As technology and collection development administrator for Nashville Public Library (NPL), I didn’t always know all my local school librarians. That changed in 2009, when our mayor asked Nashville’s school and public librarians to partner. Our challenge: we would leverage public library resources to create world-class school libraries and also get more children using Nashville Public’s collections.
We created a pilot program called “Limitless Libraries,” testing it in three high schools and one ninth-grade academy.
We rolled out the pilot in three phases:
First, we tackled school library collections. Collections experts from Nashville Public worked closely with school counterparts, weeding outdated materials and adding new ones. Our goal was to match school collections to the lessons and curricula being taught there. School librarians provided expertise about educational needs; public librarians contributed knowledge of circulation and publishing trends.
Second, we made inroads with parents. With permission to access children’s school records, we used student identification numbers to assign public library cards. Once parents acknowledged they were responsible for items their children borrowed from Nashville Public, we set kids up to use Limitless Libraries.
Third, we opened Nashville Public Library’s doors to students—without even asking them to leave their schools. Students could, from school libraries (or any locale with an Internet connection), order materials from our catalog and receive them through our daily school deliveries.
This approach gave students a familiar, easy way to access books, high-quality databases, audio-visual materials, and English Language Learner items. On campus, they could also borrow e-readers, tablets, and laptops—which we bought for each school library.
Before I share how Limitless Libraries has grown, I’ll pause for an “honesty break.”
Yes, Limitless Libraries has soared, sending our spirits soaring, too. But we weren’t totally optimistic at the beginning. In fact, as we designed Limitless Libraries, I didn’t know how things would turn out. There were pockets of collaboration between public and school librarians in Nashville. But, until Limitless Libraries, nothing had been uniform across the library system or our metropolis.
Other public librarians reading this article can surely empathize with how I felt back then. Imagine: public librarians feared being swamped with a dramatic increase in demand for services and time. Meanwhile, school librarians worried about being “taken over” by their city library counterparts.
It’s fair to say: I was nervous.
However, my initial fears were no foreshadowing of our ultimate experience. By keeping open minds and listening to one another, we avoided “flop” and instead built something fantastic for Nashville’s kids.
Results for Students
Here’s a snapshot of Limitless Libraries, five years after its launch:
- We’ve grown into all 128 Nashville public schools.
- More than 25,000 students registered to use Limitless Libraries in 2013—and 15,000 of them were first time library users.
- We delivered more than 112,000 books and other items to schools in 2013.
Most importantly, these results benefit Nashville’s public school students. A recent study by an objective third party examined the impact Limitless Libraries has had on students’ performance.
According to the study:
- Middle and high school students credit a wide variety of short and long-term learning outcomes to Limitless Libraries.
- High school students who used the program were more likely to perform well on the state’s end-of-course tests in algebra, biology, and English.
- Middle school students who used the program were more likely to perform well on the state’s comprehensive assessment tests in English, math, and science.
Ideas for Other Librarians
I hope other librarians—in school and public libraries alike—will find inspiration in our story. In addition to being energizing, the Nashville model also offers practical tips for fellow bibliophiles. What’s more, professionals needn’t create an entire program to experience collaboration’s two-way benefits.
A few ideas:
- Public librarians can help school counterparts supplement lesson plans. A variety of public library materials, including multimedia resources, can help build really fun teaching kits.
- Public librarians can help school librarians tailor their collections. For example, we added chef biographies at one local school focusing on culinary arts. At another school that offers aircraft studies, we provided a Pilot magazine subscription.
- Public library e-readers and computers can boost students’ technology access outside the school day.
- If a school librarian can’t order a latest bestseller, because it’s released outside their purchasing window, public librarians can help. In fact, we were able to order “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” for schools this year—and deliver it the day it hit the streets. That day, we were all heroes!
Limitless Libraries has boosted student performance and professional morale. I’ve discovered school librarians manage some of the same responsibilities we do—but they do it all on top of their first priority: teaching. Our local school counterparts have made a great impression on many of us at Nashville Public. In fact, several employees now volunteer at Limitless Libraries across the city. No matter the shape or scale your own partnerships take, I believe the experience will be deeply gratifying.
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Tricia Bengel leads technology and collections development for Nashville Public Library in Nashville, TN. She and her team design programs that leverage technology creatively to help meet the city’s reading and learning needs. Bengel, who earned her master’s degree in library sciences from the University of Kentucky, began her library career working as a library page at age 15. She is also president of Tenn-Share, a statewide library organization dedicated to resource sharing and advocacy.