Libraries and City Schools Need a Closer Partnership

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Photo by: H. Fimkelstein & Sons

It is unnecessary that public libraries, one of our greatest public goods, providing democratic access to literature and free space for child and adult learning, are at the mercy of budget politics every year. In addition to their social value, public libraries are valuable real estate.

Yet, while libraries are underutilized for much of the day, nearby public schools are squeezed for space, forcing kids to learn in hallways and trailers. Is it possible for our libraries to become sustainable learning hubs for schools with shared space?

Libraries were originally built as repositories for books and should be reconsidered as innovative spaces for 21st Century learning. Let us consider what they already have and what can be done to increase their value as public assets.

To begin, libraries are large buildings located in residential neighborhoods that sit mostly empty between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. In fact, many libraries are closed until 11 a.m. Community libraries are a great place for kids to go after school, especially on bad-weather days. My family and I have at least three favorite neighborhood libraries that we visit weekends and after school. But go before 3 and, one sees vastly underutilized potential.

Potential for what?

Our public schools are overcrowded. When a city-owned school is located three blocks from a city-owned library, let’s re-program that vacant public library to function as an off-site learning center for school kids between the hours of 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. Most libraries have children’s areas and separate rooms for dedicated activities. If students made regular trips to a well-stocked and equipped public library, there’d be less need for individual school libraries.

Convert school libraries into versatile learning spaces. If a school can’t manage to keep its library doors open because it doesn’t have the budget for a school librarian, it should be thinking about how the school library environment can be used to accommodate other needs: meeting space for parents and teachers, quiet study space for students or additional classroom space.

If the mayor is serious about offering full-day pre-Kindergarten to all those eligible, he’ll need to think more creatively about how school space is utilized and he should be looking for community-based solutions that can address the physical and intellectual needs of students.

Library assets

Libraries are large spaces furnished with tables, books, research materials, chairs, Wi-Fi Internet access and computers. In addition to common space, most libraries have smaller rooms that can be used as individual classrooms. Most are also wheelchair accessible and they are located in neighborhoods within walking distance of public schools.

Let’s develop co-operative agreements between community libraries and nearby public schools that are over-crowded. A memorandum of understanding between the public libraries and the public schools will ensure that costs are shared and, and in exchange for its space, the library would see a new stream of revenue.

We’ll also need:

  • technology and learning investment: Upgrade public libraries with more, faster, better computers and audio-visual equipment such as smart boards and other learning tools.
  • technology and education innovators to partner with the Public Libraries and Department of Education and invest in these 21st Century learning environments;
  • school administrators and teachers willing to step out of the classroom a few times a week to lead their students in new, innovative learning environments.

    This is a plea to the city to invest in high-quality, fully equipped 21st Century learning centers that would also benefit kids in overcrowded schools. Think about what the community has and what our kids need for a changing future and don’t make due with redundant mediocrity.

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