The ‘Transformative Community Based Library’ in School Librarianship

By Clare Nolan

It is almost taken for granted that the goal of Librarianship is to serve the needs of the communities that utilize the library. However, that concept raises the question of how exactly librarians should serve those needs. Do librarians decide what is best for their communities? Do they select books and materials that they specifically deem valuable? Or does the community get a say in what exactly will satisfy its needs? Rather than separate the librarian and the patron, we should instead look at them as part of the same community, where both the opinion of the library and the opinion of community come together to create a space where both views have equal weight.

In their article “Transformative Library Pedagogy and Community Based Libraries: A Freirean Perspective,” Martina Rielder and Mustafa Yunus propose the idea of the “Transformative Community Based Library (TCBL)”.1 They write:

The TCBL model identifies libraries as democratic and educational sites for a community of learners who construct library practices as an interactive process between the present and the future of the community. It therefore encourages library visitors to reflect critically on the information provided, not simply as individual learners but as politically aware members of a community. (201o, p.93)

The TCBL is based on the Paulo Freire’s model of education, presented in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which bucks against the traditional “banking” model of education where teachers communicate set knowledge and students memorize that information in order to repeat it back.2 The Freirean model of education proposes that teacher and student work together in the learning process, that the student has a base of existing knowledge that can be expanded on by the teacher, and that the teacher is capable of learning from the student. For example, a traditional classroom might be solely lecture-based, but a Freirean classroom would be seminar/discussion based, putting student voices on the same level as that of their instructor.

While Freire was specifically talking about the classroom, it is easy to see how the banking model vs. the Freirean model applies to libraries. A banking approach to Librarianship would be a library where all decisions are made by the library, and the community is merely presented with materials that has been deemed worthwhile for said community. The community uses only those materials, and little growth occurs. Meanwhile, the Feirean approach to Librarianship would be the TCBL, a library where there is a constant dialogue between the library and the community, resulting in a library that fully serves its community and provides community enhancement. The TCBL recognizes that the patrons and the community are integral parts of the process of library development, and that libraries have the ability to be centers of community empowerment and transformation.

Rielder and Yunus seem to speak more about the TCBL as a library that serves a larger community, such as a neighborhood. However, the TCBL model can be applied to many different fields of librarianship and many different kind of communities. One such field that would greatly benefit from the TCBL model is the field of School Librarianship, particularly school libraries that serve primary and secondary schools.

School libraries are supposed to be spaces that not only enhance the curriculum and provide guidance on the appropriate use of information, but also spaces that foster a real love of learning and reading. Three of the nine Information Literacy Standards set by the American Association of School Librarians refer to this goal, stating that the students up to standard should: “pursue information related to personal interests”, “appreciate literature and other creative expressions of information”, and “strive for excellence in information and knowledge generation” (1998, p. 8-9).3 Yet, many libraries, particularly secondary libraries, are not always utilized in ways that would help students to meet these standards. In fact, many students see the library as a place to spend a free period or avoid rather than a space they can use to enhance their education, let alone find material to be used outside of the classroom.

Why is this? Perhaps it is because many school libraries do not necessarily feel like community spaces to students. The library’s collection may only contain books that pertain to the curriculum, or may only have books that the librarian deems appropriate for the students without student input. The Library Media Specialist may barely interact with the students. I recall in my own high school library that while I spent a lot of time there doing homework, I don’t think I ever exchanged more than a few words with my high school LMS. She was completely separate from her students. This kind of library, like the banking model of education, may be adequate for providing set knowledge to the community (coming from the school district, state standards, curriculum needs, etc.), but it does nothing to really help its core community (the students) learn and thrive. It attempts to serve a community that it is disconnected from, and so it fails.

However, a library that follows the TCBL model, and really partners with its students, has the ability to actually succeed in its goals to promote information literacy and passion for reading and learning. If students feel that they have a voice in the development and management of the library, it stops being a space that they can be in and becomes a space that they take ownership of. Rielder and Yunus write “If learning involves the ability to negotiate new meanings and become a new person, it requires a space, a community, a counter public within which learners can engage with others in joint practice” (2010, p.95). In the context of the school library, the students have to feel like their library truly represents their needs and their interests, not just the needs and interests that the school district says they’re supposed to have. This type of library is what really drives learning outside of the classroom and strengthens a students education.

There are Library Media Specialists who are developing libraries that really do represent their communities needs and interests, with strong results. For example, the School Library Journal recently reported on the LMS at Chicago’s Wendell Phillips Academy High School: K.C. Boyd. When Boyd first started teaching as the LMS at Wendell Phillips, the school library was underutilized by the student body. Boyd had to “drag kids” into the library, but now the students come willingly and the library is one of the most popular spaces in the school.4 How did Boyd accomplish this? By paying attentions to what her community, her students, needed from the library and shaping the library around those needs.

K.C. Boyd working with students in the Wendell Phillips library. Taken from School Library Journal.

Boyd began to purchase manga, poetry, supernatural stories, and street lit for her library because it was what her students wanted.5 School Library Journal’s Mahnaz Dar notes that many educators may shy away from the street lit genre, but Boyd has proved that it has an important place in her library. Dar writes:

Boyd’s willingness to purchase these titles shows a deep understanding and perception of her community. Many of her students come from neighborhoods where violence or crime is common. She can warn them against risky or dangerous behavior, she says, but “if they read a story with characters in similar situations, that story sits with them much more than what I would ever say. Street lit feeds into the social and emotional issues my students are dealing with.”6

Boyd, as an LMS, has created a library where the students are active participants in how their library runs, how collections development works, and how they learn and engage with information. Like a teacher might work with a student in the Freirean model of education, Boyd recognizes that she must help her students shape their own education process rather than tell them what their education process will be. Boyd’s library, which matches the description of the TCBL, has proved to be very effective. The school’s ranking has improved, ACT scores are higher, and the Class of 2014 collectively earned $2.3 million in scholarship funds.7 While, of course, there are other factors in play, and Boyd is not solely responsible for these changes, she certainly plays an important role in her school’s improvement by managing a library that represents and incorporates the student community.

The Transformative Community Based Library model is extremely beneficial to school librarianship, especially since the model has its roots in education theory. If the field of classroom education wants to move away from the banking model, why shouldn’t the school library follow suit? Library Media Specialists, like Boyd, have shown that the TCBL model is effective, and better helps students achieve information literacy standards. There will be barriers like budgeting, district regulations, and administrative support, but overall, if schools adopt the TCBL model, they will better serve their community and provide real enrichment for their students.

  1. Rielder, M and Yunus, M. (2010). Transformative library pedagogy and community based libraries: a freirean perspective. In G. J. Leckie, L. M. Given and J. E. Buschman (Eds). Critical theory for library and information science. (pp. 89-99). Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.
  2. Freire, P. (1968). The pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic. Reprinted in 2000.
  3. The American Association of School Librarians and The Association for Educational Communications and Technology. (1998). Information power: building partnerships for learning. Chicago, IL: American Library Association.
  4. Daz, M. (2014). Chicago hope: high school librarian k.c. boyd. School library journal, October vol. Retrieved from http://www.slj.com/2014/10/librarians/chicago-hope-high-school-librarian-k-c-boyd/
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.

Class, Access and Activism in Chicago Public School Libraries

By SrrhHamerman

Protest against Chicago school closings, via In These Times

Protest against Chicago school closings, via In These Times

 

In spring 2013, the Chicago Public School system attracted national attention for the unprecedented closing of 54 schools and layoffs of more than 2,100 employees. The closings confirmed the fears that motivated the Chicago Teachers Union’s historic fall 2012 strike, in which tens of thousands of teachers walked out of the job for nearly two weeks. Over a year later, Chicago’s public school students are facing another challenge: the continuing decline of library resources and professional library staff in the schools. While the dismantling of professionally staffed school libraries pose serious labor concerns for Chicago’s certified teacher-librarians, it also exacerbates information inequality in a school district that primarily serves minority and low-income students.

Over the past two school years, the number of librarians in Chicago’s public schools has been cut nearly in half, from 454 in the 2012-13 school year budget to just 254 this year. Only 38 percent of the schools welcoming students from the recently-closed schools have a professional librarian, compared with only 55 percent of schools in the district overall. The decrease is not a result of a diminished hiring pool, and it is only an indirect result of the mass layoffs of 2013. Rather, “student-based” rebudgeting has forced principals to make difficult decisions either to dismiss librarians or reassign them to fill vacant classroom teaching positions. Of the schools that have standalone libraries, many are now staffed either by part-time clerks or parent volunteers.

This reorganization of library labor within the schools points to the pernicious effects of austerity management and neoliberal policy on public education. As Nauratil writes in The Alienated Librarian, “The bottom-line measure of success in the private sector is profit. When this model is superimposed on a traditionally nonprofit organization, that organization’s own goals, structure, and character are jeopardized,” (Nauratil 75). How can school librarians fulfill their professional commitment to information democracy and equal access when their jobs are jeopardized by a city administration more committed to the interests of private corporations than the human rights of its most underserved (student) populations?[1]

Statistics published by Chicago Teachers’ Union on librarian employment in public vs. private schools demonstrate the ways in which access to library education is undeniably a class issue. CPS schools, which serve 87% low-income students, lack librarians in nearly 50 percent of schools. 100% of Chicago’s elite private schools have professional librarians. As CTU’s report states:

A school library is integral to every child’s education and shouldn’t be available only to students in wealthy schools… school librarians support information needs and integrate literacy development across the curriculum and across grade development.

Beyond reading skills, librarians promote digital information literacy and facilitate more self-directed learning experiences. Without instructing students in how to evaluate, retrieve, and manipulate information sources, we risk reproducing class inequalities by leaving low-income students under-equipped to navigate and empower themselves within a digital information economy.

In response to criticisms about decreases in school librarians and library access CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett attributed hiring decisions to individual principals, who must decide how to allocate funds for their schools. In addition, Byrd-Bennett promised digitally enhanced libraries in every welcoming school and iPads for all students in grades 3-8. While incorporating new technologies into the classroom seems positive, their value is diminished without specialized library and media instruction. Boasting of new technologies without tackling the fraught pedagogical situation in the schools belies a situation in which school boards award expensive contracts to high-tech corporations rather than hire skilled laborers to address students’ media education needs. Following Peter McDonald’s thesis in “Corporate Inroads and Librarianship,” we must question whether technological advancement masks the intrusion of the “paradigm of corporate hegemony” into the library (McDonald 9). I doubt that iPads for every student substantially address the educational needs of inner city students facing issues such as racial inequality, economic disparity, high crime rates, and police brutality.

Advocacy and Resistance: Learning from La Casita

Community members fight to save La Casita, 2011 (photo by Brett Jelinek, via saveourcenter.com)

Community members fight to save La Casita, 2011 (photo by Brett Jelinek, via saveourcenter.com)

Chicago Teachers’ Union, library advocacy groups, parents, and community members continue to fight to provide students with the library resources that they deserve. Beyond the labor issues in school libraries, these groups have pointed out how the dismantling of the public school system perpetuates structures of class and racial oppression. While the battle may be an uphill one, it is crucial to continue to challenge CPS budget-centered, neoliberal approach to education.

Perhaps the most inspiring challenge to the lack of school libraries came from the parents of Whittier Elementary School in Chicago’s mostly Latino Pilsen neighborhood. As the school had no dedicated library, parents turned a field house on the premises, affectionately termed “La Casita,” into a library and community center. When police threatened to demolish La Casita in September 2011, dozens of Whittier parents – mostly mothers – staged a sit-in for forty-three days and nights, demanding that the building be renovated into a library. The district had other plans: they wanted to remove the school’s special education classroom to make room for a library inside the building. During the sit-in, La Casita continued to serve as a community center, offering a collection of 2,500 books, ESL classes, sewing classes and other resources. When the occupation ended, school officials agreed to re-allocate the demolition funds to renovate the building according to the community members’ plans. However, work was not begun, and on a Friday night in summer 2013, the city sent in a demolition crew to bulldoze the field house. Of the more than 200 protesters (including myself) who gathered that evening, 10 were arrested. CPS has converted the former library into an astro-turf field and basketball courts.

Though community members no longer exchange skills and knowledge at La Casita, the center provides a key alternative model for how libraries can empower underserved communities. Forged out of direct action rather than state standards, La Casita provided materials and participatory experiences that addressed a minority student community whose educational needs were being denied by the state. Moreover, the parents and students who gathered there learned to articulate their needs and desires and forge political identities in a process of class struggle. The movement echoes the radical pedagogy outlined in Paolo Friere’s seminal “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” Learning from La Casita, I would encourage teacher-librarians to partner with parents and activist groups, offering their skills as informational specialists to help communities challenge educational inequalities in their own voices, in their own terms. While school and public libraries are critical for empowering people with information, we can’t reach this ideal through one institution. Along with open access media, self-directed community centers can allow people to activate knowledge to transform their everyday lives.

[1] At the time of the budget cuts, mayor Rahm Emanuel also approved the expenditure of $195 million of public money on a new stadium for DePaul University, attracting wide criticism. The incident builds on a track record of supporting private-sector growth, particularly in the areas of tourism and entertainment.

Additional References:

McDonald, Peter. “Corporate Inroads and Librarianship: The Fight for the Soul of the Profession in the New Millennium.” Questioning Library Neutrality: Essays from Progressive Librarian. Ed. Alison M. Lewis. Duluth, MN: Library Juice, 2008. 9-24. Print.

Nauratil, Marcia J. The Alienated Librarian. New York: Greenwood, 1989.

 

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