Educators, Organizations Get Creative to Build Students' Home Libraries During Coronavirus Crisis

With school and public libraries shuttered, librarians and literacy organizations have gotten creative trying to get books into students' hands, especially those who don't have books at home.

As school closures were extended and more states announced the rest of the 2019–20 academic year would be conducted online, educators and literacy organizations started brainstorming the best ways to get books to kids for the spring and summer. The efforts have ranged in scope and helped kids in large and small districts across the country.

Liz Phipps-Soeiro hands out books at school site
in Cambridge, MA. Photo: Bethany Versoy

The books—for students to keep at home and not have to return to a school or public library—are distributed to provide comfort, escape, a little normalcy, and hopefully lessen the exaggerated summer slide that is expected to hit after months of remote learning followed by summer break.

Some schools have held online book fairs, but the bigger concern for educators is students whose families can’t afford to buy books and may live in homes without anything to read. Not only have they now been away from school and its library collection and been shut out of public libraries for months, but they are heading into the summer with many typical options like parks and camp programs canceled and some public pools closed.

“We thought it was imperative to get these books in the hands of kids one way or another,” says Donna Bishop, the school librarian at McKinley Elementary in the Tulsa (OK) Public Schools.

Without a safe way to distribute books that would need to be returned, quarantined, and disinfected, she did the next best thing. The district was already closing four elementary schools because of budget cuts, so Bishop pulled books from those schools and combined them with the titles she had weeded from her own collection. Not the best of the bunch, she admits, but it’s something. She brought carts of books out during food pickups at her school.

“To me it’s a natural fit,” says Bishop, who also grabbed any extra items she could offer, including crayons or markers. “If you’re going to be pulling in kids for food, it’s just a wonderful opportunity to make anything else available.”

She plans to get books to other food sites in the district and throughout the summer. Many book efforts around the country have been combined with food service programs, whether they are pickups at district locations or school buses that shuttle books with meals for closer-to-home deliveries.

Books spread across school librarian Nadine Poper's table.

Liz Phipps-Soeiro is a school librarian in Massachusetts who wanted to help and found a way (and a well-oiled machine) by collaborating with the people who run the Cambridge Public Schools food distribution.

“I knew families were incredibly eager for books,” she says. “I knew there was a need, and I knew there were books somewhere.”

She became frustrated with the local institutions’ inability to adapt to the pandemic situation—“I realize institutions, in general, are not meant to be agile and nimble,” she admits—and helped coordinate a local book effort as a community member with nonprofit experience, not in her official capacity as an educator. Phipps-Soeiro founded Cambridge Book Bike, which delivers books to kids at food sites during the summer. Using contacts she had through the nonprofit, she coordinated with a local public library and procured books that were earmarked for donation but were instead sitting in a closet.

Taking all necessary health precautions, she and other volunteers organized the books by age group and put books into bags, then went to Cambridge Public Schools food sites. They gave away about 2,200 books in 670 bags.

“It was a lot of really good work,” she says. “It was a huge success and children were thrilled....It was just magical. They were so happy.”

In Wisconsin, the Madison Reading Project, which has provided books to schools and organizations since 2013, created a similar project on a larger scale to continue to help literacy efforts in the Dane County, WI, area. The organization used the books from its warehouse and bought others in bulk, then donated to schools and community groups that were providing meals.

But its distribution didn’t stop at food sites. Teachers, social workers, and even parents reached out about specific students and Madison Reading Project staff created individual home packages that were then delivered by the organization’s bus.

By mid-May, they had distributed an average of 1,000 books per week, totaling approximately 6,500 books. It is an example of one of the larger efforts, but educators know every book makes an impact.

Madison Reading Project staff loaded its bus for deliveries.

Jessica Schlater, a fifth grade English language arts teacher at Mississinawa Valley Elementary in Union City, OH, worked with her fellow teachers to create bags of books for students to pick up when they returned for the rest of their belongings that had been sitting at school. The staff used Scholastic dollars from past book fairs to order the books, and she handpicked titles for each of her students based on their interests.

In addition to the official school bags of books, Schlater surveyed her fifth grade students and asked how many books each had at home. Anyone who answered “none” or “less than five” was put on her list for a book box that she paid for, put together, and either mailed to a student’s home or had them pick up at school.

“I know which kids don’t have books or support at home, so they are also on my list,” Schlater says. “I select titles by their interest and past books they have enjoyed. I also used the survey, which asked kids what types of books they enjoy, and I’m trying to focus on high-interest books, such as graphic novels, because they may be easier to digest in a time like this.”

She is not alone in taking things into her own hands where needed and possible.

Nadine Poper is the school librarian at Amanda E. Stout Elementary School in Reading, PA, where she says most of her students live in high-crime, high-poverty neighborhoods. When Pennsylvania schools closed in mid-March, she grabbed all of the books she had collected at library conferences that had not been catalogued into the collection. They are now spread across her dining room table.

At the end of a weekly video story time and virtual lessons, she holds up a book and asks for comments from students who might want it. She then randomly picks a student and mails it to them. She knows teachers in her school have given students links for free ebooks, but notes a lot of kids don’t want that option.

“It’s fabulous, but it’s not the same as having a book in your hand,” she says.

She is so enjoying her new endeavor that she plans to offer older siblings or parents the non-elementary titles in her tabletop collection and is trying to figure out how to get more books for the future.

“I’m getting to the point where I’m going to run out, and I don’t want it to stop when this is over,” Poper says. “I want to continue forever.”


Author Image
Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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