Come in to Libraryland

At the entrance of my library are a series of glass panels and a double glass paneled door. Bella stands in front of the closed door with hands clasped and nose up to the window, intently looking in. First in line means she is the line leader for her class coming to the library today, a role first graders take seriously and Bella cherishes. As I reach out to open the door to begin our time together in the library, Bella says in her brightest, biggest voice,“Good morning, Ms. GT. How are the books today?” I smile hearing this honest question. These first graders are certain that I, the librarian, have quite readily discerned how the books are feeling at this moment and with that authority, I will tell them.

Many - no matter their age - ­hold the notion that a librarian is a gatekeeper; the one who controls access to books and to information. This thinking is comfortable. It relinquishes control and responsibility to another, that is, to the one in charge, who holds the answers. This worked when resources, authority structures, and physical library spaces were configured differently as during my early undergraduate years. To request some books, I filled  out a little form and presented it to the librarian at the desk. She (always she) then disappeared into the caged, locked book stack to retrieve the resource that I wanted to borrow.

Several days after first graders came to the library, twenty two seventh graders slumped in chairs facing the Smartboard. I was ready with clicker in hand to deliver an all-encompassing start-of-the year PowerPoint library introduction. Seventh graders, I determined, needed to know.

“Can we just borrow a book?”,  Adam loudly blurted out in the middle of my presentation.

I stopped talking. PowerPoint slide number five of twenty­five hovered on the Smart Board. Everyone went quiet. “Book borrow?”

“Yeah” answered Adam, “Just get up and get a book we want to read and check it out.” Students adjusted straight up in their chairs, staring at me. The class continued quiet. Cautiously, I closed my laptop. Nervously, I announced, “Ah...okay, ah...go ahead, get a book.” They bolted out of their chairs, quickly scattering among the many bookshelves.

Adam challenged my librarian identity in that moment.This was when that librarian gatekeeper gate notion swung right back and smacked me in the butt! Bella and those young first graders were so eager, so ready to devour the rows of library books like a bag of Oreos. For the class of seventh graders, it was painfully clear to me that the pre­packed library program presentation was not at all a tasty cookie. As Adam asserted, they had their own ideas and needs. Older students had come to the library for the past seven years; they didn’t need to ask me how the books felt today. They were more than half way through the gates of learning, acclimated to resources, able to find their own just right book. So why was I talking so much? My challenge became figuring out how to be true to student developmental needs and learning while also meeting meaningful benchmark skills for literacy and information inquiry.

I started to wonder where there might be other seemingly locked gates in the library, even though they didn’t resemble those caged book stacks I experienced in college. I wanted all gates for learning in the library open to all students. More importantly, I desired all students to discover, that each and every one of them was destined to become their own gatekeeper.

Outside the library door and down the hall there was quickening change. Grade sections were growing with a mixture of newly settled families, additional English Language Learners, and more students in classrooms with one-to-one adult aides. Academic curriculum was expanding by  aligning to targeted state standards or adopting content specific Common Core objectives. New initiatives were accelerating too. Some were re-identified with freshly pertinent role descriptors of coach, specialist, collaborator and co-teacher. Other activities came by way of an alphabet soup of acronyms: BAS, CST, STEM, and RETELL.

These outside issues easily jumped right over the gate into the library! On the library inside, fitting classes into the usual 30 or 40 minute time blocks on a predictable schedule of days to learn a particular, predetermined topic seemed to only limit other opportunities. Larger projects that sought to integrate research skills and class study on Community Helpers or Biography, had to endure a week­long gap between starting and actually doing.

Students, teachers, and I began asking a lot of questions about our work together. Scheduling time in the library began to take different forms to better accommodate a variety of schedules, for a variety of purposes. First graders came to expect book borrowing time to be their main goal during their weekly visit to the Library. After all, it was serious work developing their skill set to browse and to find a just right book. Flexible time blocks on consecutive days were carved out for what those larger curriculum projects needed. Sometimes it would look like two back-to-back learning days in the library, two days of work in the classroom, and a time returning to the library for reflection. The clarity of intention and the consistency of time brought a new momentum and spirit to all of our K-8 library-classroom connections.

Questions also replaced lengthy, lecturing PowerPoints. Seventh graders now start by asking What do I expect to be able to do and demonstrate as a library user and information seeker by the end of 7th grade? Who am I as a reader? I meet with teacher grade level teams and we ask similar questions. No time to waste - what’s working for kids? What is that one project to collaborate on to achieve library and classroom goals with students active and engaged?

At Martin Sleeper Library, even the youngest students know I manage the rows and rows of books, the iPads, the desktop computers, and the Chromebooks. Tending to the materials and the reading spaces is what librarians do.

Yet, what I have learned anew is that this idea of “librarian-as-gatekeeper” is not to directly or subtly keep students or staff out. Or to mystify book organization. Or to have the final answers. Rather, I need to hold the gate open for opportunities; to ask questions, to explore, to find information, and to try new initiatives. With gentle guidance and my own inquisitiveness, I escort students through the library learning gates. They will in turn become their own gatekeepers. And that is how I teach students from kindergarten to eighth grade and that is how I run my library.

At the end of the school day, I glance around the library. There are piles of books everywhere from book buzzing talks by students, papers are still scattered on tables from an online scavenger hunt activity, colorful shelf markers stick out of picture book shelves marking the many spots students sought to find a book to borrow. The Circulation Desk is overflowing with books for me to check in (no one has handed me a little slip!).I imagine my orderly, undergraduate librarian perched on a nearby bookshelf, arms crossed, frowning at the chaos.

Standing back for a moment, I smile. In my brightest,  biggest voice I say out loud, “I know that the books feel just great today!”, after all, “I am the librarian.”