Step into your child’s school library. You’ll see neatly shelved books, bright seasonal displays and the latest titles grouped enticingly. You may also notice computers, e-readers and a smart board—evidence of how school libraries are evolving to hone children’s skills in research, information management and critical thinking in an increasingly complex and tech-savvy world.

In fact, at most schools, the term “library” has been replaced by the more descriptive “media center,” to acknowledge both the variety of print and electronic materials available and the center’s importance as a “hub” that connects them with teachers and students.

At Sheridan School (K-8th grade) in Northwest Washington,D.C., librarian Louise Simone sees the mission of today’s media center as “offering a wide array of resources” to help students become “lifelong readers and … learners” by building the skills necessary to answer both their own and school-related questions.” Toni Skladany, media specialist at Cashell Elementary, speaks to the library’s key role in fostering community, “the coming together of people in a space that is conducive to exploring the world” through the written word.

So vital are these aims that some schools, even in this era of budget cuts, are revamping their media centers. Three years ago, Our Lady of Lourdes School (preK-8th grade) moved its second-floor library into extensively renovated and expanded space on the first floor of its brick building in Bethesda. (Disclosure: This was my daughter’s elementary school so I had a chance to witness the transformation.) Today, the library’s blue carpeting, cozy storytime stairs, natural light and large collection of books and magazines create a welcoming atmosphere. In this new center, media specialist Amy Moore reads aloud to, and educates, primary students about aspects of story, helps emerging readers to find just the right book and acquaints middle-schoolers with resources for their projects. She also teaches computer skills to all grades.

Because parents rarely have direct contact with the school librarian (in contrast to their child’s classroom teacher) and because a library may be less visible than, say, a sports or music program, most of us have only a vague idea of how a media center functions. What, exactly, are librarians doing to prepare children for the challenges of the Information Age while helping them to become “lifelong learners and lovers of literature,” to quote Sandra Sterne, the librarian at Long Branch Elementary School in Arlington for 22 years. After all, reading skills play a vital role in a child’s later academic success, according to an article published five years ago in Developmental Psychology.

Technology

Perhaps the greatest change in the past decade has been in technology, according to Skladany, whose school was newly rebuilt on its former site in Rockville and reopened three years ago with a state-of-the-art media center. Students now need to learn “how to retrieve and process information and use software applications to create and present their work,” she says. Librarians also are increasingly responsible for “trouble shoot[ing] 21 st-century equipment … promethean boards, ELMOs, Activotes, Activslates” and for collaborating with teachers to “enhance the teaching of the grade-level curriculum.”

Both Skladany and Moore are looking into library media management tools that can allow students, their families and staff to search the library catalog through the Internet from home or even smart phones, which, says Skladany, will “strengthen the role of the library media program in the classroom and at home.”

Sheridan’s Simone also sees change in a very specific area, the use of digital or e-books in nonfiction, a form that will potentially allow libraries to replace outdated material at less expense than purchasing new print books. One constraint, though, are the lending limits placed by some publishers on e-books in libraries—an issue being addressed nationally by the American Library Association, says Simone.

Programs

One of Sterne’s greatest joys is planning programs that connect kids with books, be they school-wide or special interest. She sponsors reading groups, a Caldecott study/writing group and an at-risk boys lunch bunch and co-sponsors the school newspaper. She also works with a family literacy group that meets monthly. As librarian, Sterne is “involved with our community of families,” she says. “My role does not just concern children during the school day.”

At Sheridan, Simone brings in children’s authors and illustrators to educate and excite kids about reading and book-making and to inspire creative projects. She also hopes to start a fantasy and sci-fi book club. Cashell’s Skladany frequently draws from the annual Maryland Black-Eyed Susan list, created by the Maryland Association of School Librarians, when developing book and author programs.

Moore plans book fairs, Dr. Seuss celebrations and Poetry Alive! performances for Lourdes students and reads aloud and discusses books with each grade when they visit the library. Through these read-alouds, “I try to connect to classroom content and teach behavioral, social and emotional lessons through books,” she says. “[I also] focus on language usage and conventions or writing as well as active listening and comprehension skills.”

Into the Future

Sadly, while many school media centers, like those featured in this article, are moving forward, budget constraints are hobbling and even completely eliminating others. This is happening nationally as well as locally, with 58 DC public schools forced to cut out their librarians for this academic year. This requirement affects all schools with fewer than 300 students―almost half of DC’s 124 public schools―and goes into effect despite the assertion on DCPS’s website last year that “[r]esearch studies continue to show that an active school library program run by a certified and trained school librarian makes a significant difference to student learning outcomes.”

For concerned parents, the key is to support the media center and librarian before budget cuts occur. Speak out on behalf of the library during all your child’s years at school. Nineteenth-century industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who donated money to build 1,689 libraries in the United States, called the free library “the cradle of democracy”; we can ensure that it continues.

Things to Know

You can support your child’s school library in a variety of ways.

  • Return Books on Time and in Good Condition. Even if a lost book is paid for, the librarian still must take the extra time to order, catalog, cover and prepare it for circulation—all while others may be waiting to check it out.

  • Express Appreciation. A card or token of thanks during the holidays or National Library Week and vocalizing appreciation of the media center to other parents lets the librarian know that you recognize her important work.

  • Donate. If the school accepts cash donations, you might earmark yours for the library. Check first to see if there is a need before donating books or computer equipment.

  • Volunteer. Most librarians welcome parent assistance. You might volunteer for ongoing tasks (reshelving books or computer cataloging), one-time projects (book fair) or planning committees (for poetry contests, Dr. Seuss events or author presentations).

  • Advocate. Speak out on behalf of the library at school and PTA meetings. Vote for legislators who support libraries and education. Write letters, make calls and organize to help create change for budget-slashed libraries. Check the American Library Association’s website ala.org for additional opportunities.