Not long ago the New Milford High School library in New Jersey was pretty traditional. It had tall stacks of books and old wooden tables that didn’t move easily. It was underutilized. Students weren’t drawn to it and, to a large extent, neither were teachers.
Today, it’s a different story. Students stop by the library during their lunch period and come before and after school. Teachers send students down to work on projects during class time or bring their entire classes. With far more people in and out of the library throughout the day, circulation is way up.
What changed? The library itself got a makeover, but school culture did, too.
Laura Fleming became the New Milford High School librarian during a time of transformation. In her first year, she got rid of some bookshelves and created more dynamic seating arrangements. She also started allowing food and drink in the library so students could take advantage of the space during their lunch periods. And she created a makerspace.
Fleming, author of “Worlds of Learning: Best Practices for Establishing a Makerspace for Your School,” says the maker movement has changed the face of school libraries, and hers is no exception. Now in her fifth year at New Milford High School, Fleming has a beautiful, well-stocked makerspace, but early on she largely had to make do with baby steps.
The space, in a corner of the library that wasn’t previously being used for much, took shape over time — old bookshelves were converted into high-top workspaces, an old table got a LEGO plate glued on top of it, and little by little, students had room to create. And it didn’t matter that they didn’t have all the latest tech gadgets at their disposal.
“Makerspaces are about creating a maker culture,” Fleming said. “It’s a mindset. It’s a toolbox at your disposal for reaching kids. That can be done in any space and on any budget.”
Fleming finds some of her most consistent visitors to the makerspace are students who are most disengaged from the traditional curriculum. The library now offers them a place for constructive, creative work.
Many school districts around the country are reversing prior decisions to cut librarians, realizing the school library can be at the heart of a broader digital transformation.
Mark Ray, director of innovation and library services at Vancouver Public Schools in Washington and Future Ready Librarians lead with the Alliance for Excellent Education, points to Bellevue School District in Washington and Beaverton School District in Oregon as examples. Both had cut librarian positions years ago and restored them to help drive their latest work.
The Future Ready Librarians initiative builds off the Alliance’s Future Ready Schools initiative, which asks superintendents to pledge to transition their districts to personalized, digital learning. Ray said it quickly became obvious librarians should be at the center of this effort.
And while the Future Ready Librarians effort follows a long line of initiatives aimed at preserving resources for school libraries, Ray finds the heart of this latest initiative to be different: it’s not about defending libraries, per se, but defending kids and what they need to graduate “Future Ready.” In libraries, they can learn media and digital literacy skills that will prepare them for success in work and life. And the Future Ready Schools offshoot brings the people leading this instruction to the fore.
“It connects librarians to the strategic work of schools,” Ray said. “It’s an opportunity for superintendents and IT leaders and librarians to be talking about the same thing and not working against each other.”
The Alliance’s framework lays out 10 characteristics of Future Ready Librarians: designs collaborative spaces, builds instructional partnerships, empowers students as creators, curates digital resources and tools, facilitates professional learning, ensures equitable digital access, invests strategically in digital resources, cultivates community partnerships, advocates for student privacy, and leads beyond the library. Ray said the areas individual librarians choose to focus on depends on the needs of their students, but highlighted the point about empowering students as creators as one that has particularly captured the attention of school librarians across the country.
For Fleming, her point of entry into the maker movement was through literacy — making and creating with words. She finds libraries have long fostered a participatory culture that can easily embrace creating in other formats. This, it seems, will be their future.