Creating a new story… from a distance: School library services during a shift to the digital library

Our schools, in Ohio, have started the impromptu, unanticipated three-week switch to online learning to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by order of the Governor. Our amazing teachers are working tirelessly to create meaningful educational connections for our students through online platforms and screens. Although this seems both unimaginable and daunting to our teachers, we are in this together. Each day brings more uncertainty and changes adding stress to our whole community, especially our students. I hope this post can bring some peace to these stressful times.

Our public libraries have also closed to the communities, and now we, school librarians, are the only direct connection to library services for our students. As difficult as this unexpected project is for teachers, it may seem impossible to provide school library services to teachers and students from afar. The question of “How?” has worried me as school library services rely heavily on the concrete physical library.

But I know that librarians are tough!

We are motivated!

We are problem-solvers!

We are book worms and information dragons!

It is easy to fall into a state of misery when there is so much unknown. But a librarian never says “I don’t know,” we say “I’d be happy to help you find the information.” We just have to keep in mind that research often does not provide a direct answer but rather it allows you to make a hypothesis and to create an educated experiment to find an answer.

There is not yet a specific answer to the question, “How do I provide school library services from home?” But the librarian in me is not satisfied with “I don’t know.” So together let’s experiment for the next few weeks of a shift to the digital library. As you connect with your teachers and students in this new platform, share your successes, discuss your struggles, celebrate your students, and engage with other librarians who also are trying to find the answer to being an “online school librarian.” 

Embrace this change with open arms. While our school libraries are integral to school life, our librarians are essential resources for our teachers. Our role as librarians does not change in an online platform; take this opportunity to engage with your teachers and share yourself as a resource. More so now than ever, our teachers and students will need their school librarians to be the guides through information overload.

In this forum, I do not have to promote the importance of reading during time away from the physical classroom. But it is so important that I will ask you to remind your teachers and students’ families to encourage reading. They can read to them, read on a device, read a magazine, stream audiobooks / read-aloud videos, read nonfiction, read instructions, read recipes, etc. This will be the biggest benefit for building connections between families and students not falling behind.

In addition, here are some connections and suggestions that I hope to try during our shift to the digital library. I plan to update this post with my observable data.  

Some background information on my specific experience:

  • an Early Childhood to 12th-grade school
  • all girls K-12
  • co-ed ages under five
  • 3 librarians, I specifically support under age 3, third and fourth-grade library classes, and fifth through eighth-grade flexible research and leisure reading
  • a robust curated collection of physical and digital resources
  • access to technology was offered to all students by the school
  • fourth through twelfth-grade students are familiar with an online-based Blackbaud system already used in the classroom

Worthwhile experiments benefit from prior knowledge. What do I already have in my toolbelt? Start with what you have created and saved.

  • Revisit your personal creations. Did you create booktalk videos that you could reuse? Do you have favorite library activities that could easily be adapted to at-home play?
  • Have students interact with your OPAC. Through our OPAC, our students can write comments/reviews for books. Suggest to an English teacher that this tool could be used as an interactive assessment.
  • What databases does your library subscribe to? Do you have an accessible online list? Be sure to include any off-campus usernames and passwords in an obviously visible way
  • Are your databases organized well for this new 100% online platform? Our alphabetical list of databases worked great in the classroom but with less direct instruction adding a layer of “Age Level” is now helpful to teachers and students.
  • Explore your current databases under a new lens: What would be beneficial to online learning vs. in the classroom? I found that our current databases have interactive experiments and even digital timeline creators. Teachers might just need a reminder that these tools are there. 
  • Our teachers are inundated with resources, many of which the library may have already vetted for your school- share with your teachers what is the most user-friendly for each age level.
  • Check out subscription resources that are now free in this situation. Ask your teachers what programs they use in class that you might help advocate for access. ABCMouse is a resource to which we had limited on-campus access, it has now become temporarily free.
  • Remind families of public library digital resources like Libby, by Overdrive. Even work with your public library to provide digital access for online resources.

Embrace the oxymoron: Use the technology, limit the screen time. Most of my lessons and activities will not be videos, websites, or even based on a screen. They don’t even need to have a digital assessment. Treat the device as a medium of communication. 

  • Be defenders of unplugged, unscheduled child-led free time. Boredom is a learned skill. Creativity and imagination bloom in times of quiet boredom. Authors and illustrators are born in boredom.
  • Provide prompts for students to handwrite or illustrate a story
  • Reading Bingo (modify a summer reading bingo or create your own)
  • Design a new room decoration inspired by a favorite book or literary character
  • Make their own secret language and create a translation key
  • Create a new ending to a fairytale
  • Partner read (switch every paragraph / page)
  • Track number of books read at home with a custom thermometer 
  • Build a new literary world with legos or other materials
  • If your library includes a maker space, brainstorm a new invention that could be printed from a 3D printer
  • Encourage reading aloud between students and parents/siblings/pets
  • Reread a favorite story on your bookshelf, did you experience something new? 
  • Try to read for ten minutes in every chair in your house.

Focus on passion and connection. Move information and curriculum in a way that is amusing for you and your students!

  • If storytime in the library is your jam, there is no reason storytime can’t continue online. My co-librarian is creating amazing interactive storytime videos that will be posted just for her students to enjoy. She even included the pauses in her normal greeting, song, and wiggle rhyme so that students can respond!
  • I plan to video at home booktalks while including my pets: a german shepherd, corn snake, and painted turtle. I believe that acknowledging that I too am at home can be a comforting connection.
  • Share how you are moving time along. How are you accessing eBooks or audiobooks? Are you discovering the joy of self-care or organization? Relate these activities to habits your students too can build. 

As for lessons, add joy; there is no better time to make your students giggle through a lesson. With online learning, focus on skills and habits rather than content.

  • Teach alphabetical order and shelving by asking them to organize a random collection from A-Z, share your reaction as they return images of alphabetized cereal boxes, stuff animals, or maybe even Skylander figurines! 
  • Discover virtual field trips 
  • Discuss the differences in genres by having students imagine the story through a different genre lens. How would the iconic mystery And Then There Were None be different as a romantic comedy?
  • Develop the basics of research while discovering information about ice cream or bowtie noodles.
  • Encourage author videos like Doodles with Mo Willems
  • Create two-line scary stories
  • Practice poetry by attempting to speak in rhymes all day
  • Storytime and read aloud:
    • Read a story with an element of food and then cook/bake that item
    • Create a rap/song for a book
    • Encourage families to create a new reading nook in their home and share the image of family reading time. 
    • Retell a story with hand shadows/shadow puppets
    • Turn silly stories into a “Try not to laugh” challenge. Wonky Donkey by Craig Smith comes to mind!

Mistakes will be made by both you and your students. Do not let that stop you from trying something new.

  • Step back and remember that students are NOT digital natives, they are adventurous. Just like they are willing to jump off a high flying swing, they are willing to use new technology but they might still bruise their knees before getting it right. My fourth graders reminded me of this when I took them to the public library computer lab for the first time and I had to start with a step by step lesson on “what a computer mouse was.”
  • Create a community of empathy. This is all new to you, to your teachers, to parents, and to students. If your teachers are overwhelmed, offer to create step by step instructions/videos for resources. 
  • If something doesn’t work the first time, it doesn’t mean it is trash. This is why experiments have many trials and include discussion of changes and struggles. 

Librarians still have an obligation to intellectual freedom, copyright, advocacy, equity, diversity, and inclusion. 

  • Encourage equity, diversity, and inclusion throughout your lessons and recommendations. Think about not only the internet and computer access but printer access. Can I provide resources that are accessible in multiple formats? Are my instructions accessible to students of all abilities?  
  • Families often make overarching decisions for their students concerning information access, belief systems, and values. Many students find safety in books that may be starkly different than their family background. While they are home, how are we creating safe spaces for them to continue to discover their own sense of self? I need help solving this “How?” question.
  • Build up parents. They too are stressed and will be learning with your students. Do not fall into the assumption that parents will understand directions. Family barriers including language, level of education, work obligations, and disability will impede your students. Breathe and remember this is not within their control. 
  • Continue to be a defender of original expression. Copyright still exists, and often authors are not the decision-makers. Many authors have posted to social media that their resources can be made available to students by reading aloud. Be sure to double-check with the copyright holder and terms of Fair Use before providing these resources to students.

Offer faculty social-emotional support

  • Recognize the possibility for equity imbalance; reach out to teachers that may not have the internet at home. 
  • Provide adult activity lists for those stuck in their homes (best books to binge and shows to stream)
  • Offer suggestions for the best children’s books for teachers to read (two of my favorite being Fish in a Tree and Song for a Whale)
  • Whether introverted or extroverted, our everyday relationships are changing. We need to actively reach out to our work friends, all of our coworkers, check in on them and attempt to create the same normalcy we are creating for our students. 

This is my call to action as we write our new story as Online School Librarians: experiment and share!  This network of librarians has always comforted me; you are all superheroes of information for your schools but also for me. I feel that within our listservs, forums, and social media groups, librarians have created a utopia of an online safe space. Our librarian groups allow for mistakes to be made, for concerns to be voiced, for opinions to be shared in a way that is both respectfully educating for individual growth and actively protecting oppressed parties. As you connect with your students in this new platform, highlight your successes, dialog your struggles, salute your students, and connect with other librarians who also are trying to find the answer to being an “online school librarian.” 


5 thoughts on “Creating a new story… from a distance: School library services during a shift to the digital library

  1. Thank you! This is excellent, and, yes, we’re all in this together! I have so appreciated our group’s eagerness to share resources.

  2. Thanks, Kati! Excellent reminders! I’m excited to try some new ways to share literacy with students. Opportunity is knocking!

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