I suspect that most of us take school libraries for granted. It’s a given that a school has a library, right? Along with the gym, cafeteria and classrooms there is, of course, a library full of books. This is utterly unremarkable. But of course, the existence and quality of a school library is not at all a given, as I learned in a recent conversation with East Sider Sarah Morenon. She retired in June from her career as a school librarian in the Providence Public Schools, most recently at Nathanael Greene Middle School, where she was part of the faculty for 15 years.
Morenon became a school librarian mid-career, deciding to leave a 20-year career at the Social Security Administration to earn a Masters degree in library science at the University of Rhode Island and follow her passion for books and learning. Morenon’s love for middle school kids and passion for the books that light up their minds is wildly infectious, making it abundantly clear that she chose her second career wisely.
Morenon shared with me what it took for her to build an impressive collection of 15,000 books at Greene, which currently educates 1,000 sixth through eighth graders. In recent years, there has been no predictable budget allocation to buy new books. This is true throughout the Providence Public Schools. Morenon brought books into Greene’s library through donations and fundraising efforts. She made a serious effort to be familiar with every book on the shelves so she could perform what is, in her own view, the essential function of a school librarian’s job: “To match the right book with each kid so they could stay in love with reading.” This means, of course, that good school librarians know not only the books but also the young people who enter their domains. School librarians do more than facilitate the literary lives of students, but that’s the core of their profession, in Morenon’s view. She points out that due to the demands made on classroom teachers, the librarian is often the only person in a school, and sometimes in a child’s life, to inspire and facilitate reading simply for pleasure – an essential part of education and modern human experience.
She worries that in some schools, the lack of full-time school librarians makes it far less likely that kids will connect with books that they love. Several elementary schools in the district, including Vartan Gregorian Elementary School, don’t have full-time librarians. When the librarian isn’t present, the school library is often shut. This also happens when school librarians are pulled away for other responsibilities such as lunch supervision. This is a common practice that reduces the already sparse time during the school day when librarians can connect with students and collaborate with classroom teachers to support their teaching and connect with students to inspire their reading. As Morenon says, “I worry that the district may not be using us wisely.”
In Morenon’s view, when school librarians are seen as “utility players” on a school staff, rather than key personnel with a specific role, Providence may be less likely to attract top candidates for open school library positions. The diminishment of the school librarian’s role also has real consequences for educational equity. According to research gathered by the American Association of School Librarians, the lack of well-trained, dedicated school librarians and high-quality school libraries can significantly reduce student achievement, a loss felt most acutely in urban schools.
Morenon suggested ways that you can help ensure sure that the school libraries in our neighborhood remain vibrant places for learning. Book donations are always welcome, though please remember that, as Morenon says, “It’s the librarian’s decision.” School librarians know what they need and cannot necessarily serve as a dumping ground for all titles. If time permits, you can connect with Inspiring Minds, the nonprofit that organizes school volunteers in Providence, and work with a school librarian directly. If nothing else, you should view school libraries with new appreciation and understanding that every book on the shelves and in a student’s hands is there because of a school librarian’s efforts and dedication.