In my twenty-nine years as an educator, I think of the enthusiastic student making a grand appearance in a full library during lunch as a small and manageable disruption. The pandemic, on the other hand, was a large disruption to teacher-librarians across the state. We were challenged to provide library services and distribute materials to staff and students under the scrutiny of sanitizing protocols, limited access, or full closures to libraries. I am currently experiencing my most intense disruption yet: a complete teardown of our high school library followed by a rebuild during this school year.
Historically, the lack of space for students to collaboratively work while our staff provide effective support has been a challenge. In February of 2020, the voters in the Mukilteo School District passed a school bond to improve student spaces at Mariner High School as our student population continues to grow. My principal invited me into his office and told me that the library would be going through a rebuild. I joked and asked, “Am I going to get new carpet?” His response was that the library would be moved entirely to a new space that did not exist in our school. After demolition, the former library space would be utilized for student services (i.e., counseling, college and career center, registrar, school psychologists, and health services) in one cohesive space for student access. The new library would be built on the second floor above the former library. The former counseling offices and college and career center would become the new location for our student store. Outdoor spaces and some interior spaces would be improved for students to utilize.
For the last two and a half years, I have been working with staff from the district capital projects team, the architectural firm, and the construction crew to transition out of the current library and into a temporary portable for the 2023-2024 school year. This move has caused major disruptions in our school in providing access to library services.
When I met with the architectural firm and district capital projects team, they cut to the chase. They told me that I would be moving our high school library of several thousand square feet into a double-wide 28-foot by 64-foot construction portable with two doors. I will never forget being asked, “Do you want more room for students or books?” My response was, “Yes!” But the reality was I needed to make some decisions. What materials did my library staff need to survive the year? What items could I place into long-term storage that could not be accessed for over a year? What items could I stash in small closets throughout our school that could maintain support for staff and students? How would I teach classes? How would students and staff access printers? Where would I repair, process, and catalog books? How would we support technology services? Our library staff had to think of every aspect of our daily life in our space and produce modified solutions for how we would work in a smaller space to serve nearly 2,300 students, 120 teachers, and 40 paraeducators.
I was thankful when the project manager overseeing our school rebuild suggested that I meet another teacher-librarian who went through a similar rebuild with the same architectural firm. I visited the Lake Stevens High School Library. Kit Shanholtzer, teacher-librarian, was most helpful in walking me through his new school library and explaining what worked well, the struggles he had with the build, as well as current challenges in his new library space. When I was given a box and the task to start measuring my collection to see how many boxes I would need for packing, teacher-librarian Shaelynn Charvet Bates reached out to me from the Snohomish School District through social media and said, “Advocate to get carts for your books instead of boxes. It will be easier to move your collection.” When I was ready to pack, Tacoma teacher-librarian and Washington Children’s Choice Picture Book Committee Member Roman Maunupau suggested that I measure and color code the collection in Excel so that I knew where books would be shelved when the collection was moved into the portable and later into the new library.
Because of the move, we needed to halt our checkout services during the last two and a half months of school. Our students still needed materials. I worked with Bryan Gabehart, Branch Manager, and Michael Mirgon, Teen Services Librarian, at the Mariner Sno-Isle Public Library to ensure that all students at our high school were signed up for a public library card. Students were trained through Zoom on how to utilize their library card to access physical, digital, and audiobooks as well as all the wonderful amenities that their branch had to offer, which is a few blocks from our high school. We had a special in-person session for our English Language Learners where Bryan brought in staff members to our campus, who spoke Spanish and Russian to work with students in small groups to find English resources in addition to books in their primary languages. These simple tips and suggestions minimized disruptions and streamlined several key processes.
I have 762 linear feet for students to access books in the portable. We established a temporary location for our school’s textbooks and movie collection for the current school year in other small storage areas in the school. By the end of the 2022-2023 school year, my library staff weeded out over 5,200 outdated, damaged, or poorly circulated books from our collection. We then relocated our whole collection into the temporary portable, all except our tiny reference collection that is in long-term storage. Our library staff genrefied 4,300 novels for our fiction collection before moving, which allowed easier access and improved checkout for our students in our temporary portable.
Once the books were handled, we moved to even more gritty details. I drastically downsized library equipment and furniture. I let go of our televisions on carts with VCR and DVD players, tape players, old speakers, and materials to support overhead projectors. I offered up bookshelves, cabinets, and extra furniture. We went through all the built-in furniture and drastically pared down our office supplies.
As we are settling into our temporary location, students and staff have been receptive to our “cozy” space, yet we are still experiencing challenges. At the beginning of the year, we distributed computers, textbooks, and English novels in a school hallway due to space limitations of the portable. Additionally, a smaller space reduces the effectiveness of meeting staff needs. Our orientations and checkouts for independent reading at the beginning of the year took a week longer than usual to complete. I do not have a teaching area in the portable. Teaching in a classroom and not being in the library takes me away from supporting the needs of our library staff where I could once quickly answer a question. I do have to be in more than one place at once. In our former library, we had seating for more than 130 people, and in our temporary setting, we have seating for 14 people. Our students have to navigate a locked door to reenter the building, there is no office for private phone calls or video conferencing, and our location is not in the heart of the school. It is a journey for staff and students to get to the portable. Construction work is loud and dusty and happens right outside our doors during the school day. Although we are faced with daily challenges, our team tries to work with staff and students with humor and continual problem solving to maintain quality library services.
Being a high school teacher-librarian is a full-time job. Moving out of a library into a temporary location was a full-time job. Looking back, I was overwhelmed. I was exhausted! Between meeting the district capital projects team throughout the school year, physically packing up the library collection, packing over 5,000 textbooks that we had in a storage room in another part of our building, genrefying our fiction collection, and downsizing books and equipment, I had my hands perpetually full. Our library staff did all these tasks and still managed to maintain library services and access for students and staff. The number of critical decisions that needed to be made daily, as well as tasks that needed to be completed before my team was evicted out of the former library space on the last day of school, was daunting, especially during the last three months of the school year. We were delayed in moving into our portable by more than six weeks. When we were finally granted occupancy, our staffing and services were spread thinner than usual by the end of the school year. My library team was torn between moving into the portable, helping seniors with their formal checkout process, and checking in all of the rest of the students’ materials for the year. It was a defeating and impossible situation to be in and the solution often defaulted to working outside of the contractual day to get everything done.
In hindsight, I should have taken mental health breaks by going for a walk after work, playing with my son, and asking my husband to take our family out to dinner. I should have focused on self-care and not felt bad taking a well-needed nap. I wish I had asked to have my building administration be present at more meetings with the district capital projects team and architectural firm to help me articulate and advocate for student needs for the future library space as my expertise and experience was not always honored and recognized. In the end, I know the students and staff will be thankful and utilize the new library space, not to mention the amazing view of Mount Rainier. Opening a new library is on most teacher-librarians’ bucket list in their teaching career. Keeping the end in mind with a positive mindset is essential to survive this disruption. Just be careful when you ask your principal if you are getting new carpet-- you might be getting an entirely new library.