Carolyn Gencarella is the mom of two boys. Her older son, Julian, was a kindergartner at Grattan Elementary in San Francisco when she got involved with the school library. She is a former teacher, who loves children’s books, and she worked in the library at the college she attended.

The problem:

The library at Grattan Elementary needed help. The school no longer had a paid librarian and could not afford to hire one. Teachers were taking their students to the library to check out books, but there was no one to help students choose appropriate books, to read the class a story, or to reshelve books when they were returned. The school had a new automated system for checking out books, but the teachers did not know how to use it. Returned books were stacked up on a cart in the library and books on the shelves were often in the wrong order, which made them hard for kids to find.

Making a change:

Carolyn wanted to help, but being a new parent at the school, she wasn’t sure where to start or what to do.

The PTA knew teachers were frustrated with the library and decided to offer a modest stipend to a parent or community member who would be willing to spend a few hours a week getting the library in order and coordinating other volunteers. The PTA sent out a flyer looking for someone.

This was the opportunity Carolyn had been waiting for. She offered to take on the role of library coordinator, but declined the stipend. Carolyn learned how to use the electronic book check-out system, reshelved the books and thought carefully about what other volunteers could do. Then she called other parents who had responded to the PTA’s plea for help and found ways for them to help.

Carolyn’s goal was to have a volunteer at the library during all of the times classes were coming to visit. She was successful. She found volunteers to cover class time, and she organized them to help with the library’s day-to-day maintenance. She put in plenty of her own hours, too, getting the books in order, rearranging the physical space, training the volunteers and covering some of the class times herself. She taught the other volunteers to use the electronic check-out system and made sure they understood how the books are organized. To make the library even more welcoming, she put student work up on the library’s walls.

Getting other parents involved:

The PTA helped Carolyn find other parents who could help in the library by sending a flyer home in the weekly folder. She also recruited more parents to help by sharing her excitement for the project with parents she saw around the school.

Working with the school:

Luckily everyone at Grattan agreed that improvements to the library were needed and the teachers were eager to have more support in this area. The PTA had also decided that the library was a school priority. Carolyn worked with teachers to find out what help they needed on their classroom visits to the library.

Major challenges:

The fact that everyone involved in the library was a volunteer was challenging at times. People were not as reliable as they might be for a regular job. Some strategies that helped:

  • Trying to place parents with their own children’s classes when possible.
  • Aligning volunteers’ tasks closely with their interests.
  • Creating some smaller jobs (like organizing books on a particular shelf) for parents who wanted to help but had less time or needed more flexibility.

How the school has benefited:

Although there are some ongoing challenges, like replacing class volunteers when a parent can no longer fill a particular spot, Grattan’s library today is a bright, welcoming place that kids enjoy. Books are easier to find, the electronic system tracks who has which book, and teachers look forward to taking their classes to the library. Carolyn recently saw a quote that said, “A library without a librarian is just a room full of books.” Carolyn’s efforts have turned Grattan’s room of books back into a real library. She noted, “The funniest thing is that the kids see me and say, ‘There’s the librarian!'”

Tips for other parents:

Carolyn said, “If you see a problem or have an idea, just step into it. Don’t wait for someone to invite you to do it. Just take your idea and go for it. The public schools are so overwhelmed that they sometimes don’t even have time to ask for help!” At the same time, she cautions that parent volunteers should try to figure out how their interests match up with the school’s most pressing needs and work together with the school’s key decision-makers.