WICKER PARK/HUMBOLDT PARK — Andie Townhouse arrived at Roberto Clemente Community Academy on Chicago’s West Side to find dusty shelves and a woefully outdated collection in the school’s library.
Before it enlisted Townhouse, the school hadn’t staffed a librarian in more than a decade.
She set out to update the library’s checkout system and its offerings – heavy on Scientology and eating disorders, light on engaging fiction. But she also tackled a complete rethinking of the space for the post-pandemic era, adding 3D printers, yoga classes, a knitting circle, tutoring, and an herb-growing wellness corner — a gathering place where students can set the agenda, connect with each other, and discover more about themselves.
Townhouse is an impassioned advocate for school libraries at a time when Chicago and districts across the country are cutting back. School librarians have become something of an endangered species over the past decade. The layoffs of a couple of Chicago Public Schools librarians made headlines this past spring.
Chalkbeat spoke with Townhouse about her work to reimagine Clemente’s library, the response from her students, and the role of school librarians in pandemic recovery.
What drew you to a career as a school librarian?
I am drawn to the ways in which librarians are relationship architects. I love collaborating with my colleagues, community stakeholders, sports teams, local authors, businesses, museums, as well as any other organization that wants to show up for our kids.
I love being a connector of free resources because, at the end of the day, I want those resources to help people propel their lives or teaching practice or research. I am also a graphic novel expert, and I enjoy sharing my own reading identity with high school students immensely.
The trope of the “shhhing librarian” is long over. We are out in the community, meeting people, and seeing how best to be a thought partner.
The day I was hired, a ceiling pipe had burst, and fans were everywhere to dry out the carpet. The first thing I saw when I walked in were about 300 books from the Church of Scientology.
Weeding became my priority. I had mostly non-fiction that was all outdated material. This went beyond “Pluto is a planet.” I had racist books, books that perpetuated stereotypes, books that made fun of disabled children, and about three bookcases devoted to just eating disorders.
The world has changed four times since the library was last weeded, and in the library world we call this “spoiled milk.” I had a “curdled collection” because nobody was there maintaining what is truly a living, breathing thing.
I also learned that books were all checked out on the “honor system,” which is really no system at all. Now, students can check out books at a self-checkout station, place holds, search for print versions of books, or even borrow eBooks and instantly read them.
I took interest surveys at lunch, in the hallways, in the lobby — wherever I could find kids to tell me what they liked to read because this was now their space. The new books had to be a validating mirror reflecting back their lived realities. I was able to order 900 brand-new books this year.
What are your plans for reimagining Clemente’s library to meet the needs of today’s students?
We were recently the recipient of two grants to jumpstart our year. Makers4Change recently sent the library our very first 3D printer, and I have another one on the way for a new 3D printing lunchtime club.
I am also in the process of purchasing a few sewing machines, dress forms, fabric, knitting needles, yarn, embroidery floss and hoops. I recently bought a Cricut cutting machine. Our kids will be able to cut out vinyl stickers for their water bottles or punch out memes with our button maker.
I’m turning certain spots of the library into makerspace corners, where our students will now be able to solve real-world problems with their hands.
Last year, we were gifted two hydroponic towers. One of the grants will help us restock much-needed nutrients and seed pods, tools, tubs to transport herbs, and a micro-collection of gardening how-to titles. I’m looking forward to meeting up with our Gardening Club to enact a pesto and chimichurri taste-off with the herbs grown in our wellness corner.
Over the summer, I earned my 200-hour yoga teacher certification. I can’t wait to bring yoga to our kids after school, as well as mindful meditation sessions during lunch.
How do you see your role and that of other school librarians in the push to help students recover from the pandemic?
The pandemic’s social disruption was felt by everyone. Hardest hit were our kids, though, who hadn’t been around each other in nearly two years. School librarians were so adaptable during this time, delivering books to families outside of working hours and zooming with students to conduct reference interviews and readers advisory services.
Maintaining a connection is not something that can be replicated on Zoom, and our kids really lost how to work together, how to feel together, and to process their emotions together. The library remains and will always be a shared space. School librarians, who remain community-builders at heart, are helping kids feel their way back into the world because we have welcomed everyone back into that shared space.
What feedback have you received from students on your work so far?
The students love being in the library during lunch because for some, the lunchroom is just sensory overload. This year, alongside our English Language Learner Department Chair, the library started a thriving tutoring program during fifth period lunch. Students are taking ownership of their learning during this time, and they bring along their homework, their study skills questions, and their friends.
This summer, Chicago Public Libraries launched a part-time paid internship program for high school students 16 and older. For some students, I am the first librarian they have ever met since they didn’t have a library to go to during elementary school. Students saw a career path for their lives that wasn’t there before. When some of them landed this internship at their neighborhood branch, I cried on my lunch break.
In Chicago and other urban districts, a growing number of schools do not have a librarian. What is the fallout?
I am only one of 80 librarians left in CPS out of 600 schools. It upsets me because people making the decision to close school libraries wouldn’t accept this for their own children. When you close libraries, cut funding, and take a librarian out of their space, you lose the ability to make your school community cohesive. Kids are left to raise their reader selves alone and check out books — if at all — with zero guidance, and the collection becomes completely overlooked.
Schools that invest in staffing their school library see strong returns academically, socially, and emotionally for their entire community of learners. If schools are interested in re-opening their library, they can contact the CPS Libraries team at email@example.com.
Mila Koumpilova is Chalkbeat Chicago’s senior reporter covering Chicago Public Schools. Contact Mila at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.