Combined School/Public Libraries Can Succeed–With Careful Planning

Morristown Branch library

Morristown’s school/public library

Last week, the ongoing saga of the Morristown Branch of the Shelby County Public Library caught our attention. Located inside Morristown Junior-Senior High School, the branch serves both the students of the school and the small community of Morristown, Indiana, population 1,216. Such cooperative endeavors between school and public libraries are not uncommon, particularly in rural areas that might not be able to support a standalone public library–but the Morristown Branch has turned out to be a cautionary tale of how not to go about it. Only a year after its grand opening, school principal Mike Brown wants the library out of his building, citing concerns over security and the library materials that students can access.

In a stakeholders’ meeting on June 27, Brown said that although the Morristown Branch is not open to the public until school lets out at 3:15, someone with nefarious intentions could come into the library to “rendezvous with MHS students” (the youngest of whom are 6th graders) during the after-school hours. Moreover, although the library has its own exterior entrance, it does not have public restrooms, so patrons from the community must be able to access the school restrooms down the hall.

Brown also mentioned that, due to the public library’s mission of serving the whole community, students have been able to gain access to material he considers “crap” and “pornographic”–for instance, 6th and 9th grade students separately found copies of erotica smash hit Fifty Shades of Gray that were on hold for other patrons. Brown and school librarian Mary Jo Nieman said that they have removed the book and R-rated DVDs from shelves, apparently without input from public library staff. (It is unclear whether these items are completely withheld from circulation, or shelved in an area where adults can still access or at least request them.)

Brown and Nieman both state that the conflicts between the school and public libraries’ missions are next to impossible to resolve in this case, and they’re likely correct–but most of the problems could have been foreseen if planners had simply read some of the many books and journal articles on joint-use libraries and followed the advice of those who went before them. Multiple articles, for instance, mention that the vast majority of combined libraries are attached to senior high schools or even post-secondary institutions, precisely because tensions and materials challenges are likely to result if younger children have unsupervised access to a full public library collection.

Many joint-use high school/public libraries issue restricted school library cards to students that allow them to check out only nonfiction and Young Adult fiction; if they want to borrow anything else in the collection, they must sign up for a public library card with parental permission just like any other minor. This was another stumbling block for the Morristown Branch, which opted to require all users who want to check anything out to obtain public library cards–with the result that some students are unable to borrow any materials at all because they don’t have the required parental permission.

But well before conflicts can arise over finer points of collections and security, a successful joint-use library requires not just agreement, but enthusiasm from all parties involved. This is stressed over and over in journal articles on the topic, like this one in which author Ken Haycock even specifically states that “[t]he principal’s commitment is a critical factor.” Given that Morristown principal Brown says he has never been more than a reluctant participant since planning of the library began two years ago, the project almost certainly should have been scrapped before it began. Instead, the school district and public library system seem to be approaching a messy divorce: The school board may vote this week to give the library 90 days to vacate the school building.

While it may seem to the general public that a library is a library and two different types should be able mesh seamlessly, school and public libraries do serve different purposes that only sometimes happen to overlap. Additionally, the Supreme Court found in Board of Education v. Pico that materials deemed “pervasively vulgar” may be removed from school libraries without legal repercussions, which is certainly not the case in public libraries. While an R-rated movie would be hard put to meet that definition in court, something like Fifty Shades of Gray actually might. Part of the school library mission is to cultivate literacy and a love of reading in students, who must therefore be able to explore different genres and formats to find out what they like, but at the same time a public library absolutely should not censor materials for all users because children may be able to access them. Because this conflict and others were not thought through before Morristown’s joint-use experiment, the library is now underserving both its adult users from the community and its student users from the school.

Please help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work by making a donation or becoming a member of the CBLDF!

Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.