Walk through the doors of the T.C. Williams High School library in Alexandria, Va., at lunchtime, and it buzzes like a busy coffee shop. Groups of students gather around tables chatting. Some sit with laptops or phones, crunching on salads, thin crust pizza or other offerings from the school’s cafeteria. A group of teens gathers around the librarian for a book talk, and at a counter along the back wall, pairs of students blow off steam playing games like Connect Four.
“We’re not a quiet, shushing kind of library,” says librarian Beth Ebenstein Mulch. “There are rules -- the students don’t get out of hand -- but this is a gathering spot. They feel safe here.”
To Mulch and fellow librarian Corina Haywood, getting kids to gather in the library is a critical step in encouraging readers. First you get them through the doors, and then you expose them to the world of books.
Next week is National Library Week, but school libraries including T.C. Williams celebrate School Library Month throughout April to praise librarians and their student readers and to encourage newcomers to the library and introduce them to the love of reading. Mulch and Haywood offer ten strategies to get kids to visit the library and read – during School Library Month and all year round.
1. Offer Contests, Prizes and Parties
Throughout School Library Month, the library hosts several contests where students can win gift cards and free books. For example, there’s a sheet students can grab at the front desk with several book cover images on it. They have to match the cover to the book title and author for a chance to win the gift card or free book. They funded the bigger prizes with grant money, but they also have smaller prizes so more students can win, like lollipops or colored pencils.
The library hosts a “T.C. Reads” program, asking students to read at least four of 12 titles for the year and then come to an end of year reading celebration, held at the end of School Library Month. “If they read the books but don’t want to come alone, they can bring a friend,” says Mulch. “Sharing a love of reading peer to peer is often the best way.” One of their featured books, Written in the Stars, was so popular that kids would come to return it with a friend in tow, saying, “I’m bringing this back but she needs to check it out now!”
2. Give Away Books!
Librarians find ways to collect books year-round so students can have a book to keep. They’ve found that kids will treasure a book that is theirs and theirs alone. “That’s why you will see public school librarians at conferences running around like crazy people grabbing books!” says Mulch.
A large population of the students at T.C. Williams are from low-income families. Some are transient. There’s simply no money for books in their households, and often no space for them.
“But it changes kids lives when they walk out of here with a book they can keep,” says Haywood. “It might be their first and only book.”
3. Build Partnerships
Getting books into kids hands wouldn’t be possible for a public school library without partnerships.
“Relationships are critical because we don’t have the funds to give away that many books or to host a bunch of authors because it can be expensive,” says Mulch. "We have a strong partnership with the Alexandria City Public Libraries, An Open Book Foundation and Hooray For Books, a local independent book store."
An Open Book Children’s Literacy Foundation was created to promote literacy among disadvantaged children and teens in the greater Washington, D.C. area by giving schools and students book and access to authors and illustrators.
The foundation brings children’s and teens’ authors into schools, gives each student who attends the event a copy of the author’s book to take home, and gives a copy of the book to each classroom and a set of the author’s books to the school library. (A national program that works to provide books for disadvantaged kids all over the country is First Book, a partner of the National Education Association.)
Hooray For Books is a children’s and YA bookstore in Alexandria that regularly hosts author visits. When the store organizes a visit with a popular YA novelist, the owners contact area librarians to let them know.
“We’ll schedule an author visit without having to pay for the travel because we’re piggybacking on the store visit, and we buy copies of the books from the store, so it’s a win-win opportunity,” says Mulch.
4. Schedule Visits with Popular Young Adult Writers
The librarians at T.C. Williams work closely with the Teen Services Coordinator, Isaiah West, at the Alexandria Public Library to set up programs. West helped arrange book talks at TC Williams during School Library Month with Robert Wittman, whose recent book is also part of the Alexandria Reads program in April. West partners with the TC Williams library year-round to bring authors to the school and to get teens excited about programs at the public library. An Open Book Foundation scheduled book talks with Barry Lyga, a very popular YA novelist who is about to release a new book.
5. Use Social Media
“Get on Twitter!,” says Mulch. “Twitter is your friend because that’s where the authors are. When we’re featuring a particular book, I’ll post a picture of the the cover and tag the author, who then might reach out. If they’re in the area, generally very willing to come for an author visit.”
Both Haywood and Ebenstein-Mulch agree that for networking, collaboration and ideas, there’s no better place than social media. They use Twitter and Pinterest most often. And for ideas about School Library Month, use #SLM17.
6. Make the Library a Destination
T.C. Williams Library opened it’s doors during the lunch blocks and now during lunchtime, the “the library is pretty happening,” Mulch says. “You need to be comfortable with a level of chaos in your space, but it’s worth it. First talk to administrators and talk to custodial staff to make sure it’s doable.”
7. Remove Obstacles
T.C. got rid of late fines. Students get the books back when they can, and if they lose a book, they can work in the library after school, or better yet, “read it off.” For every 30 minutes of reading time, students earn $5.00. The library also created “summer checkout.” Gone are the days of students rustling through lockers and book bags for library books to return on the last day of school.
“If you’re not done with a book at the end of the year, don’t have to rush it back to the library before school closes for summer, simple check it out and give it back next year,” says Mulch. “We want the books in our students’ hands, not sitting on our shelves.”
8. Partner with Teachers
Build relationships and offer books that enhance curriculum to bring those students into the library. Don’t just stick with English but branch out to other subjects. Haywood says there’s a natural tie-in with the Barry Lyga books to the criminial justice class at TC Williams.
“The students in that class aren’t always voracious readers, but we know this author has a high interest among reluctant readers. We know because we see kids who’d been reluctant readers come in to ask for his book,” she says.
One of the books Lyga will be talking about with students is I Hunt Killers, about the teenage son of an infamous serial killer. He’ll also be talking about his new book Bang, about a teen who is haunted by the horror of accidentally killing his baby sister with a handgun when he was only four years old.
“I’ve met with the criminal justice teacher and talked to her about the natural tie-ins to criminal justice curriculum and how these books can bring some of the lessons to life,” Haywoood says.
9. Reorganize to Target Interests
“We have 18,000 books -- there’s going to be something for every student,” says Mulch. But they have to find it. That’s why the library reorganized the biography section so that books are organized by topic – music, sports, etc. – rather than by the name of the subject or author. They’re also working on reorganizing the fiction section by genre.
10. Offer Diverse Books
Mulch and Haywood agree that the #weneeddiversebooks movement has been tremendously helpful in bringing more kids through the library doors.
“With more titles offered, more kids have books from their perspective, about kids who look and live like they do,” says Haywood.
Equally important, the librarians say, is offering glimpses into the lives of characters students aren’t familiar with. Diverse books opens their eyes to others who aren’t like them but might sit next to them in class. T.C. Williams is the most diverse high school in the state of Virginia with kids coming from wealthy, middle class, working class and high poverty communities and who speak more than 100 different languages.
“We are a community and diverse books builds our community,” says Mulch.