Becoming a Culturally Responsive School Librarian

Becoming a Culturally Responsive School Librarian - A culturally responsive School Librarian features cultures, races, and ethnic groups throughout the school year, and works diligently to build respect for diversity within ourselves, our library collection, and our Library Lessons. It's the only way our students can learn to love themselves. #NoSweatLibraryFebruary’s Black History Month is an important national celebration and a busy time for School Librarians. As I read and hear about activities I often wonder:

  • What will School Librarians do about Black History during other months of the school year?
  • How will we honor other cultural groups throughout the school year?

We need to consider all aspects of our School Library Program and ask: How can we, as School Librarians, make ourselves, our Library Collection, and our Library Lessons culturally responsive to all students?


I believe our school libraries reflect the beliefs and attitudes that we School Librarians have toward others. Our collection development, our library decor, our library lessons, and how we interact with our students reflects that. We must examine our own attitudes carefully: Do we consider someone of a different race, ethnicity, or cultural background with “empathy/sympathy” or with “respect”? They are quite the opposite!

Both empathy and sympathy stem from the Greek ‘pathos’feeling—and relate to suffering. Both apply to a sharing with another individual; when carelessly associated with groups, it may engender either shame or arrogance about our own background.

Conversely, respect is from the Latin ‘respectus’looking at—and connotes regard and consideration. It is more encompassing; respect impels us to see the glory in the culture and heritage of others. If we have respect for the culture and heritage of others, then we will choose materials, presentations, and conversations that build positive cultural awareness among our students and teachers.

Be passionate about affirming respect in personal interactions. One year we had a substitute teacher who spent his entire lunch break complaining about “those kids” and their behavior or language or ability. I finally challenged him:Barbara Jordan "If the society today allows wrongs to go unchallenged, the impression is created that those wrongs have the approval of the majority." ‘I was tired of hearing him complain about our kids, and if they bothered him so much why didn’t he just quit coming to our building?’ I informed our principal that I had “mouthed off” to the sub, and she was relieved someone had finally spoken up, as were other teachers who heard about it!  (thankfully he never returned.)

I’m not promoting myself here. I’m trying to say that we may be inclined to ignore such actions, but supporting any and all of our kids when necessary will ensure that students have an upbuilding educational experience in our libraries and our schools, and that impacts everyone’s future.


How Culturally Responsive Is Your School Library Collection? - Our school library collections need to reflect both our own students and the diversity of global cultures, so students develop pride in themselves and respect for others. #NoSweatLibraryCan your students find themselves in your school library collection? Students can’t develop pride in their culture and heritage if they never read about its positive aspects, and students won’t develop respect for other cultural backgrounds if they only know about their own. Expanding awareness through reading builds pride and respect.

I was fortunate to be the librarian at the most diverse middle school in our district: 33% African-American, 25% Asian, 25% Euro/Anglo, 15% Latinx, and 2% Native Nation. One year our ELL students spoke 30 different languages. I was initially impressed with the collection in the 2-year-old school library, yet later that year a library course on multicultural books helped me discover how few resources we had for 75% of our students:

  • A few books on slavery and the Civil Rights Movement, but nothing about African-American culture or other time periods.
  • Numerous books on countries, but nothing on Latinx or Asian culture, events, or place in U.S. history.
  • Typical food/festivals/folktales books for various cultural groups, but few on other aspects of culture and none on contemporary society or issues, especially emigration/immigration.
  • Some reference books but few individual biographies about Black, Latinx, Asian, or Native Nation people.
  • A few historical fiction books or award-winners about other cultures/ethnic groups—many by authors who didn’t represent who they were writing about—but meager contemporary realistic Fiction.

Over the years I worked hard to acquire materials that were more representative of our school and that would broaden our students’ perspective on the U.S. and its history:The Middle Passage: White Ships/Black Cargo, a visual history of life aboard a slave ship.

  • A more comprehensive view of slavery
    • ante-bellum personal narratives & biographies, such as Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, and Solomon Northrup
    • slave resistance and rebellions, and runaway slave communities such as those in Florida and Mexico
    • U.S. court cases where slaves prevailed
    • Slaves and former slaves who fought, spied, or worked with Union soldiers during the Civil War
  • Various cultures, ethnic groups, and time periods in U.S. History
    • from the Trail of Tears to the American Indian Movement;
    • from early Meso-American settlement to United Farm Workers to contemporary border issues;
    • from the Transcontinental Railroad to WWII Internment Camps to Southeast Asian refugees;
    • the Harlem Renaissance and African-American roots of contemporary music.9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled it was unconstitutional to segregate students of Mexican heritage into inferior schools, paving the way for Brown vs. Bd of Education in 1954
  • Contemporary non-fiction about art, music, family life, and other cultural elements over a wide range of ethnicity.
  • Individual biographies about Blacks, Latinx, Asians, and Native Nations from ancient to modern times (Eventually encompassing 42% of the biography collection.)
  • Historical and Contemporary Realistic Fiction by and about all races, ethnicities, and cultural groups in various situations and locations in the U.S. and other countries

Building a culturally diverse collection is essential, but we must analyze both the quantity and the quality of diverse books on our shelves. Here are a few sources I use for recommendations on quality reading material:

What books are in your personal library?

Even with authoritative recommendations, I believe we can only choose quality diverse material for our school library if we cultivate a broader view through personal reading about culture and history. I began my own quest in college with 2 books that still reside on my shelf—No More Lies by Dick Gregory and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown. Currently I have at least 5-feet of multicultural non-fiction and fiction books on the bookshelves in my home office.


A while ago I read something in a blog post that embodies my mindset for Library Lessons, and, with slight rephrasing, I believe this goal can enable all school librarians to be culturally responsive teachers:

Teach students of all cultural backgrounds to love themselves.

Black History Month can bring out the worst in our lack of cultural respect for Black Americans. I’m referring here to slavery simulations. This is an example where supposed “em/sym-pathy”—expecting students to “feel slavery”—is dispiriting and devoid of cultural benefit. Rafranz Davis states it even more boldly:

If your idea of “celebrating” the contributions of Black people during the month of February is a lesson in slavery…you are the one that needs a lesson in history and the countless contributions that we not only have made but are still making.

I’m not suggesting we avoid the discussion of slavery, but rather use care about how and when we do it, and include topics like those I mentioned earlier. Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieI’m reminded of a TED talk by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “The consequence of the single story is this—that it robs people of dignity.”

Slavery can’t be the only story our students—regardless of color, ethnicity, or cultural background—hear about the history of Blacks in America. The Holocaust can’t be the only story they hear about Jews. Terrorism can’t be the only story they hear about Muslims. Pearl Harbor can’t be the only story they hear about Asians. Undocumented workers can’t be the only story they hear about Latinx. And Thanksgiving can’t be the only story they hear about our Native Nations.

When developing Library Lessons, I ask myself:

  • How can I make this lesson culturally responsive for all my students?
    • Can I choose a wider range of resources?
    • Does the activity allow for the cultural learning styles of all students?
    • Am I phrasing my topic in a culturally sensitive manner?
  • Is this lesson building respect for all students?


With the divisiveness that currently pervades our society, it’s imperative for School Librarians to build respect for other cultures/races/ethnicities in every facet of our School Library Program. We can’t just promote heritage celebrations for a month. We must work diligently, and throughout the school year, to be culturally responsive with ourselves, our library collection, and our Library Lessons. It’s the only way our students can learn to love themselves.

line of books laying down


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Does a 21st-Century School Need a Library? Issues & Options

Does a 21st-Century School Need a Library? Issues & Options - A modern high-tech school doesn't need a library of the past. We need to explore responsible options for school library collections, but having a certified School Librarian is still critical for meeting the academic needs of today's youth. #NoSweatLibraryThe controversy about whether high-tech schools need a library continues to be a hot educational debate. If LM_NET posts are any indication, that debate, along with arguments about size, configuration, furniture, and collections are ongoing. This becomes a critical issue when planning a new—or renovated—school. To my mind, the primary consideration, whether elementary, middle, or high school is this:

What will best serve the students and curriculum in this school?

Reflecting on my years as the ‘surrogate’ librarian teaching in an at-risk alternative high school through my years as a certified Middle School Librarian, I’ve had my share of quandaries about what a school needs for a library. I’m not alone, so here are some of the issues and options I and others have encountered.


My first issue was in the alternative school: we had several-hundred books in a very small, never-used “library” room which were never used—in fact, most of the teachers didn’t even realize we had them! As a solution I wanted to disperse books to relevant classrooms where students & teachers could use them directly.

The library director was concerned about how we’d keep track of where books were and how we’d check them out. I responded that our alternative students never take school materials home, so would only use books in the classrooms. The district library automation system had a secondary field for location—the first being school name—and I could add the classroom number and teacher name where each book was located.

I was granted permission to implement my plan. Teachers and students were thrilled, and the books were used constantly. We called it “School As Library.” Alas, two years after I left to become a middle school librarian, the library director had all the books put back in the “library” room—to the chagrin of faculty and kids—and books once again faded into oblivion. About 10 years later I heard the “library” had been moved to a larger room with an updated collection, but when I visited the school, it languished in obscurity just as the prior one had.

My takeaway from this is, regardless of the library, there must be a “librarian”—real or surrogate—to care for the library collection and advocate its use to teachers & students.


Wisdom is about asking the right questions.Interestingly, it seems School as Library may become the next “hot” topic. In a recent LM_NET discussion, an elementary School Librarian, on a committee to plan for new and renovated libraries, wrote:

We are being told that the future of libraries is to reduce the space of the actual library and have books in mini satellite stations around the school. We are also being told that book cases should all be on wheels so the collection is more portable.

She asked for input, and among the responses here are the most relevant issues:

  • Satellite stations of books cut off full access to students. The library of the future is the Learning Commons which doesn’t involve reducing library space or moving books outside of the library.
  • Mobile book shelves are great to create spaces within the library for different uses, but for an entire school, mobile tables and chairs would better serve as collaborative mini satellite stations.

I related my positive experience at the alternative school and suggested two solutions:

  1. Put the satellite libraries into classrooms where they could be monitored by teachers, placing mostly curricular-related materials in their bookcases.
  2. Devise a quick, perhaps technological, way for students to check out books to track who had them.


The above LM_NET post also prompted librarians to reveal design problems with new or proposed libraries. Non-library professionals don’t understand what the school library…and the School Librarian…does, and here are some of the problems:

  • A brand new building wasn’t given enough bookshelves, so they have to use portable round wire racks.
  • In a new high school building the shelves are too short. There are huge display cabinets, but shelves for books would have been much more useful.
  • Architects, unaware that library shelving comes in three-foot-wide sections, ignored the need for certain linear feet of shelving. They also drew less furniture “so it looks open and spacious,” ignoring the need to accommodate normal class sizes in group seating areas.
  • An architect couldn’t grasp that a section of the checkout counter needed to be lower for patrons in wheelchairs.
  • Electrical outlets were mounted at floor level instead of high enough to be used by charging stations.

Barbara Braxton, a retired School Librarian in Australia (one of my gurus) had this to say:

School Library Design: If we are not invited to contribute, we have to speak up anyway. If we want the best for our students, being silent is not an option.Certainly the concept of libraries as having more flexible spaces is a driving force in design and the tale of architects not consulting those who use them is common. Don’t assume that administrators, let alone architects, have any idea about best practice in 21st century libraries—we are the experts and we need to tell them. (edited for brevity)

The consensus is to campaign for an architect/designer who has experience designing libraries:

  • Identify the essentials and why, particularly for work safety, work flow, and user access;
  • measure and create a floor plan; and
  • keep standing your ground—it pays off in the end.


I am bewildered by elementary libraries with 7-foot high shelving. I’ve suggested to elementary librarians complaining about lack of shelf space, to scatter professional teacher & classroom materials on the top shelves above their associated Dewey numbers of the student books (to have topical materials together). This opens up the lower shelves of those bookcases for the itty-bitties’ books.

As this photo shows, high school libraries with short bookcases can stack one atop another & bolt them together to make a more convenient experience for students.

One HS’s solution: short bookcases stacked & bolted together.

I am likewise puzzled by a high school library with 3-foot high shelving. While some high school librarians love their shorter mobile shelves (which are extremely heavy when loaded with books), for those who don’t I suggest they remove wheels from some of the bookcases and stack one atop another in a permanent location, attaching bolts or flat brackets to secure them together.

I have plenty of 5-foot high bookcases in my middle school library and it’s the perfect height for these students. I don’t need to use the bottom shelf for books, so I added leftover slanted shelves to display new arrivals or thematic reads. This draws attention down so students also “see” books on the shelf below waist height.

Slanted shelves added to bottom shelf of bookcases to display new arrivals or thematic books.

Slanted bottom shelves display new arrivals…which disappear fast!

The 5-foot height is ideal for displaying classroom projects and other interesting artifacts during the school year. The cases are low enough to allow easy viewing, but high enough to discourage students from handling the displays.

Store classroom materials on top of library bookcases for summer to alleviate the need for extra library storage that sits empty during the school year.

My 5′ high bookcases are also a convenient place to store items returned from classrooms for summer break so I don’t need extra storage space in the library that sits empty during the school year. It’s easy to put stuff up there and to pull down and send back to classrooms when school begins. I have a bin for each classroom with the room number and teacher name on it so it’s also easy to organize.


Does Technology Make School Libraries Obsolete? - To have or not have a School Library? If we have one, do we need books? So many questions, and I have a few answers. Read on... #NoSweatLibraryMy first stumbling block as a middle school librarian was about purchasing online subscription reference databases. Our 2-yr-old middle school was a prototype high-tech school with a 1-to-3 computer-to-student ratio. The small print collection couldn’t meet student research needs and online access should have been a given, but because we didn’t have the state-recommended books-per-student ratio, I was told I could purchase only print books with district library funds. Fortunately my principal had helped design the school as a model of technology and saw the absurdity of using old-school library standards for a modern, high-tech school. He provided the funds for me to purchase online services that would support our curriculum.

As an avid Star Trekker, I don’t remember a print reference resource on any TV shows or movies. There were incidents where books were read, but for reference they always used COMPUTER. In the original series “Court Martial” episode, the law books Cogley piled up in Kirk’s quarters seemed to glorify books over computers, but it was the dilution & homogenization of information put on the computer that was criticized—much as we lament the poor quality of information on the Internet. And at the end of that episode, it’s the skillful use of the computer as a reference resource—not Cogley’s books—that finds the real culprit. (I wonder: if Lexis-Nexis had been digitized in the 60s, would Spock have convinced Cogley that it was far easier to search L-N than to wade through his hundreds of books?)

For years the “What will they do when they get to college?” argument tried to justify print reference, but colleges and universities have been online-resource rich since the 90s. As the number and variety of online subscription services has multiplied, the claim that “It’s faster to find information in a good reference book than on the Internet” is invalid.

Most School Librarians have drastically reduced print reference materials in favor of online subscription services. We still tell students that ‘not everything is on the Internet’, but as a reason for using our high-quality online resources.  students now need to be more proficient at choosing and using online reference services than print reference sources.

The struggle now is getting teachers to assign online subscription resources and topical e-books instead of print. A corporate boss isn’t likely to say, “Joe, we need you to compile some information for the annual report, and we want you to use an encyclopedia, a book, and a newspaper, but only one website.” Yet teachers persist in giving these kinds of directions for assignments…or in the supreme case of laxity, just let students search for and submit information from any site on the Internet.

What about Fiction & Leisure Reading?
As students move from elementary to middle school to high school, leisure reading declines due to increased academic demands. Print is still preferred for elementary, but the print Fiction section of a high-tech secondary school library might smaller than prior standards. Purchasing lower-cost paperbacks can keep it current and inviting for students who say they prefer “a real book.” Using E-readers, tablets, or smartphones for reading is now popular for many secondary schools, and though that tired old refrain of the difficulty of ‘curling up with a computer’ persists, I actually prefer doing my leisure reading on my device, as do many of my students!


A quote by David Warlick: "What they have to say will be without value, because nobody will read will not successfully compete for attention. Unless they can communicate in other mediums... nobody will hear it."In a podcast many years ago, David Warlick said students need a place to go in order to find, synthesize, and produce information, and the School Library is the logical place for an Information Production Center. He admonishes that students must have the opportunity to develop as effective communicators in print, video, audio, and digital formats, or their “voices” will simply not be heard. Now THAT is a powerful argument for having a School Library—to have no such place in a school would be irresponsible.

I continue to believe that curriculum needs and student demographics ought to determine a School Library’s resources. We need to make strong assertions about providing students with information from a variety of high-quality resources, about teaching Information Literacy Skills for any kind of assignment, and about the one person in the school who can bring curriculum, technology, and communication together: a certified Teacher-Librarian. 

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