As a young Latina girl, I aspired to become a sports journalist. I grew up watching baseball, boxing, and wrestling—sports that the men in my family gathered to watch. I observed in the distance and discovered over time that I had an affinity for sports. And I wrote a lot. A self-described barrio poet, I was that kid from the projects who wrote so I could make sense of things. I wrote so I could escape. I wrote so I could transfer meaningful thoughts to a surface that would allow me to reflect, like a mirror. The combination of these things led me to believe that a career as a sports journalist was possible. One thing led to another, and I decided instead to earn a degree in physical education. I often reflect on this decision and realize that if it were not for the support and mentoring of my eighth-grade art teacher, PE teachers, coaches, and community center personnel, I might not have reached this initial milestone. And for that, I’m immensely thankful.
After college, teaching took a back seat. I started work at a biopharmaceutical company, first as a receptionist and then as an administrative assistant in the business department. I learned to search databases for industry trends and provided assistance in organizing a collection of books. The combination of this work and the advice of a kind soul led me to pursue a master’s in library and information science.
Shortly thereafter, I moved to Florida and found work at a university as an academic librarian providing research assistance online to soldiers stationed around the world. Later, I transitioned to an on-campus position as a reference librarian and got to help students face-to-face. I then decided to support two student organizations on campus: Latinos Unidos and the Caribbean Student Association. I was also asked to represent the university at selected trade shows. I mention these experiences because I know that the relationships I built with these students and the conversations I had with prospective students gave me reason to believe that I could do more to impact students. I connected with them culturally and was awed by their academic drive. So, I returned to public education. This time as a school librarian.
I’ll never forget the fall of 2001. I started a new job, driving nearly an hour each way to an awesome middle and high school in a rural area. Then September 11 happened. I remember my heart sinking and my mind racing. My children were far from me, and I was reminded of all the little details of the trip my family and I had made to the northeast that July. We’d stopped in Washington, DC, on the way up and visited the Twin Towers with our boys and their cousins. As I watched the events of September 11 unfold, I thought of my children and their well-being while realizing that other families’ children were entrusted to me. In the aftermath, I watched and listened to countless interviews of individuals describing this horrific day. And I wondered about the individuals we crossed paths with during our visit to these places. When I look back at this initial experience, I must have known then that this career was purposeful and worth pursuing.
I stayed at this school for the next three years. What I remember most is hearing the students calling out, “Miss, miss, miss.” It was a respectful way for Spanish-speaking students to gain a teacher’s attention. Over 40 percent of the student population was Hispanic. Many of them were first-generation immigrants whose parents worked on nearby farms. Since I was also a native Spanish speaker, some students would test my knowledge of certain Spanish words, knowing full well that they meant something different in our countries of origin. An innocent word in Puerto Rico could be highly offensive in Mexico or a South American country. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” These idiom exchanges were an organic exercise that led to building meaningful relationships with my students.
The school library was immediately to the right of the main office. It felt like a welcome center. I assumed that a library space in a school setting would be a lot like a revolving classroom. This particular library had desktop computers, a small collection of books, and two areas with tables. One area was used for active instruction, and a smaller area was used for leisure reading or classroom work. I was initially assigned to students from sixth to eighth grades. At the time, the school ran a double-block schedule, and the library had a flexible schedule. This meant that teachers could visit and/or ask to use the library whenever and for whatever academic purpose they wanted, including collaborative work or projects with me. What I can say for sure is that it was rarely used for testing.
Our schedule allowed me to do the behind-the-scenes work (e.g., conduct a book inventory to review, replace, and/or order books) in a timely manner. It also meant that I could devote some time to planning activities and promoting literacy in fun and engaging ways, like book fairs, reading competitions, or programming that would include opportunities for our students to expand, explore, and experience the world of reading. For example, I invited the author Pat Mora to speak to our students about her book Tomás and the Library Lady. It’s a true story about Tomás Rivera, a son of migrant workers, who was introduced to the wonder of books by a librarian. Years later, Rivera became the first Mexican American chancellor of the University of California. I chose the book because I knew my students would connect with it. But as a relatively new educator in this field, I didn’t know just how underrepresented people of color were in books. I thought it was common sense to include books that reflected all of us.
When I think of my own experiences, I don’t recall ever reading a book that mirrored me or my culture as a Hispanic youth. It wasn’t until my early 30s that I picked up An Island Like You: Stories of the Barrio by Judith Ortiz Cofer. Every short story spoke to me and my cultural experience. I was fortunate to find this, but I took being reflected in this book for granted. I didn’t know how difficult it could be for a child or an adult of color to see themselves in books. I learned to appreciate reading and books over time. I wasn’t a child who grew up with books, went to public libraries, or was encouraged to read books. The only real memory I have of being in a school library was in my elementary years. I read textbooks with purpose and read other books when assigned. I hardly ever read for joy. That changed when I became a parent. I prioritized reading. When I took my children to visit the public library, I’d allow them to choose their own books. The same was true for books they checked out at their respective school libraries or books they purchased at their book fairs. Still, I didn’t see the big picture. It wasn’t until years later that I came to realize what was truly missing on our bookshelves and to what extent.
In the summer of 2016, I attended the American Library Association conference. This particular year, sessions on diversity, equity, and inclusion were emphasized. I found myself listening to a panel of authors who shared their thoughts and encouraged us to continue the conversation beyond the conference. This is where I first heard of Rudine Sims Bishop’s paper, “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.”* She wrote, “When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part. Our classrooms need to be places where all the children from all the cultures that make up the salad bowl of American society can find their mirrors.”1 I left the conference feeling different, reimagining my role as a school librarian and how I could help to transform the future for our students—all of our students. And I don’t think I’ve been the same since.
Inspired, I decided to dedicate more time to diversifying my library collection and sought out others, like the Florida Association in Media Education, for resources that reinforce the same. This practice has become the cornerstone of my library programming, and I continue to implore all stakeholders to join me in this endeavor.
For the past several years, I’ve applied for grants to create partnerships and collaborative projects centered on reading books that serve as “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors.” Almost all of these grant-funded activities have been multilayered and involved cross-generational participants. When I transitioned to high school librarianship in 2015, many of the high schools in my district offered prekindergarten programming (as part of student-educator career programs or early learning pathways). The projects I highlight below are high school driven and aligned to pre-K programming, local elementary schools, or other entities as community service.
In 2017, I was working at Deltona High School, where over 40 percent of the students were classified as Hispanic. I focused on the community and parent involvement. One event I created was “The Familia That Reads: A Cross-Cultural Reading Experience,” featuring Sofi and the Magic, Musical Mural, written and presented by Raquel M. Ortiz. The book club members and faculty were encouraged to bring their families, young siblings, and grandparents. Families listened, discussed, and then together spent time in our library’s maker space creating squares representing their own heritage and ancestry. The completed squares were placed side by side to create a community mural.
Two years later, I selected another Ortiz book, When Julia Danced Bomba, which features Afro-Latinos, for a schoolwide event in celebration of Black History Month. The book introduces island beats, African rhythms, and the traditional Puerto Rican dance called the bomba. I shared lessons on the intersections of Black and Latin histories and cultures, and afterward I read the book aloud, followed by some bomba music and some dancing.
In 2020, I transitioned to my current school, Atlantic High. Implementing the same practice, I established a book club, “Sharks Read-4-Real” (named after the school’s mascot). As Black Lives Matter rallies were held across the country, I collaborated with one of my elementary school library peers for an activity based on All Because You Matter, written by Tami Charles. Described as a lyrical text, it’s part love letter, part anthem to her son, and it reveals the importance of heritage and why we matter. With help from my high school book club, we opened this activity to elementary and prekindergarten children. After the book was read aloud and discussed, each child received a kit with a photo of themselves (taken in advance), a frame, patterned paper petals cut to resemble the illustrations in the book, a glue stick, and a personalized placard. Together, the children decorated their own portraits—true mirrors—so that they saw themselves in the book even more strongly. The elementary students also received their very own copy of the book.
This school year, I wrote a grant for “The Mason Project: Capturing Meaningful Stories.” The project focused on our prekindergarten students. The inspiration for this project was twofold: retired reading teacher, now local author, Linda Mason and mason jars. I selected three of Mason’s books and seven other books to read aloud to the children. After reading the featured book, I introduced students to a trinket I had selected to represent it, and I placed the trinket in a mason jar. At the end of every visit, I’d randomly select a trinket and they would call out the associated title or point to it if the books were displayed. I continued to do this until the mason jar was emptied. On occasion, we had additional book discussions to check for understanding, comprehension, and recall of details over time. Children kept signed copies of Mason’s books and their personalized mason jars with the 10 items (along with a handout to help families continue discussions of these books).
One of my favorite reads for this project was Gibberish by Young Vo. I knew it would provoke thought, and I anticipated laughter and confusion. The book is about a young boy preparing to go to school for the first time in a new country. His mother is doing her best to explain that most of what he’ll hear throughout the day will sound a lot like gibberish. In the book, there are speech bubbles with rows of symbols that mimic figurative language. I introduced the book and then spoke in gibberish to the four-year-olds. They all froze and stared. Expecting this reaction, I then drew a speech bubble with a few squiggles and a random star on the whiteboard. I asked them if they recognized any of the symbols on the board. A few recognized the star but nothing else.
As I read aloud and showed the illustrations, several students noticed the difference between the main character, who is colorfully drawn to resemble a young boy, and the other characters in the classroom: gray figures outlined in black resembling young monsters. “Why do you think that is?” “Do you think he was so scared that he saw the children in his room as monsters?” After reading the book, I introduced the trinket, a star (noted in the speech bubble), before placing it in the mason jar. Seeing the world from someone else’s view is an exercise in empathy. As students lined up to return to their classroom, some continued to speak gibberish. Their teacher and I exchanged looks, realizing that it might take a minute before the gibberish dissipated. I relished the thought that after they stopped speaking this newfound language, they’d understand what it meant to be in the little boy’s shoes.
“It is an awfully sad misconception that librarians simply check books in and out. The library is the heart of a school, and without a librarian, it is but an empty shell.”
–Jarrett J. Krosoczka2
Among the many things school librarians do, checking books in and out remains at the heart of this profession. I consider it a privilege to make these transactions with students. These face-to-face exchanges are informal but highly effective for collecting information. They are a strategic way to establish a healthy rapport with the student and a means of gaining better insight on what students enjoy reading. My colleagues and I also use these opportunities to facilitate curriculum, project-based learning, and research assignments by reinforcing the use of the inquiry process and demonstrating how to use online resources, platforms, and other materials. We get to discuss the lighter side of things, including why students can’t judge a book by its cover. And it also gives us one more opportunity to inquire about their reading habits, essential to establishing a general sense of their learning and how to best contribute to the overall academic environment and culture.
If students don’t check out books, they can still engage in reading by joining a community book study, which is one of my favorite ways to spark conversations on trending topics and issues. It is also a strategic way to discuss topics that open windows to other people’s worlds or invite others to see theirs as sliding glass doors. The following are examples of books I’ve used in recent years for community book studies. Some are realistic fiction and others are anthologies.
- Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi3
- Wild Tongues Can’t Be Tamed: 15 Voices from the Latinx Diaspora, edited by Saraciea J. Fennell
- We Are Not from Here, by Jenny Torres Sanchez
- Rural Voices: 15 Authors Challenge Assumptions About Small-Town America, edited by Nora Shalaway Carpenter
Student participation in this activity is voluntary. Teachers, parents, and other community members are invited to join the conversation. Each contributes to the discussion by sharing their perspectives, experiences, and voices. They also get to keep the books!
Book clubs are intended to engage both the individual reader and the collective group as they come together to experience, explore, and discuss the books they read. In the 2022–23 school year, we met every week, and every other week we did activities that allowed us to bond as a club. I had a list of books for members to choose from. Books initially read by the whole group were selected by majority vote. A follow-up survey featured the remaining books, which were read in small groups and then shared or discussed with the whole group. This ensured that the members read what they loved and were exposed to books that led them to windows and sliding glass doors. In an ideal environment, book clubs serve as vehicles that drive potential lifelong readers and those who identify themselves as lovers of books—something that should be celebrated as students are often pulled in different directions with other extracurricular activities.
Libraries Are Spaces of Refuge
I know this to be true: school libraries are spaces of refuge. In the years that I have served as a school librarian, I’ve gotten to know my students. I know who frequents the library, and I recognize new faces—as well as those who haven’t stopped by in a while. I’ve learned to observe clusters of students and their interactions as well as moments when a student is lonely, perhaps lost, or has found some comfort in having a place to be. Sometimes they come from different places. Sometimes they don’t have a home to call their own.
Some come to escape, and others come to belong. Some are yearning to be treated equally or included by their classmates. Some want to come in from the cold, the rain, or the heat. They come to eat or meet up with other students. Some just don’t want to be alone. Others simply want to regroup, get ready, finish up, start on something new, or give themselves a minute or two to reflect on the day thus far or plan for the day ahead. A few need a little shuteye after a long night of working, babysitting, or participating in multiple extracurricular activities.
Some students have open laptops, others have open notebooks, and most, if not all, have a cellphone in hand. A few come to check books in or out, read, complete homework, or take advantage of other services, such as tutoring or printing. Some want to focus on their studies. Some will focus on everything but their studies. Still, I designate spaces, move the flexible seating, and block out some areas and open others, all so that each can find a space of their own. Should you decide to visit on Working Wednesdays or Focus Fridays during lunch, expect the library to be quieter; on these days, students are expected to sit, eat, talk, study, read, and work… quietly.
And safe is never a word we take lightly.
I now have 23 years of experience, and I’ve adjusted, adapted, and in many ways moved on. But some things are vital to librarians’ existence in education. One of these things is collaboration. School librarians need to collaborate to succeed in this role. It is essential to how others perceive our roles and responsibilities, and it’s harder to impact student learning without the opportunity to provide instruction. While some subjects don’t readily lend themselves to reading, literacy, and research, there can still be opportunities to provide supplemental materials and create an environment that fosters learning in these areas (e.g., through our maker space or STEM area). And although this is not direct instruction, it still allows us to contribute to student learning.
I may not be speaking for all school librarians, but I continue to grow as an educator when I instruct students, engage with them, and check for their learning. Each time I get the opportunity to teach, I’m revisiting the value, ease of use, and application of our print and digital resources. And this isn’t just for students; these resources are also valuable for teachers. I have countless examples of work I’ve done in the past with fellow teachers. And as I make my case for more collaboration, I’m also aware of how complicated it is for my peers to work beyond their curriculum maps to meet each and every standard—not to mention other restrictions that limit our mutual ability to do anything outside the box. Still, school librarians need to be considered in planning and instruction. It’s better than doing it alone. It’s better when we teach together, especially when getting the right information in our current environment matters.
I received an anonymous note from a student just before Thanksgiving this past year. The cover read, “I Appreciate U.” Inside it continued, “To the Wonderful You.... I want you to know that there are people out there that really appreciate everything that you do, even if you may not see it right away.” I felt restored and renewed, if only for a moment.
A few weeks earlier, I had been presenting to our faculty—one of the few opportunities I get to share information about the library and our resources and services. Just before the end of my presentation, I got emotional and held back tears. I caught a glimpse of my peers. They looked confused, and some even snickered. Embarrassed, I silently consoled myself. Later, I tried to make sense of my emotions. I realized that I was exhausted. And again, I started to question: do I matter?
I know there are other school librarians like me—silently screaming to be seen, heard, and understood. With the pressures of standardized testing and the pandemic, the school librarian role has morphed. It’s become difficult to do the instructional collaboration and student engagement that used to be at the heart of our work. Our roles as school librarians have been diminished, misused, and deeply misunderstood. I’m aware of the teacher shortage and the need to be a team player in a time of crisis. But what does it mean when the expectation of being “flexible” supersedes every other aspect of your professional or certified role?
In the fall of 2021, I was given an opportunity to do action research. I could have done it on anything. But we were just beginning to recover from COVID-19, and I began to wonder about my role as a school librarian. Was it just me who was exhausted? I really needed to know. So, I decided to ask my peers and school librarians in my district. The survey questions were basic, asking participants to reflect on their past, evaluate their current situations, and share their expectations for our future. Ninety-three percent responded “No” to the following question: “Do you feel that your role is thoroughly understood by other teachers?” Sixty-eight percent also responded “No” to the same question about administrators. I was relieved to have learned that I wasn’t “in my head,” so to speak. But this also meant that we had issues to resolve.
Along with restoring time to collaborate, we need to reinvest in school libraries and librarians. A nationwide study4 examining data for 2009–10 through 2018–19 found that far too many librarian positions have been eliminated:
- While school librarians decreased by 20 percent and teachers decreased by about 1 percent, district and school administrators increased by about 15 percent and instructional coordinators increased by almost 34 percent.
- The number of students per librarian increased by almost 28 percent, from 939 to 1,199 students per librarian.
- The number of teachers per librarian increased by 23 percent, from 61 to 75 teachers per librarian.
- A follow-up study found a similar trajectory between 2018–19 and 2020–21, with district administrators increasing by 6 percent and school librarians decreasing by 5 percent.5
We are all impacted by this reduction in school librarians.
Pedagogy as we once knew it in public education has changed. There is little room for flexibility or autonomy. Standards-driven curricula leave very little room for working outside the box. There is too much content and too little time to ingest it. So, classroom teachers and school librarians have limited opportunities to collaborate on lessons, projects, and other work. Our district, like many others, is a one-to-one laptop environment, which requires a lot of time to organize and manage. And for some, no assistant (like a media clerk) is available to help. In addition, instruction is frequently interrupted by standardized testing. In my district, the typical school calendar has a test of some type scheduled nearly every month; these interruptions make it difficult to plan holistically.
Sadly, much of the testing takes place in the library, which means these spaces are frequently closed, preventing teachers from using the area for instruction or academic purposes. When the library is closed for testing, I have no claim to the space, and I’m given no other recourse. Endlessly looking for ways to be an effective school librarian and information professional, I find myself revisiting my history and my career path. Being a school librarian no longer resembles the two degrees I worked so hard to obtain.
Earlier in my career, school librarians had a seat at the table and were recognized as essential partners in instruction. Today, our role is more important than ever as we battle misinformation and disinformation. Getting lost in the stacks could never be as dangerous as getting lost in unknown virtual spaces. From social media to artificial intelligence to the incomprehensible vastness of “resources” online, students need to be taught when to ignore “influencers” and how to find trustworthy sources—and that starts in a safe space that respects their basic humanity.
Our intellectual freedom and the right to read is under siege by certain stakeholders. I’m baffled by the idea that these individuals are more preoccupied with challenging books6 and less attentive to the pervasiveness of technology and the possibility that libraries and librarians may cease to exist because of it. It sounds like science fiction (I know, I read it). I’m worried about the children growing up like I did, without any books of their own—or none that they see themselves in. I’m worried that society will forget about the essence of reading for joy and instead embrace short bursts of entertainment. I’m worried about conversations that will never be had for fear that we can’t be truthful about our history, can’t engage, provoke thought, explain ourselves, or solve a problem. Even though fewer books may be found on our shelves these days, the stacks remind us that information can still be tangible and overtly present for all to appreciate. The school library (media center) is the one place students should be able to access books that speak to our common humanity. It should also be the place with books that celebrate diversity and inclusion. Let us allow for choice and self-selection of books, so every student voice is valued in our democracy. Our collective efforts should be to encourage students to read more, speak more, and learn more about our world. If we allow the doors to our school libraries to close, we will miss a vital step in contributing to our students’ futures and the society we live in. This is worth fighting for.
What will school librarianship look like tomorrow? I can adapt. I can adjust. I can compromise. But I can’t pretend that all is well with school libraries. I wonder how we will remain relevant in education. All educators, including those of us in this role, need to work together—to fight—to keep libraries relevant by providing pathways for our students to recognize trustworthy information and use it safely to succeed academically. We also must provide books that represent and reflect our student population. And most importantly, we must keep students safe by restoring and reserving this open, common place of refuge for all who need it.
Ode to Pura Belpré
As I reflect, I recognize that wanting to be a sports journalist was aspirational, and becoming a school librarian was inspirational. I can’t help but think that a library lady like Pura Belpré, the first Puerto Rican female librarian in New York City and an advocate for bilingual reading, could have influenced me as a Puerto Rican youth.7 This career led me to discovering her story, and it is her example that I’m hoping to follow as I endeavor to continue this path.
Maria G. O’Brien is a media teacher at Atlantic High School in Port Orange, Florida, a Florida Power-Library School, and the diversity chair of the Florida Association for Media in Education (FAME). In 2021, she won FAME’s Amanda Award for engaging students in ways that make them feel welcome, seen, and heard. An educator who routinely seeks grants to enhance her library programming, O’Brien is also an AFT teacher leader.
*Bishop’s metaphors ring true: mirrors, seeing yourself; windows, seeing the world and, when the lighting is right, as Bishop says, seeing yourself in the window; and sliding glass doors, entering the book’s world. “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” is available at go.aft.org/vwu. (return to article)
1. R. Bishop, “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom 6, no. 3 (Summer 1990), readingrockets.org/sites/default/files/Mirrors-Windows-and-Sliding-Glass-Doors.pdf.
2. A. Cohen, “A Moving Story That Will Make You Give Thanks for Arts in Public School,” The Atlantic, November 22, 2012, theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/11/a-moving-story-that-will-make-you-give-thanks-for-arts-in-public-school/265453.
3. A. Butler, “Atlantic High’s Community Book Study Addresses Racism,” Daytona Times, March 11, 2021, daytonatimes.com/lead-stories/atlantic-high-s-community-book-study-addresses-racism/article_209fb97a-79fa-554e-843a-5ffd3a3557c5.html.
4. K. Lance and D. Kachel, Perspectives on School Librarian Employment in the United States, 2009–10 to 2018–19 (Seattle: SLIDE: The School Librarian Investigation, Antioch University Seattle, Institute of Museum and Library Services, July 2021), libslide.org/pubs/Perspectives.pdf.
5. K. Lance and D. Kachel, The COVID-19 Pandemic & Inequities in Access to School Librarians: A SLIDE Special Report (Seattle: SLIDE: The School Librarian Investigation, Antioch University Seattle, Institute for Museum and Library Services, August 2022), libslide.org/pubs/Pre-Post-COVID-Analysis-Special-Report.pdf.
6. J. Friedman and N. Johnson, “Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools,” Pen America, September 19, 2022, pen.org/report/banned-usa-growing-movement-to-censor-books-in-schools.
7. A. Denise, Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré (New York: HarperCollins, 2019).
[Illustrations: London Ladd]