The Day School Library: Vital Link Between Information and the Classroom
Most educators acknowledge that libraries are a crucial component of a functioning and well-run school. Most do, but unfortunately not all—not by a long shot. It’s a sad fact that when budget cuts are required (as they so often are), libraries, along with programs like art and music, are among the first things to be eliminated.
Day school administrators often have to manipulate finances with all the dexterity and aplomb of a Ringling Brothers Circus juggling act. When staring at the bottom line, they are tempted to cut the ostensibly negligible “perk” of the school library or library/media center.
This is a big mistake.
In this era of changing and emerging technology, libraries are more crucial than ever. A trained school librarian (or school library media specialist) works in conjunction with teachers and administrators to enrich the curriculum, plan lessons, create interdisciplinary programs, and generally support the atmosphere of learning and education that a school values.
The librarian is a bridge from student to teacher to administration. He or she is trained to be resourceful, to both create and implement programming that is fun as well as educational, and that enthuses students, teachers and parents alike.
There are endless options for teacher-librarian and administration-librarian collaboration. As a high school librarian, I create pathfinders and research guidelines for teachers on a regular basis, organizing research and resources geared toward a specific project, which I often help a teacher create. I then go into the classroom (or invite students to the library) and walk them through the research process for that particular project or paper. Instead of students floundering about with the research method, a librarian will ground them, point them in the right direction and give them a running start. It goes without saying the quality of work turned in by these students just can’t compare with students who aren’t provided with research guidelines and training. Guess how many of them will just Google it?
Even before teachers assign research papers and projects, a librarian is the perfect person to help formulate those assignments. I’ve designed a plagiarism prevention workshop, helping teachers to craft assignments which are plagiarism-proof and to get creative with the wording and presentation of assignments so students wouldn’t even know how to begin to plagiarize. Here is where the tech-savvy librarian plays an ideal role. In the 21st century, assignments can involve photos, videos, music and other forms of multimedia instead of pen and paper. Not only are those types of assignments harder to plagiarize, but any contemporary librarian worth her salt has already integrated those types of media into the research process.
Librarians devote much time to collection development. By meeting with teachers and administrators, they can focus and streamline that process to ensure that the library’s books reflect the educational values of the school. The nonfiction collection should support what teachers discuss and assign. The fiction collection should be varied enough to reach students of all ages, interests and levels. And providing access to age-appropriate and reliable online resources is the school librarian’s raison d’être.
School librarians have mountains of ideas to make reading and books enjoyable for students—all students, not just the J.K. Rowling addicts. Displays, contests, 3D printers and makerspaces, storytimes for the little ones and movie nights for the teens: the school library and its librarian are chock full of programming ideas to bring children into the library and introduce them to the magical process that is reading for pleasure. Events I have worked on, planned, or I’m just keeping in my pocket for a rainy day include author visits and guest speaker events, book clubs, Internet safety workshops, reading challenges, and social media outreach to students.
There’s a longstanding tradition of literacy and education in Judaism. Jewish parents are commanded to teach their children—and how can one teach without being at least somewhat learned? The People of the Book become meaningless if the Children of the Book aren’t given access to, well, books! An up-to-date library collection, educational and religious literacy, and a love of reading go hand in hand.
According to Evans, Kelly and Sikora (“Scholarly Culture and Academic Performance in 42 Nations,” Social Forces 92.4), there’s a proven connection between access to books and educational level; not even wealth is a stronger factor in predicting educational achievement. For Jewish day schools, this relationship is thrown into even sharper relief: a school library full of interesting, exciting and relevant books means a degree of knowledge about what books mean, what they can do, how important they are and how to treat them. Respect for books is respect for learning, and by extension, respect for the traditions of the People of the Book.
In a perfect world, every Jewish home would be overflowing with works of Torah in the original Hebrew. Children and their parents would be familiar with the most esoteric of commentaries and would be comfortable reading works of parshanut and Halakhah in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, Yiddish or Ladino. We don’t live in a perfect world. A child who has no access to actual Tanakh, Talmud, traditional liturgy, Hebrew poetry, responsa etc. at home should be able to correct that lack at school. It’s part of the reason we send our children to Jewish day schools in the first place.
Which begs the question: how do these ancient and beautiful sources fit into our contemporary, increasingly digital world? Is there any overlap at all between the Dead Sea Scrolls and a library coding workshop or a makerspace with a 3D printer?
Of course there is—just ask your librarian!
Creating and maintaining a school library with not only secular electronic resources but Judaic ones is the perfect way to bring the past and the present, and maybe even the future, together. Students can interact with digital scans of the original Mishnah Torah signed by Maimonides at HaRambam.org to connect with him as a historical person. Or watch the geography of ancient and medieval Israel come to life at Old Maps Online. Sefaria.org is constantly updating their databases of full-text Tanakh, Talmud, Midrash with English translations—all open-source. Imagine what a skilled librarian could supplement that with, once given the ability to subscribe to paid Judaic databases.
For the first time in more than fifty years, the federal government is beginning to acknowledge the importance of school libraries and librarians. This past December, ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) was signed into law, providing federal revenue for school libraries to enhance services and resources. Librarians are officially recognized as “specialized instructional support personnel.” Since so much of library work is invisible, this is no small accomplishment, and it’s a step towards recognizing the absolutely vital function of libraries in schools.
Libraries will keep moving forward as the way people obtain and process information continues to evolve. More and more, children are being exposed to huge masses of information on a daily basis. Who better to teach them information literacy and critical evaluation skills than those sentries of information, librarians? Through access to school libraries, students can grow up assessing digital content and making good choices. And in Jewish places of learning, Judaic and digital resources will continue to overlap, change, evolve and grow, becoming ever more seamlessly integrated for the coming generations. Anticipating this by emphasizing the value of the library towards your school’s mission is the most prescient thing a Jewish day school administrator can do.