A tidy, well-stocked library makes for a great start to the school year: Heather Schlang (Opinion)

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A tidy, well-stocked library makes for a great start to the school year: Heather Schlang (Opinion)

A bright, tidy collection of a favorite book series -- like Dork Diaries -- can make a big difference in a young student's life. (Photo Courtesy of Building Bridges with Books)

A bright, tidy collection of a favorite book series — like Dork Diaries — can make a big difference in a young student’s life. (Photo Courtesy of Building Bridges with Books)

Guest columnist Heather Schlang is a lover of books, NCJW/CLE’s Vice President of Community Service and co-chair of Building Bridges with Books Program.

As another school year begins, the perennial question is asked: “What did you do on your summer vacation?”

It’s been a long time since I attended school, but I actually spent my entire summer inside a school library.

As vice president of community service for the National Council of Jewish Women/Cleveland (NCJW/CLE), I volunteer with our Building Bridges with Books (BBB) committee. BBB’s mission is to reinvigorate libraries in under-served schools, and we are the only organization in the city doing this work.

Why is this important? Because I’ve seen firsthand what it looks like when there isn’t a sense of order. I’ve seen kids unable to find books, I’ve seen kids walk into libraries with no curation of books, and I’ve seen kids leave the library with no books at all.

This summer, I was one of 19 NCJW/CLE members who spent more than 1,000 volunteer hours sorting, organizing, coding and labeling thousands of books, while providing the tools necessary to keep the library running smoothly throughout the school year.

Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into making a successful school library.

A book is not just a book. We get thousands of donated books — and for that we’re really grateful. But what’s just as important as the donation is making sure the book is one that students will read. A book from 1980 about computers was once thrilling, but now it would just sit on a shelf (and devalue other great books in the library). If it doesn’t appeal to the students, it’s time to recycle. So long, VHS tapes!

More isn’t necessarily better. If books are outdated, yellowed or even mouse-gnawed, they’ve got to go. I may not have time to weed my flowerbeds, but I most definitely weed through old books.

High-interest books are definitely better. Graphic novels and popular series (think Captain Underpants and Dork Diaries) are the most circulated. Kids also want to be able to see themselves in the characters, so books that mirror the diversity of the student population are important.

Without a book return, things can go awry. This is probably the most underrated thing in a library. It’s simple: A book return is necessary. You’d be surprised how many libraries don’t have one. A book return does two things: 1. It holds students accountable. 2. It’s how media specialists keep track of what’s in and what’s out.

No one will read a book if they can’t find it. And you wouldn’t believehow often this happens. Libraries function through classification systems. That’s why we spend so many hours processing books and creating signage. When the students roll in, they can quickly find that dinosaur book.

Clean books make a bigger difference than you think. It may seem obvious, but a white book looks really different from a dingy gray one. And when you put thousands of them together on a shelf, cleanliness makes a difference. We take a wipe to every single book in the library.

Maintaining the library is as important as building one. This is our 12th library project, and we’ve learned that you can’t just love ‘em and leave ‘em. Under-served schools don’t have the luxury of parent volunteers who assist the media specialist. With both teaching and library responsibilities, media specialists can’t do it alone. NCJW/CLE periodically checks in with our schools. We put our blood, sweat and tears into each and every library, so you can be sure that we want it to stay as special as the first day students walked in.

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