In my experience, libraries have always been organizations that are open to many forms of collaboration. They seek partnerships and opportunities to gain mutual benefit with related organizations. Collaborative initiatives may be driven by the need to make the best of scarce funding or personnel resources. Many projects aim to strengthen the impact of libraries on their communities by focusing the resources of multiple library organizations on a given problem or issue.
In recent years, school libraries have faced unprecedented challenges. Debra Kachel, in a story posted on The Conversation US, cites disturbing statistics and examples that depict "[a] dramatic decline in school libraries and librarians." State after state and city after city have drastically cut the number of libraries in their public schools and the number of librarians employed. I view such cuts to K-12 school libraries as being incredibly harmful to society in general and to the long-term prospects to libraries in particular.
School libraries facilitate the love of reading and have a major impact on each new generation's development of the necessary skills for accessing and evaluating information. They also play an important role in instilling an appreciation for libraries that can last a lifetime. School libraries prepare students to become savvy users of college and university libraries and more passionate patrons of public libraries. As an important supply of next-generation users, public and academic libraries have a vested interest in strengthening the success of school libraries.
Within a community, public and school libraries have many areas of overlapping interest. Students are almost always also patrons of the public library system. The public library system and the school district often draw their budgets from the same governmental entities that may be receptive to proposals for collaborative projects that can amplify the impact of allocated funds. Partnerships with schools represent an important channel of outreach for the public libraries. Schools benefit from access to resources, programs, and services beyond what they might otherwise be able to offer.
Collaboration offers many opportunities for mutual benefit. Projects can address a variety of different issues or tasks. They can be formal or informal. Formal collaboration might include initiatives to share technical infrastructure, processes, or people. These projects promise the most impact and benefits, but require approval from the highest levels of administration, especially when reallocation of funding or other resources is involved. Individuals or units within these organizations can also work together more informally. Establishing and strengthening relationships among individuals who play similar roles within each separate organization can increase the awareness of their relative strengths and shortcomings. Ideas may emerge for initiatives that can be tried experimentally and that can be the basis for strategic or longer-term alliances.
Recognizing the Differences
When considering points of collaboration between school and public libraries, it's important to be aware not only of the commonalities, but also the differences. Public libraries build collections and provide access to address the widest range of interests and resist censorship. They serve community members of all ages, interests, and demographics. While school-age children represent an important segment for public libraries, they must serve all layers of society.
School libraries focus on providing access to materials appropriate to each set of learners. Each school library covers the appropriate span of reading levels and makes careful selections relative to topics and content. Content dealing with violence, sexuality, adult themes, or any controversial area must be handled with great care and consideration. The realities of collection-building in a school library might feel much like self-censorship to other types of librarians.
On the technology front, access to the internet characterizes a key difference. Mediating access to the internet through some level of content-filtering technology is a given in most public school systems. Funding stipulations and legislation generally mandate the restriction of specified categories of content. Internet filtering is usually selectively provided in public libraries. It's common, for example, for a public library to offer unfettered access from computers in most areas, but to enforce filtering for those areas designated for children. Some public libraries filter by default, but they are able to release stations upon request.
Sharing materials is one of the most obvious ways that public libraries can assist their colleagues in the schools. In most cases, students, teachers, or librarians in a school can borrow or place holds for any materials needed from the public library and pick them up from the nearest branch. In some communities, the public and school libraries have established more direct mechanisms for loaning materials to students or teachers. Public libraries can designate schools as preferred interlibrary loan (ILL) partners, as drop-off points for couriers who complete daily routes for branch transfers or for other programmatic efforts that facilitate use of their materials in schools. While ILL arrangements tend to be reciprocal, in most cases, the public library will be the main supplier. Public libraries can see these transactions mediated through the schools as another way to provide service to its younger patrons.
Many librarians assert that contentfiltering mechanisms generally do not work. These products cannot effectively deny access to images and content related to pornography or other topics deemed inappropriate without also limiting access to imagery related to those of a scientific or cultural nature. Content filtering often goes beyond preventing access to images, limiting access to topics not accepted by some views of morality or religion. I'm personally very skeptical about the efficacy of content-filtering services. But even librarians who share these concerns are required to employ mandated filtering.
Children's librarians in a public library system and school librarians might work together to select, implement, and tune any required internet-filtering products to achieve their required purpose with the fewest possible side-effects or without unintended blocking of allowed resources.
Once a relationship has been established in which school librarians have confidence that they can receive materials expeditiously from their public library partners, they can begin to shape their collections accordingly. Coordinating the acquisition of materials with a public library can enable school libraries to concentrate their resources on supporting the curriculum and rely on the public library for supplemental materials.
Dialogue with school librarians can also help selectors in public libraries anticipate the materials that might be requested. This proactive strategy will strengthen a public library's youth collection to include better coverage of authors, themes, or events identified by school librarians.
I'm aware of many public libraries that have been empowered to provide services to the school library system in their community. Limitless Libraries (limitlesslibraries.org) is a collaborative program between the Nashville Public Library and the Metro Nashville Public School system. Nashville Public Library loans books and ebooks to students in the school system through a search-and-request service provided via the Limitless Libraries' website and with expedited delivery. Through this program, the public library also supplements school library collections with materials selected according to mutually defined criteria. The funding provided from the city for this program enables the public library to devote resources to support the schools in a way that does not dilute its other areas of collections, programming, and services.
Through Limitless Libraries, the public library system provides acquisition, cataloging, and other processing for materials related to the initiative. It's also possible for public libraries to supply comprehensive services related to school library collections. Such an arrangement relieves the school system of having to maintain its own technical processing department, enabling school librarians to devote more attention to student-oriented activities.
Shared Technology Infrastructure
As public and school libraries become increasingly engaged, there may also be ways to implement technology infrastructure to facilitate collaboration. When both organizations operate technology environments independent from each other, cooperative programs can be more difficult and inefficient. Implementing systems that can effectively communicate with each other or working toward shared technical components can support cooperative initiatives at different levels. The extent to which the systems share technology infrastructure can shape the impact of the aggregate collections and the efficiency of providing materials at the time of need.
School and public library systems that work in close partnership can provide a common online catalog or discovery service that delivers convenient access to their combined collections. The My Library NYC initiative brings together the collections of The New York Public Library (NYPL), the Queens Library, the Brooklyn Public Library, and the New York Public Schools into a single discovery interface provided by BiblioCommons (see mylibrarynyc.org). This initiative provides students in more than 500 schools expedited access to materials from the vast collections of NYPL.
A shared discovery interface facilitates resource-sharing among the organizations even though they use different ILSs. Using such a resource includes implementing the underlying software or service that will supply the interface as well as populating its indexes with records from multiple ILSs and configuring the mechanisms for displaying availability and for processing requests and routing materials. This work pays off by providing a much more convenient way for students to find and request materials compared to searching separate catalogs and for library personnel through more automated means of fulfilling requests.
The most ambitious form of cooperation between public libraries and school districts within the same community comes with sharing an automation system. In this model, a single ILS or library services platform provides comprehensive support for the libraries of both organizations. A shared system comes with built-in resource-sharing, eliminating the need for employing a separate discovery environment to represent combined collections and all the overhead associated with synchronizing indexes and implementing interoperability mechanisms. It supports flexibility in the provision of services related to technical processing. Even if a system is shared across organizations, it remains possible for each to perform its own acquisitions, cataloging, or technical services. For scenarios that involve centralized processing between school and public libraries, a shared automation system is almost essential.
Sharing technical infrastructure between public libraries and school libraries requires a strategic and longterm partnership. This arrangement affects how each organization allocates personnel and budgets and conducts daily operations. It requires the highest degree of administrative support and alignment. However, consolidation of technology does not mean a loss of organizational identity. Even when schools work closely with their public library system to gain efficiencies for their libraries, other aspects of the organization remain unaffected. Since the separation of shared systems can be just as complex and expensive as their implementation, these arrangements must be very carefully considered and planned.
In the current era, the scale of technology platforms does not impose limitations. Many of the major systems available can easily handle the size of collections, the number of students or patrons served, the volume of transactions, and the complexity of crossinstitutional policies. In recent years, we have seen a trend toward shared systems involving multiple libraries of the same type. Given the differences between the requirements of public and school libraries, sharing automation systems will involve many complications and complexities that will need to be resolved. And yet, it is the organizational issues more than the technology that require the most attention.
Strengthen the Role of School Librarians
Cross-institutional collaboration shouldn't diminish the role of the teacher librarian. It should extend resource levels and support. Projects should aim to improve the performance and impact of libraries and not be seen as ways to simply save money. Collaboration needs to result in school librarians spending more time with students and some freedom from the technical or administrative tasks associated with operating the library or its automation systems. Especially in districts that have reduced the number of school librarians, it's essential that they benefit from any collaborative efforts that amplify their impact on students.
Collaboration with public libraries- even when supported by well-designed technology components-cannot magically solve the issues in the school library sector. In this era when the commitment to school libraries at all levels of government seems inadequate, it appears that enormous efforts of advocacy are needed to reverse this disturbing trend. In the meantime, any benefits or efficiencies that can be gained through collaboration and technology can potentially provide some short-term relief. *