Rethinking a Small School Library

Three years ago, I retired from the small independent school where I’d worked for twelve years. The last ten I spent getting my library certification, while building the library and library programming there.
It was hard to leave but time to go, with family needs and the publishing company left to me by my Dad calling on my time and my heart.
But that library led me to my true calling, I believe, and they really never got rid of me, once I was able to go back as a sub the past two years. I’d shelve books and exclaim over the new acquisitions, and happily talk books with the kids (and teachers!) in the hallway and classroom.
Three years later, I have the opportunity to be a part of the school improvement plan in ways none of us could have imagined all those years ago, when I was growing a library from shelves full of used books and a room full of promise.
While others prepare to deliver curriculum in the library, I am redesigning the collection for a move to new teaching spaces after this coming school year.
The first job is a total weed of the collection, something which can never happen completely while also fulfilling a teaching and duty schedule. Over the years, this task has grown to somewhat daunting proportions.
One could say that moving a school from two buildings to one is a sad thing, that it is a downsizing of the program. Really, though, this is a right-sizing of the program designed to serve this small school population while resources grow.
My job, building a library collection that reflects the mission and vision of the school while it shrinks to fit smaller spaces, is one example of the thoughtful approach to these changes. Our school is authorized for the Middle Years Programme of the International Baccalaureate, serving students grades 6-8. The school is actively pursuing application for the Primary Years Programme, which serves early childhood through middle grade students.
Using best library practices, I’m working to make this the best possible library for our school community. I’m using the following points to approach each book we have in the library.
Does the collection include diverse voices and viewpoints? Do windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors exist in the choices of the books we choose for our students? Could ANY student find themselves reflected somewhere in our library, and could ANY student learn about people with different experiences and viewpoints than their own there?
Did we practice due diligence in examining our personal biases as we decide which books serve our community the very best way? Can we offer teachers and families a wide selection of really great books, including those that exemplify the IB’s ten Learner Profile traits?
Next, I use circulation statistics to inform my decision about a book. If no one has checked out a book that is more than ten years old in the past five years, it’s got to go, unless I happen to know that it a hidden gem no one could find before.
The last gauge I use is age (science, geography and other areas are outdated faster than others). The copyright date is one checkpoint, but smelly books always go(ewww),no matter how special!
Library staff has performed these weeding exercises by section as they were able to in the past, but this move provides great motivation to get the whole job done on the entire library, and I’m making progress. When I’m finished, the remaining collection will fit into the new teaching spaces being designed for them throughout the school, the collection will be accessible to everyone, and the great books that have in some cases been hidden within the vast number of volumes will be visible and ready to share!
It is so exciting to be part of something that will add value to a school so dear to my heart. I’m very happy to back in the bookstacks to be making a difference, also to peek between the covers of favorite middle grade books I recommended or have on my own TBR pile, and to geek out in the land of the well- designed library catalog, one of my weird and wonderful passions.

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Valerie Stein
In fourth grade, Valerie Stein touched an ancient artifact from an archaeological dig. Though she never got to travel the world in search of buried treasure, she ended up journeying to new and exciting places between the pages of books. Now she spends her time researching history, in museums and libraries, which is like archaeology but without the dirt. Valerie’s book, THE BEST OF IT: A JOURNAL OF LIFE, LOVE AND DYING, was published in 2009. Her current work focuses on historical fiction set in Washington State. Valerie is proprietor of Homeostasis Press, and blogs at The Best of It. She manages Gather Here, an online history site for middle grade readers and teachers.
  1. This was an incredibly interesting post! I love hearing about the inner workings of school libraries and the challenging processes that go into the creation of collections. Thanks for all that you’ve done and all that you’re doing!

    • Thank you, Jessica! There is, indeed, so much thought that goes into library teaching spaces. Sometimes making it all work right can be daunting, but I’m so fortunate that we have an amazing, committed, supportive administration and board.

  2. Valerie, this takes me back. I had the opportunity to do this kind of weeding in two different elementary school libraries over the course of my 25 years in the Hillsboro, Oregon School District, and I loved it! In one case the books had outgrown the shelves, and made the library unappealing and difficult to navigate. In the process I found books that had been handed down from a closed library in another school, many of them 40 years old or more. It was immensely satisfying to create more space so that the good books we kept could breathe.

    The other project came in another library when we were getting ready to put barcodes on all of our books before going to our first computer system. It didn’t make sense to enter books that were outdated, ugly, or uninteresting, so out they went. I involved my sixth grade classes in evaluating our dinosaur section and some of the geography section, too. They could check condition, copyright, and validity, comparing older books to newer ones with similar or more up to date information. Again, I got a lot of satisfaction out of a task that is so hard to get to in the day-to-day operation of library, but is so important. Now that I’m retired, I’ve weeded my own personal collection as I’ve downsized my living space, and I find that I rarely miss the books I’ve removed.

    I wish you well in finishing your project. I cherish the years I spent in the library, and I know you do, too.

    • Thanks so much, Kathy! I don’t miss some things about teaching kids, but one thing I do miss is engaging them in the pieces of library improvement that help them, too. Your 6th grade action with specific weeding tools they could use in evaluation is near and dear to my heart!