keep track of who’s checked out what, to track down missing books, to repair them when they become ragged, to organize and shelve and re-shelve, and to order new ones. Trying to do this on top of your teaching duties is insane. It’s almost like it should be a full time job — oh, wait…

  2. Students need a quiet, safe space. While the image of the surly librarian with a shushing finger pressed to her lips has become a cliché, the fierce defense of a silent space is important. Students need a shared quiet space where they can go in order to read, study, research, collaborate, decompress, or just find sanctuary from the noisy world.

  3. We need book experts. Every time I’m faced with a reluctant reader, I feel like my challenge is to find THE BOOK that will turn that kid into a reader. This requires a vast knowledge of what’s out there, and certainly this varies from teacher to teacher. I believe I’m more well-read in YA than your average English teacher, but I’m limited mostly to my own tastes. So an in-house expert would simply increase the probability that a reader would end up with the right books in his hands.

For now, we’ll keep doing our best with our little classroom libraries. But if you’re a super-wealthy philanthropist who wants to build my school a library, let me know. To revise Cicero’s famous quote, a school without a library is like a body without a soul.
Randy Ribay
Randy Ribay
Randy Ribay teaches high school English at an all-boys charter school in Philadelphia and is a regular reviewer for The Horn Book Guide. He holds a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Colorado and an Ed.M. in Language & Literacy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is the author of An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes (Merit Press, Oct 2015).
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Randy Ribay

Jenn, I agree that a librarian would not be able to magically match EVERY kid with books that will turn them onto reading (and I'm sad you didn't have a good experience with reading in school!), but I definitely think they increase the odds of that happening. A teacher who brings knowledge of their students working with a librarian who brings a vast knowledge of what's out there (not just the "classics") creates the optimal conditions, in my opinion. And I certainly think that there are some kids who may not open up to their teachers but may open up to that librarian. Emily, I am probably definitely underselling what school librarians can do. That goes to show just how long it's been since I've worked in a school that had one!

Posted : Aug 03, 2015 12:52


As an aspiring school librarian, I can tell you that you're really underselling what your school librarian can do for you. Volunteers can check in, shelve, catalogue and repair books. Librarians can teach kids good digital citizenship, information literacy, literacy, and a love of learning. In fact, most school librarians push against the idea as quiet space used only for reading. It's now a place for classes, faculty and individuals to learn, collaborate and discover...noisily if need be!

Posted : Jul 31, 2015 02:23


It shocks me how few school have libraries (and when they do how small those libraries are) anymore. However I don't think it's realistic to assume that the school librarian is more likely to pair the right kid up to the right book when they're a reluctant reader. Or at least the librarians I grew up with weren't able to do so. Just like a teacher or anyone else they read the genres that interested them as readers and especially back then it was seldom something a teen reader, especially the reluctant type would find interesting. The librarians could mention what was popular with other kids but if it was popular (modern at the time) ya they probably hadn't actually read it. They could explain the card catalog to me and point me in the direction of the right research section for a project but as far a what to read I got my recommendations from other peers. The school librarian was more likely to recommend stuff like Gone With the Wind if I was looking for something to read. To this day I've never really had the desire to read the tome that is Gone With The Wind. I own a copy I found at a yard sale, I keep thinking I really should read this and I think it's sat there for a decade by now totally unopened. Even if the school librarian is an avid YA and Middle Grade reader, there are simply too many children in one school to expect one person to understand them enough to fit all of them to the right titles. Or to find the right methods to entice every one. The teacher whose only paired with 20 or 30 of said kids is more likely to understand all of their interests than the person who's tasked with meeting the needs of hundreds of children. And to be one hundred percent honest I'm not convinced that schools can teach a love of reading just because if it had been my school trying to get me to read based on the titles they shoved at me for teaching purposes I don't think I'd be a reader. Sure those books had a lot of great themes, lesson and historical value, but most of the ones I was asked to read were dry and boring. I learned my love of reading from my parents, particularly my Dad who'd spend part of almost every day reading some sort of paperback western in the living room with Headline news playing on the tv that he was completely ignoring. As a reader himself he understood pairing up the books to my interests and finding the ones that would appeal to me in the same way those old battered westerns appealed to him. He talked not only about why he liked his books but how interesting the people were that created him. Like I want to say it was L'Amour who was the one he liked that was sort of a vagabond just randomly traveling the country and taking odd jobs for a good portion of his life so that he had a better idea of different view points. My point is it's not just about knowing the books it's about knowing the kids because my sons aren't going to pick up Sweet Valley Twins and enjoy the adventures of Jessica and Elizabeth. I just don't feel one person tasked with seeing to the reading needs of an average sized school is capable of knowing all those kids to the point of being able to pair them to the right book. I always saw my school library as the place to find the books for homework assignments. Most of my personal reading and the stuff that made me love reading came from elsewhere.

Posted : Jun 25, 2015 06:32

Randy Ribay

Beth, I' don't feel the probably is laziness as much as it is distraction. There are just so many things we can do these days instead of reading a book or conducting deep, sustained research. Of course, I think we lose something with that and so I completely agree about the importance of fostering a love for reading at a young age (the kind of love Tracy talks about). I also think, though, good parents/teachers/librarians can foster that love in older kids, as well. Lila, thanks for asking about book donations and for doing what you did for your daughter's school. However, our school does have a good book-buying budget for the classroom libraries I refer to in the post. Our biggest problem is space. We're in a small building that simply doesn't have any unused rooms/areas.

Posted : Jun 25, 2015 01:45


Is there a way to donate books to this school? and Have they thought of asking parents to volunteer. My daughters school did not have a library, so we took 2 unused rooms and a parent volunteered to take a wall down and build shelves and then I (a parent volunteer) called places for donations and taught the teachers how to check out books...I went after work and took care of the library and would go on my lunch hour to read to different classes in the library, so there are other alternatives...They could ask for bookshelves, books, magazines(appropriate for the age) I imagine there maybe someone who would love to help.

Posted : Jun 25, 2015 02:21

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