September 21, 2017

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“Liz the Librarian:” Liz Phipps Soeiro, 2017 Hero of Family Outreach

On any given day, Liz Phipps Soeiro might be inviting families to hear a speaker, such as Pulitzer Prize–winning author Junot Díaz, at her elementary school library—or riding a bike to local parks to give away books. Both reveal her commitment to families at Cambridgeport School in Cambridge, MA, and its community. At the school, in a historic brick building a mile from Harvard University, nearly 40 percent of the pre-K through fifth grade students are from low-income backgrounds, and others have parents who work at Harvard or MIT. “We have a lot of wealth in the city, but we also have people who experience poverty,” says Phipps Soeiro.

Five years ago, “Liz the Librarian,” as she is affectionately known, noticed that parents and caregivers often lingered to socialize after dropping kids off. She also saw that within this racially and socioeconomically diverse population, not all parents felt included in the school or local government. With that in mind, she created a morning program called Coffee and Conversations. Once a week, she invites a speaker for casual meetings with parents at the library. Guests have included the mayor, school committee members, and local artists. Following President Trump’s executive order banning travel from six Muslim nations, she invited a representative from the Council on American Islamic Relations and an attorney from the Muslim Justice League to speak to an audience including some 25 Muslim families about their rights. The lawyer met with individual families afterward.

“She’s a true linchpin of the school community, with a warm and respectful welcome for every child, family member, caretaker, and educator who comes through the library,” says Elissa Gershowitz, executive editor of SLJ sister publication The Horn Book, whose son attends Cambridgeport.

“Friend” is a word that comes up often when Phipps Soeiro starts talking about parents. She gets to know them and encourages them to share special skills with students. One mother, whose four children attended, is a rapper and songwriter who, over a month and a half, “helped [students] write and perform a song about our school and library,” says Phipps Soeiro.

The library’s collection reflects Phipps Soeiro’s commitment to social justice. Titles such as Margarita Engle’s Drum Dream Girl and Debbie Levy and Elizabeth Baddeley’s I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark spark discussions about government and fairness. During a field trip to city hall, students sat in council chambers and asked questions of city leaders.

Parent volunteer Firdaus Hamyar (right)

Phipps Soeiro accomplishes all this on an annual budget of less than $3,000. Meanwhile, in the summer, she pedals the Cambridge Book Bike, not affiliated with the school, to city parks, where she hands out books during free lunch programs that are part of the Let’s Move, Let’s Eat federal program. She started the bike program in 2014 with $2,000 raised on Kickstarter. A local early literacy organization, Agenda for Children, donated books, and the City of Cambridge offered funding. By this summer, the program had two bikes that visited five parks weekly during a 10-week period. Over the past four summers, some 9,000 books have been distributed.

Phipps Soeiro is also a board member of the international organization Libraries Without Borders, which supports global early childhood literacy. As the legislative cochair of the Massachusetts Library Association, she writes letters to state and federal lawmakers urging support for libraries. She is especially interested in how the Every Student Succeeds Act will affect libraries as it is implemented this fall. As Amy Short, assistant director of library media services for Cambridge Public Schools, says, Phipps Soeiro “epitomizes the best of our profession.”

About the Award

SLJ presents the fourth annual School Librarian of the Year Award in partnership with sponsor Scholastic Library Publishing. The award honors a K–12 library professional for outstanding achievement and the exemplary use of 21st-century tools and services to engage children and teens toward fostering multiple literacies.

This year’s award recognizes one winner and four finalists honored as Heroes from a strong pool of 42 applicants. The winner receives a $2,500 cash award, plus $2,500 worth of print and digital materials from Scholastic Library Publishing. The Heroes each receive $500 in materials of their choice from Scholastic Library Publishing.


Maker Hero: A standout creative individual leading the way in promoting hands-on learning with entrepreneurial and innovative programming in the maker tradition.

Hero of Equitable Access: A champion who promotes equal access to information, library services, and technology in his/her library and school, with particular attention to reaching the underserved.

Hero of Family Outreach: This model of engagement connects with families, helping meet the unique needs of the community and helping promote a home/school connection through the library.

Hero of Collaboration: An exemplar who demonstrates great collaboration skills, teaming with a teacher, staff, administrators, or community members at the local or district level—all toward benefiting students.


The 2017 Judges

Todd Burleson, 2016 School Librarian of the Year; Glenn Robbins, superintendent, Tabernacle (NJ) Schools; and the editors of School Library Journal.

Read more about the award.

This article was published in School Library Journal's September 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Grace Hwang Lynch About Grace Hwang Lynch

Grace Hwang Lynch is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has written for PBS, PRI, Salon, and BlogHer. Follow her on Twitter at @HapaMamaGrace.

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