School libraries are changing their ways

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by Jacob Calvin Meyer, courtesy of Observer-Reporter

The way libraries operate is a common place for jokes. Television shows and commercials still portray a dark library with a 70-something-year-old librarian hushing patrons who are being too loud.

Many grew up with that type of library – a place for reading, researching, solitude and structure – and as times have rapidly changed, libraries are seen as one of the things that haven’t.  But is that public perception still accurate? Do libraries still function the same way they did in the 20th century?

For the school districts in the South Hills, the answer is a resounding no – and they’re proud of it.  Christy Smith started at Mt. Lebanon (PA) School District as an English teacher in the late 1990s before moving over to be the high school librarian, which she’s been the last 15 years.

“I enjoyed teaching very much, but I feel like I’m still teaching, just in a bigger classroom,” Smith says.

When she first started at the district, Smith says Mt. Lebanon High School’s library was wildly different than it is now – it was designed after a “college model,” and Smith says it was completely isolated in the building.  “We didn’t get any passerby traffic. It was very dark, think 1970s,” Smith says. “It also wasn’t a good meet up kind of space.”

After several years of meeting and planning for what the district wanted the library to look like, the new library was implemented in the renovations a few years ago. The library moved out of an isolated location into the center of the school, right next to the cafeteria.

“For me, the biggest thing was moving our location,” Smith says. “We wanted to be in the middle of the building. For us, to be visible and accessible would really draw kids here. A school library is one of those hubs of a building, and we really wanted to reflect that with our location.”

Along with being in the center of the school, the library includes a computer lab, an outdoor patio, a designated quiet space, soft seating and bright color scheme – all with the goal of being inviting to students. Smith says the new library has achieved its goal of drawing more students, as the it saw nearly 30,000 visits last semester, or nearly 300 a day.

Smith attributes the improvement to trying to accommodate the students’ needs and being welcoming to all students in that way.

“I think of our library as a learning commons. This is a space where whatever needs to be done can get done here,” Smith says. “Everybody’s welcome here, and our students know that. I think every school needs a strong library program, so kids know that they belong here.”

Another change in the library, Smith says, is the atmosphere, which has changed from a more typical library feel – quiet and reserved – to now being a space that will, at times, be noisy.

“We’re an academic space. To me, academic doesn’t equate with quiet. You’ll hear noise in here. It may not be a quiet space, but it’s a dynamic space,” she says. “You do have to change your perspective of your own experience and change your vision of what a library is supposed to be.”

Another high school that recently renovated is South Fayette, and according to Nicole Simon, the librarian at the high school, the changes at South Fayette are similar to those at Mt. Lebanon.

“I’ve tried to make this a welcoming environment. Not only do kids come in here to do research, but also to chill out, have some coffee at our coffee shop and (sit) on the couch in here. We also have a fireplace, and I always have music on and something relaxing for them.”

When Simon started at the district eight years ago, the library had only eight desktop computers in its lab. That progressed to implementing a new smartboard and a set of 30 Mac laptops, to now every student in the district having his or her own laptop.

The one-to-one technology goal, along with many of the changes to South Fayette High School’s library, was part of the district’s STEAM initiative.

As part of the recent renovations, which finished last summer, the library features several designated areas for different groups of students, Simon says. On one end of the library is a maker space, which contains “low-tech” supplies for students and classes to “tinker” with and learn in a different way. On the other end is a “kiva,” a circular room with flexible seating and walls that can be written on, which classes use to collaborate and solve problems.

Smith says having the library be welcoming is like any other good thing, of which there can be too much of. With this in mind, she made it a priority to have a space in the library that is a quiet area and more like the traditional library, but condensed in a smaller space.

“It’s a very fine line,” Smith says. “I was insistent when we were building these spaces that we have quiet learning spaces. When we toured other libraries, we did visit some libraries that did cross the line – it was really important to me that we had a library classroom and students could close the door and work in there.”

The most important thing Smith focuses on is trying to get students in the library. Maybe some students will just relax in the library and not use its resources, but if they’re not in the library, then there’s no chance for them to benefit from its resources.

“The library is the hub of the school,” Smith says. “You want kids in here, because we have a lot to offer. By making the library a comfortable space, you get them in here using the proper resources.”

While Bethel Park School District’s libraries haven’t gone through complete rebuilds like South Fayette’s and Mt. Lebanon’s, that doesn’t mean they’re not changing.

Denice Pazuchanics, librarian at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School, says the libraries in the district have shifted away from being purely curriculum based.  “A library provides an interactive space – a love of learning space,” she says. “It’s not so curriculum based, it’s more opportunity based to explore different things.”

Similar to South Fayette and Mt. Lebanon, some of Bethel Park’s schools are focusing on STEAM initiatives and gearing their libraries that way. For example, Independence Middle School has a maker space with a lego wall and other collaborative tools for its students. Other elementary schools have a focus on computer coding, which the libraries can also teach to the families along with the students.

“We’ve had the opportunity to bring families in and teach them together,” Pazuchanics says. “It’s the cooperation thing, with the library being the springboard where families feel safe to work with their kids and learn with their kids.”

Pazuchanics says that the most unique thing about the libraries at Bethel Park School District is the partnership they have with the Bethel Park Public Library.  Starting nearly 20 years ago, representatives from the public library often come into the district’s schools, along with the library’s pop-up library program.

Elaine Volpe, the head of youth services at the Bethel Park Public Library, says the library’s outreach has increased over the years.  “We’ve always had a strong partnership with the school district, and we were always getting into the schools, but I feel like we’re doing that more often now,” Volpe says. “We’re just extremely lucky that this partnership was forged back when and it’s gotten even stronger.”

Pazuchanics, who has been at the district for 17 years, tells her students often that there are programs at the public library for every student’s interest.  “I always tell them, ‘there’s something for you.’ I want (my students) to know that they’re only with me for five years,” Pazuchanics says. “The school library, no matter how good, is only there for a portion of their life. It’s important for them to understand that the (public) library is there for their entire life.”