I was a dark and stormy child, and school libraries saved me in all the ways that matter.
The summer before 2nd grade, my family moved from Milwaukee to Menomonee Falls, WI. That meant a new school, new friends and new experiences I didn’t want, except for one—the St. Mary School library. More than dreams on shelves, we had Mrs. Mankiewicz, the part-time librarian who handed me stories and wonder. When she read Charlotte’s Web to my class, I tingled with hope. If Wilbur didn’t have to stay lonely and afraid, then neither did I.
In middle school, I had a bully—Anne with an “e.” Awkward, unpopular and whip-smart, I was Anne’s favorite target. My teachers didn’t see it, but Mrs. Mankiewicz did. She knew the library was the one place at school where I could exhale, so she helped me get there often. During one unforgettable recess, I met Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, and my heart sang. This very different Anne with an “e” never wavered when the world said, “Who you are is not OK.” If Anne Shirley didn’t have to sit back and take it, then neither did I.
I wandered in high school, a square peg in a sea of round holes. I didn’t fit anywhere, and once I stopped raging against that, I felt the import of the library space surge. I didn’t have to “fit” to walk through the door and be welcomed. I didn’t need the “right” clothes, the “right” hair, the “right” friends or the “right” body because there was no judgment in that place. In my high school library, a guy named Mark tutored me in trigonometry, and our nerd love for Neil Diamond turned into true love for each other. If Mark didn’t care about the shape of me, then neither did I.
If you’re thinking, “This sure isn’t what I expected from a 500-word essay on school libraries,” then I’m thrilled. Because school libraries aren’t what you expect. They’re more.
More than “nice to have,” effective school libraries are essential components of high academic achievement and healthy socioemotional development.
More than warehouses for books, effective school libraries are fully integrated academic programs that support student learning, cultivate intellectual curiosity and foster peer-to-peer collaboration. Helmed by qualified youth advocates with Master of Library and Information Science degrees, effective school libraries prepare students for success in school and in life through thoughtful information literacy instruction, expert content curation, and the unbridled agency to read, think and choose.
And more than academic programs, school libraries are havens for anyone who needs them. They rest weary bodies, unburden heavy souls and mend broken hearts. A sign on the Hall Library door reads, “You matter. You belong. You are so welcome here.” It’s more than lip service. It’s a philosophy, a guidepost and an invitation to joy.
Remember that dark and stormy child I mentioned? Now she’s North Shore’s Head Librarian, and school libraries still save her in all the ways that matter.