How to start a school library

Has your school's library suffered setbacks - or even closure? Here's how parents can pull together to start, save, or revive this crucial academic resource.

By Psyche Pascual

Saving your system

If libraries are the foundation of any good school, it’s one full of cracks: School library funding dropped an average of 9 percent (and up to 25 percent in poorer areas of the country) between 2009 and 2010, according to the most recent national survey of school libraries.

These are gloomy statistics, but even as government funding has failed, parents and community leaders have rallied to keep school libraries in circulation — sometimes even relaunching them after they were closed.

In the face of so many education cuts, why save the library? In a thriving school library you’ll find kids conducting research, learning how to use a computer, discovering books, or being enthralled by storytelling. “Reading develops imaginations and creativity,” says Jill Curcio, a parent who started a school library at her kids’ elementary school in Los Altos, CA. “This is what I want for our kids. I want their imaginations to grow.”

Getting up to speed

You’ll need two to three months at the very least to establish a school library. Start by contacting the local PTO, gathering donors, soliciting service organizations, and finding out who can help with planning. Work with the principal to determine what your school’s needs are, whether it’s space, supplies, staffing — or all three. Some school districts have library clerks or media service workers who can answer questions about how many books to collect, which kind of shelves are suitable, and how to catalog books.

Volunteers can help with fundraising, write grants, and organize book donations. For money, start with Follett Library Resources, which has information on different grants for libraries. The American Library Association also provides free fact sheets to help you along.

Some school districts have their own handbooks to help with school library planning. For example, Where Do I Start?: A School Library Handbook (published by the Santa Clara County Office of Education), was designed to help library clerks and parent volunteers with the basics. But with recent cutbacks, many parents use this guide as a primer for everything from figuring out staffing to cataloging books, says Peter Doering, coordinator of the education office’s learning and multimedia center. The book also has guidelines on what schools should spend on books.

Money talks

Money may make the world go around, but it also puts books on shelves. Figure out your budget based on how many students are at the school. It may take $8,000 to $10,000 to start a basic collection at an elementary school, but it will take twice that much — or more — at a high school, depending on where you’re located.

Parents can raise money the old-fashioned way, through book fairs and public fundraisers, but finding a local organization that has a vested interest in giving money to school programs may be even better. Community foundations, rotary or university groups, or local businesses are great resources to tap. There are also a number of nonprofit and corporate foundations that support school libraries, including The Laura Bush Foundation for American Libraries, Lowe's Charitable and Educational Foundation, and Target School Library Makeovers. Your school can also raise money for school projects on DonorsChoose.org.

Even in the well-heeled community of Healdsburg, CA, more than half of the students are from low-income homes without computers. So when parents wanted to replace the outdated high school library, they turned to the Healdsburg Education Foundation, a local nonprofit that provides funding for schools. The foundation hosted a series of donor meetings and even had treasure hunts to raise money for books, says Executive Director Pamela Swan. Luckily, they nabbed a big donor by talking about how much the community needed the library. It took several years to build, but today, “that library (which offers both books and computer education) is packed at lunch and after school,” Swan says.

Sites for kid-friendly stacks

It’s a luxury to build a new school library — and sometimes even to have a permanent home for it. You may have to carve out or "find" space for the school library in existing schoolrooms. According to the American Association of School Librarians, most school libraries are 3,000 square feet or less. In some cases, they’re much, much less.

When Jill Curcio helped bring a library to Bullis Charter School, the new library was squeezed into a 960-square-foot portable classroom. Later, when the portable was replaced, volunteers had to box the books and move them into a larger, 1,440-square-foot portable.

Donated bookshelves are fine, so long as they conform to the education department guidelines in the state where you live; otherwise, you may have to buy new ones. Some states require that shelves be at least a foot deep to accommodate large reference books; other states requires shelves be stable and meet earthquake-safety standards.

As for furniture, make sure it’s age-appropriate and ergonomic. Spaces for kindergartners probably won’t look much like libraries for teens. Work with library service workers or other parents to pick out durable, comfortable furniture.

Marian the librarian

Staffing will depend on the size of the library, the number of students and teachers, and demand for library projects in the curriculum. If you’re lucky, the library will be in high demand, and if you’re really lucky, your school district may have enough money to hire a part-time library clerk who can coordinate checkouts and help kids find books. If funds are tight, try to find a parent in your school community who’s a librarian, or a librarian from your neighborhood who is willing to help — at least to set the library up and get it started, if not on a permanent basis.

Once the library is up and running, you can recruit parent volunteers to keep it organized and to check out books. During the day, teachers can use the library to teach research skills, help students work on projects, and supervise checkouts. You still are likely to need ongoing help from a trained librarian, either paid or volunteer, to keep books catalogued, and build and weed the collection.

A collector’s item

Now comes the fun part: building the book collection. You can get help from your district or county librarian, but if you don’t have a list, many of the vendors who sell cataloging software also have suggested reading lists. A good bet is to choose winners of the annual Newbury or Caldecott awards for children’s books. The Association for Library Services to Children oversees a number of book awards and provides a list of winners online, too.

Betty Story, a Florida-based librarian who has helped start school libraries in the U.S. and abroad, says book donations can be great as long as they’re hardbacks that can withstand the rough-and-tumble use of young readers. She recommends books about animals for beginning readers, while older children often adore series that involve the same character, such as Harry Potter. “They’re like popcorn for the kids,” Story says. (For ideas beyond Harry Potter, see our picks for great book series for new readers, grades 1 to 3, grades 4 to 6, and young adults.)

You may have to weed donations for flimsy paperbacks, but don’t be afraid of accepting duplicate copies — they can replace damaged or lost books.

Checking it out

Now that you have the books, you’ll need a way to track them. There are dozens of library system vendors that sell circulation software (Follett, Carl Corp., and Brodart are just a few), but you may want to go with one that a local library already uses, or one that’s compatible with other libraries in your school district. Software can be an ongoing cost of between $2,000 to $3,000 a year, Story advises, so make sure you evaluate the systems carefully before choosing.

Ask each vendor for a list of their customers. Then contact the librarians using their software and ask how satisfied they are, whether it’s compatible with the one their district or county education office uses, and how reliable the technical support is.

The next chapter

Once the library is open, don’t forget to tell the community about its programs. Host and publicize after-school hours and storytelling times, and invite donors to view the collection. Publicizing the library’s services and tying its collection to the school curriculum is also valuable, Doering advises.

In Healdsburg, fundraising for the library is an ongoing activity. Parents and foundation workers host regular activities to promote the library and its programs. "A lot of this work comes down to the donors and maintaining that relationship," Swan says. At some events, students give talks about why they go to the library and what they’re learning about computer technology.

"You need a good library program to show why it’s valuable," Doering says. "And you have to be able to change with the times. "If you do that, teachers and parents will support it."