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THE PIPELINE: School Library/Public Library Partnerships

By Stephen Abram - Posted Sep 1, 2011
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This issue of Internet@Schools is the one that arrives just as you’re starting the traditional Northern Hemisphere school year. This is promising to be a challenging year. Many schools and school libraries are threatened with or are sustaining budget cuts and staffing shortages. Many public libraries are in the same boat. It’s not a pretty picture as the effects of the mortgage and economic meltdown and slow recovery play out. That noted, we still show up for work, and so do our learners. They’re still developing and need to prepare to be successful in the emerging new economy. We play a key role in that, and we have to find ways to ensure that we do our best with what we have. If nothing else, our passion for learning, libraries, and our users will sustain us. Our own attitude will play a critical role in our personal motivation and happiness, so let’s support each other, focus on the learner, and do our best.

In times of economic challenge, creativity can increase. We can build new partnerships and find new, improved ways of doing things that may be more cost-effective and impactful. There is a theory that innovation and creativity increase in times of resource constraint. Some innovation experts recommend that innovation efforts be underresourced at times to drive deeper insight, thinking, and creativity. It’s always a good practice to reframe short-term difficulties as longer-term challenges. It takes some of the stress away.

One area of opportunity for serving learners is that of school library (SL) and public library (PL) partnerships and relationships. Many of these have emerged over the years, and some research shows that SL/PL partnerships can increase standardized testing scores above and beyond the transformative school librarian/classroom teacher partnership efforts in this area. Another benefit is that encouraging public library use is a lifelong skill after students have left the K–12 cocoon. In addition, encouraging public library use can have an effect on the community and the whole family. When parents take a child to the local library, siblings may tag along and renew their own cards; thus, awareness of public library reading and other programs increases. It is basically a no-brainer that school libraries should be encouraging public library membership and use. But how? Can this be done in a scalable way?

Here are a dozen simple and complex strategies.


1. Link to your local public library/libraries. Make the public library findable. Provide links to your local libraries’ homepages on the school website. This is a complementary partnership, not a competition. Link to more than the homepage: Include relevant links such as the story hour or program schedules, teen pages, homework helper pages, databases, and the online catalog. This is an expansion of your collection when your own resources are not growing as quickly due to financial constraints.

2. Promote the public library summer reading program. Most public libraries run excellent summer reading programs. Research has shown that these programs increase reading skills, promote a love of reading, and mitigate the decline in skills over the summer break. They’re also fun and often include rewards and prizes. Plan now to do a joint SL/PL campaign in May/June 2012.

3. Run public library card membership campaigns. All children should have public library cards. These cards are one of their first official personal documents that make them a participant in society. Receiving the card can be a proud moment. Partner with the local library to run a campaign in school. Shoot for the moon. Set a goal to have every learner get a card. Then show them how they have access to computers, books, databases, and programs at their other library. This is one of the greatest gifts a school can give to their learners. Do it every year.

4. Know the resources in your local library (print and virtual). Make sure that you’re up-to-date on what’s at the local public library. Times have changed. Many of you serve challenged children who may not have access at home to what is available to more privileged kids. Public libraries bridge that divide when your library is closed. The public access computers, e-readers, music, games, books, magazines, and more are there for all. Every child has a better chance when schools and public libraries partner.

5. Host visits from public library staff. Many public libraries have liaison staff who will do outreach or community work. Determine when this might be appropriate in your school. Do you run a fair? Is there a parent night? Are their special classroom needs that a local librarian can assist with? Can the public librarian teach search skills too and extend your reach?

6. Do a field trip/walking tour of your local branch. Take whole classes to your local library branch or main reference site. These are often within walking distance, so no buses are required. Most public libraries encourage group visits and can do a great dog and pony show of what they have and how they serve kids and teens and support their needs for school and entertainment. All you need to do to start is visit the library and make an appointment to discuss trying this out.


1. Run a training workshop for local public librarians on curriculum. Public librarians are usually not educators as you know them, but they play a key role in education. Many public librarians experienced K–12 learning years ago, before the major changes in education that have taken place over the last 20 years occurred. It’s a good idea to think about a joint conference on the current state of student learners’ needs and goals and to work together to build comprehensive community strategies.

2. Run homework helper sessions at the public library. Some libraries hire teachers to work shifts from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday. Teachers know the curriculum goals. In challenged neighborhoods in particular, they can increase homework completion and learning and therefore school success. This is a good strategy. If you can’t go all the way, then running a homework success “Getting an A” workshop once a week/month can be a great partnership that can build over time.

3. Build tactical training for both public and school librarians. There is a lot of room for knowledge sharing between public and school librarians. Each has different strengths, and the sharing builds stronger relationships. School librarians tend to be better at using Lexiles in databases, understanding state and national curriculum standards, and grade-appropriate resources. Public librarians are often more involved in teen social and entertainment activities, resources related to personal interest and reading habits, and more. Public librarians can learn how to educate (and delay answering reference questions) when working with students. School librarians can develop a deeper understanding of the whole student.

4. Develop a wide area strategy. One successful strategy practiced in some jurisdictions is to tie public and school library cooperation to standards and testing markers. For example, some public librarians target every class in grades 1, 3, 6, 9, and 12—the key testing grades. For each school in the basin surrounding each branch, they seek and acquire the names and email addresses of every school librarian and each teacher for those grades. The workload is spread over several librarians. They target an activity that is to be measured in each level and ensure that library skills are taught to every class jointly by the school and local library. These strategies have been a success for both library usage and learner performance and grades.

5. Pilot special events that include the classroom and both libraries. What special events are there in your school cycle? Can you partner and move your library skills success up to another level? Science fairs are a great place to start. Those involved in school trips (such as graduation tours of Europe) or school plays can take great advantage of public library resources too, using the databases to research places, historical periods, or even sets and costumes. All it takes is some imagination to extend the learning and build an understanding in students that there are lifetime resources in libraries for any project or challenge. We need to breed this understanding in the bone. Everyone learner will be better for it.

6. Hold joint author events. Authors (and illustrators) visit schools. Authors (and illustrators) visit public libraries. Joint planning may get some great people out to both when they’re in town. The same applies to other programs, such as scientists, poets, musicians, etc., in the school. Not every event needs to be shared, but we need to be more open to opportunities. Both facilities have rooms, event spaces, and auditoriums that can be used to benefit both communities.

I’ll bet you have dozens of ideas too.

Lastly, making professional friends with the teams in the school and the public library will pay benefits that are exponential. You’ll build understanding. You’ll see opportunities that weren’t there before. You will spend your scarce resources of money, time, and energy better.

Pursuing SL/PL partnerships is worth the effort. All it takes is an introduction, a handshake, passion, and a dream.

Contact Stephen at

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