Can a public library serve both school children and its other patrons at the same time? That question is being put to the test in Chicago this week as the Back of the Yards Library—a public library branch meant to serve as a school library for the 9–12 grade students attending the new Back of the Yards High School next door—opens its doors for the first time.
Staffed with Chicago’s first teen librarians (two part-time staffers share the position), the public library will also have a children’s librarian, plus a branch librarian who is also a K–12 media specialist, who will serve that role at the library for students who come to the branch during class hours. The library shares a wall with the school, but students have to exit their building to enter the branch. Heralded by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the hybrid archetype is reportedly one he hopes to replicate going forward.
“They have the same mission: to educate our children,” says Emanuel, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. “It shouldn’t be in separate buildings. It should be in a single building.”
Ruth Lednicer, Chicago Public Library’s director of marketing and communications, confirms that the city will eye opportunities like Back of the Yard where public libraries also serve as school library spaces, although she insists school libraries will not disappear.” “I don’t think it’s safe to say schools won’t have libraries,” says Lednicer. “We will take what we learn from this and adapt where we go forward, just as we won’t close public libraries and move them into schools. This was a perfect storm.”
Like many municipalities, Chicago is well familiar with shrinking budget lines. The city cut more than 3,000 positions, including teachers, while closing 47 elementary schools for the 2013–2014 school year.
At the same time, however, CPS built new library spaces inside four elementary schools at a cost of more than $2 million. The spaces have opened for the current school term, according to Dave Miranda, deputy press secretary for Chicago Public Schools
Unfortunately, CPS’s Department of Libraries and Information Services now has fewer staff members to support its teacher librarians going forward, according to Marie Szyman, vice president of the Chicago Teacher-Librarians Association.
“They have an enormous task to keep us all organized and they do an amazing job,” she tells School Library Journal, although she notes that the department “has been reduced to just a few people left.”
Partnerships between public libraries and schools are certainly common. Many work in tandem to encourage students to get public library cards, attend events, and sign up for summer reading programs. Szyma, too, promotes her local branch as a teacher librarian at Nathanael Greene Elementary, where she makes sure her students get library cards.
But cities are beginning to blur the boundaries between schools and public libraries.
Miami-Dade, for example, recently announced it would open five of its school libraries located in educational technical centers to public patrons this fall, even as it looked to close at least some of its branch libraries to balance its 2014 budget.
The partnership between the Back of the Yards Library and Back of the Yards High School will be a unique one, however, as they were designed to be shared. The public library will be open six days a week, and is in an area that lost a branch. Lednicer sees the new space as helping the community and also its students—a mission she believes libraries are designed to address.
“They do serve the same purpose,” she says. “Libraries and schools are here to educate kids.”
But whether having a public library double as a school’s media center—even one that’s just steps away— will serve students as well as one located inside their own building is unclear. With school just starting, some are waiting to see how the new model works.
“Is it worth trying or better not to approach it that way?” asks Szyman. “It’s going to be interesting to see how this works.”