Librarians face a unique set of challenges that often puts them in the perceived role of being responsible for the materials that their patrons consume, even more so when those patrons are children and the library is at a school. Teacher Kendra Fortmeyer faced this obstacle when she was asked to develop a new library, so she took the radical approach of asking the students themselves for help.
Fortmeyer works at Skybridge Academy, a private middle school and high school in Austin, Texas. Instead of mimicking established library structures and leaving the collection she chose vulnerable to censors, though, Fortmeyer took the unique approach of allowing the students of the schools themselves to have a say in what they wanted to read and made available in their library. “The business of getting books into people’s hands — especially young people’s hands — is one riddled with challenges,” writes Fortmeyer in a recent post on Alt Ed Austin. “Perhaps the most basic of these is: What do we give them to read?”
In brainstorming ideas for the library, Fortmeyer explored everything from conventional methods of segregating all-ages content from the more mature content to simply not carrying potentially controversial books at all.
In the alternative education field, all of us understand the tightrope walk that is navigating the dual identity of responsible educator and champion of intellectual freedom. When do you give your students hard-hitting material? How do you decide they’re ready? This was a unique challenge for me at Skybridge Academy, a combined junior high and high school that serves students in grades 6-12. This population runs the gamut from smart but very (emotionally) young 10-year-olds to 18-year-olds with part-time jobs and coffee addictions. Obviously, books for one age group might not be of interest, or appropriate, for the other. This is what we call having a dual-audience library.
The challenge of creating a library for her dual-audience is what led Fortmeyer to the idea of letting her students help curate the collection themselves. “To solve this dilemma, my director and I set aside abstraction and philosophy and took a more radical, direct approach: we talked directly to the students.” In a one hour discussion with three high school students, Fortmeyer was able to come up with a library plan that put the books that the students wanted to read on the shelves, but also provided the means to closely monitor the materials being checked out by each student, middle or high school.
Building a high school friendly library that allowed middle school students access with written parental permission solved the problem of a book getting into a reader’s hand without the parents’ knowledge. Moreover, the positioning of the library’s more mature content in a high traffic space by the administrator and co-director’s offices prevented students from lingering in the area and allowed more self-conscious readers to approach the materials without fear. Discussions with students also led to the development of a system for organizing books with sexually explicit content that kept the books on the shelves.
Fortmeyer’s experiment to allow her students into the conversation on designing the library proved to be a winning strategy for the school, the students, and even parents:
Sometimes, when puzzling over how best to serve your students, it’s powerful and formative to set down the books on education and librarianship, break out of your own brain-box, and talk to those students. They’re just as invested in their learning community as you are, if not more! And in libraries, valued, invested readers will become your greatest advocates: they will do more to build a community than you and your books could ever do alone.
You can read Fortmeyer’s article here.
Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!