Evolution of a School Library

By Jennifer Schwelik
Published on 10/07/2008

Change is the law of life, and those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.
-John Fitzgerald Kennedy

As an American Memory Fellow, I gained a new appreciation of the Library of Congress; more importantly, I gained a new view of libraries and schools. I have always appreciated libraries. Some of my first memories involve finding books at the Lane Public Library in Hamilton, Ohio. This was the only library of my early childhood since our elementary school did not have a library. As a child, portions of the public library came to my school in a “bookmobile,” from which I could choose my own books. When my school established a “library,” it consisted of several bookshelves in a storage-closet-sized room. My middle school and high school each had classroom-sized spaces dedicated as libraries; each school had one person who oversaw the space and took care of the collection, and this was despite the fact that I attended a high school of nearly 2,500 students.

When I became a school librarian, nearly 30 years ago, schools were working toward establishing a dedicated space called a library that had at least two people who cared for the space. One of these people was a librarian. The view I had of school and other libraries for most of the 50 years I have lived is that a library is a physical spot that has books and other materials and a librarian who helps patrons. American Memory changed my view.

American Memory caused a metamorphosis in my thinking from library as a physical place to library as an access point. American Memory helped me realize that my school library patrons need to access their school library collection and a librarian not only during the school day but also from their homes at night or on the weekend. American Memory began the transformation of the Beachwood High School library from a physical space with a print collection to a virtual space with a digital collection that is a reproduction of the print collection still located in the physical space. We now have links within our book catalog to current trade books in an eBook binding. We also have links to American Memory and the collections of 19th-century volumes. We have print periodicals inside our library and eJournals via our website. This is just the beginning.

Stimulated by American Memory, I began my pursuit of a way to communicate electronically with my school-aged patrons while being able to help them find the materials they need in the digital world. After a long search, we will next year launch a virtual reference service that is available on a 24x7 basis as part of a larger consortium of school and public libraries. My students will have the ability to access the collection while being guided on an as-needed basis by librarians and teachers who are online, able to electronically push information and directions to them.

As I think about my students and their future, I realize that the ability to manipulate information in a digital world will be a basic skill for them just as manipulating information in a print world was for me. The Library of Congress through the American Memory project is a model for all libraries, but especially for school libraries. They have developed a model that demonstrates online help menus, online professional idea exchanges like the lesson plans, but most of all online collections in a variety of formats from films to books to periodicals, maps, prints, and photographs.

American Memory is paving the way for school libraries to offer collections that are accessible to students when they need them. The people’s library, the Library of Congress, is providing information that is easily accessed by citizens. No longer do we need to travel to Washington, DC, to read a historical text. The text is available for review from our homes, 24x7. School libraries and teachers have a model to follow so that we can meet the needs of our patrons by providing access to excellent content in a format comfortable and accessible to our students. American Memory helps ensure that the nation’s children are invited to join us in the delight of intellectual pursuits.

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Washington, D.C. Walter Spangenberg studying in the library at Woodrow Wilson High School.
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