Is Your School a De Facto Book Desert? | Donalyn Miller

Increasing book access for young people boosts their chances for both personal and academic success. Donalyn Miller identifies common obstacles in schools and libraries, along with advice on how to reduce the negative impact on young readers.

Increasing book access for young people improves their chances for both personal and academic success. Unfortunately, too many children in the United States— disproportionally indigenous children, children of color, and poor children in urban and rural communities—live in “book deserts” without consistent access to engaging, current books to read.

For many kids, school libraries provide their primary gateway to books. So our collections must be as relevant, representational, and engaging as possible. As the recently updated AASL Position Statement, "The School Librarian's Role in Reading," states, “School librarians ensure open access so library stakeholders are served at the point of need.” Long term, institutional and societal investment in librarians and libraries is vital to ensuring that all young people have equitable access.

Even in communities that support libraries and librarians, school or district policies may unintentionally hinder students’ access. We educators must identify such obstacles and work to reduce their negative impact on young readers. Librarians and library administrators share some common concerns—slashed funding, staff reductions, expanding job duties, competing demands for library space, greater need around serving increasingly diverse school communities, and so on. We must prevent our communities from becoming de facto book deserts.

Some considerations for your school community:


• How often can students access the school library and librarian?
• How much time do students spend browsing, evaluating, and selecting reading material in the library or classroom?
• When students miss library visits with their classmates due to services and programs like enrichment or intervention, how can we meet their access needs in the least restrictive manner?

In a small rural school district where I work, librarians recently audited their school libraries’ open hours to determine student access. During a six-week grading period (30 school days), kids lost library access to the tune of 40 hours, or five school days, because their libraries were closed for school meetings, testing, and other non-library events. When you add necessary library-related closures for activities such as collection inventory and library programs, their school libraries may be inaccessible to students and staff for six weeks or more this year. Working with administrators and faculty, librarians have set up rotating collections around the school to support student access when the library is closed.

In addition to physical access to reading material, students need time to preview, share, and talk about books. Library visits and classroom “book shopping” offer them more opportunities to browse books and texts that match their interests and needs with librarian and teacher support. Time spent examining and selecting books fosters reading relationships among students, their peers, and adult reading advisors.

All growing readers need opportunities to examine books, visit the library, read at school, and share and discuss titles with their peers. When students miss library visits or independent reading time because of necessary programs or services, we have a responsibility to make up this time with them. Everyone is a full citizen of our school’s reading community.


• What (if any) classroom or school-wide restrictions or expectations exist for independent reading?
• How can you ensure that all children have meaningful access to a wide range of reading materials?

Inviting students to choose their own books or suggesting books that they can read and want to read increases both motivation and comprehension (Guthrie, 2012; Wilhelm & Smith, 2013). When teaching young readers, we negotiate reading choice—balancing both academic reading goals and personal goals. We must ensure that students learn how to read accurately and critically. We also must support students’ intrinsic reading motivation and interest. Kids can benefit from reading texts earmarked for learning purposes. But they also need to receive the freedom to read what they want without academic strings attached. We should provide students guidance and instruction as they develop, but we cannot forget that independence is the point.

Often, academic goals for reading consume or override students’ personal interests for their independent reading or prevent students from developing the book selection strategies and skills readers use outside of school. Adult readers don’t select books by reading level or minimum page count. School-based limitations for independent reading reduce students’ access and undermine intrinsic reading motivation. Such restrictions, if they exist at all, are temporary scaffolds we must remove as readers grow.

As our school communities evolve, we must build collections in response to the needs and interests of our students and their families. Evaluating both school and classroom libraries as part of several access initiatives, I often see collections with few books for students acquiring English or students reading significantly above or below grade level. Same goes for texts in formats that support students with reading challenges or require assistive technology. Equitable representation remains a pressing concern as many schools strive to offer a wide range of voices and perspectives that reflect both their students’ experiences and the lived experiences of others. When a child cannot find books in the classroom or library that match their reading needs, we communicate that reading is not an activity made for them.

Beyond books on the shelves, providing equitable access requires consideration of students’ daily opportunities to browse, read, and discuss books with adult mentors and peers. Problem-solving obstacles to access within our school communities leads more kids to reading.

Additional Resources:

Fountas and Pinnell Say Librarians Should Guide Readers by Interest, Not Level

Reading Levels Unfairly Label Learners, Say Critics. And Then There's the Research. 

The Book Truck Brings Free Books to Thousands of Los Angeles Students

Love Them or Hate Them, Classroom Libraries Can Provide Partnership Opportunities

The Brown Bookshelf: 28 Days Later (daily posts throughout February featuring Black authors and illustrators)

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Donalyn Miller

Donalyn Miller (@donalynbooks) is an award-winning teacher, author, and staff development leader.

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Alice Peach

Another contribution to the book desert is lack of reliable funding. In my district, the school libraries are not funded (well, this is Arizona, the schools are barely funded and the state administration wants other states or home schoolers to teach Arizona students); the libraries have to rely on Book Fairs. Since I am at a middle school and not particularly supported by the teachers, parents or students, the book fair proceeds tend to be hit or miss. I saw that Jason Reynolds has a new book out and was reduced to tears wondering if I would earn enough from an upcoming book fair to purchase it. My current "wish list" is at $4,500--how many of those books will I be able to purchase? Most likely zero. I'm also working against time--the library was "uncared for" for 30 years--I'm trying to update a 30 year old non-fiction collection. Last week a teacher sent students to the library looking for books about Isaac Newton (she didn't ask me first). I had to confess the library doesn't have any; she was surprised (the library does have books about physics). Without adequate funding, I can't purchase books to reflect the curriculum in a timely manner. And I'm getting tired using my own money (which you know all librarians do) to cover the failings of the collection.

Posted : Feb 11, 2020 03:59

Jennifer Sniadecki

As a newer school librarian, my main focus is to build a diverse collection at school, promote reading time, and talk to students about favorite authors and titles so I can plan for the future. Your comments about school libraries being closed for other programs and events hit me. I need to do more. I have some ideas!

Posted : Feb 08, 2020 11:33



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