School Libraries as Activist Spaces: Moving Social Justice to the Center of Our Practice

By Sonnenberg, Jill | CSLA Journal, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

School Libraries as Activist Spaces: Moving Social Justice to the Center of Our Practice


Sonnenberg, Jill, CSLA Journal


School libraries are no longer in a position to maintain any semblance of neutrality, on or off campus. Many suggest that libraries were never really neutral in the first place. We have always had a dogged interest in fairness and facts. Our existence is based on creating opportunity (read: equity) for all of our patrons. As the world struggles to maintain its humanity, we carefully store on our shelves volumes of the history that must never be repeated. In a very real sense, people look to us for help with what matters most to them: truth, beauty, justice, health, love. All are free to study what they wish, not only what they must, in a library. In addition, in the modern school environment, school libraries are often the perfect location for students who are having social difficulties to land. Teacher librarians are in a unique, beautiful, and necessary position to engender social action on campus. While we continue to present all sides of every story, promote critical thinking, and identify biases, the reality is that there are still some ideals-and, in fact, laws-that are in real need of defense in the school environment.

School libraries are uniquely equipped to provide students with the safe space(s) that they need in order to nurture their beliefs, identities, and selves. From displays to clubs to resource referral, libraries can actively represent all students, every day. All public educators-but especially teacher librarians-must necessarily become comfortable with providing more resources-especially mental health resources-to their students. There are so many avenues for teacher librarians to help students that are not commonly available to classroom teachers, whether due to the nature of the classroom environment, or simple time or class-size restrictions. Many of us do not directly deliver assessments to students (and most likely not the standardized variety) which opens up the potential for a more personalized teaching and learning relationship with our students. Promoting autodidacticism is always at the root of what we do, and now we must turn our attention to protect this right to learn. Teacher librarians need to defend all students, especially those who are disenfranchised, from any and all attempts at further marginalization. It's definitely time for school libraries, schools, and communities to stand up and create more welcoming, inclusive environments for all students, every day.

Readers' Advisory as Social Action

Every time we talk with students about books and reading it is an opportunity to engage them with thinking. This, in itself, could be considered a revolutionary act. For example, the study of World War II is incredibly difficult, both intellectually and emotionally. I often laud those students who independently choose to learn more about World War II because it indicates to me a sense of moral responsibility for taking on this difficult knowledge. In some way, I see these students as being willing to share the burden of our collective shame. As humans, it is critical that we study these difficult but critical subjects such as slavery, the Civil Rights movement, and the slaughter of Native Americans. As teacher librarians, we hold quite a lot of power when we make reading and research recommendations related to these topics. We are also able to encourage students to consider social issues by what we suggest for pleasure reading. My belief is that students of all ages possess a social conscience, and there is no better place to capitalize on this than in the library setting. Paying attention to works that have emerged from the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign can introduce us to titles that consider social issues. For instance, the website (http:// weneeddiversebooks.org/) has a variety of resources. Authors for teens include Susan Vaught, Rodman Philbrick, and Gail Giles.

Club Advisement

One of the most powerful things that we can do for our students is to empower them through the formation of relevant and intellectually stimulating clubs where they can both socialize and perform meaningful work together as a group. …

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