Library Observation: Centralia Junior High School Library               9/17/03    Marji Gibbs   LIS 406

The CJHS library is new to me, but will be my practicum site this semester. I am recording my observations on my first day, which is also 6th grade orientation for six classes. I’m glad this assignment caused me to look more carefully.

The Jr. High school enrolls 500 students in grades 6 – 8. The one-floor building sprawls over its site. The library is in the addition built in 1976, larger and more modern in appearance than the original school, and filled with what were originally bright colored lockers. The library is half-way down the front hall of the addition, nestled into the interior of the building. There was no indication from the entrance or hallway of where the library was located, but it was easy to find from the directions I got when I signed in at the office. (Finding the office was not so easy, though!) I assume most library users would be students, who would learn to navigate to the library quickly.

I entered the library from the west, through a wide, inviting corridor (see map below). Each side of the entry corridor was lined with eight 6’ high bookshelves. Although there are no signs to the library, there is clear, color-coded signage throughout the library indicating the areas of the collection. Each bookcase, and then each shelf, is labeled with cutter numbers. Yellow signs on the left bookcases indicated cutter letters for fiction books, A – BYA, etc, and blue signs on the right-hand bookcases indicated cutter letters for biographies.  The former card catalog and a brightly decorated display sign/rack are housed in the wide corridor, as well. (The display rack is empty because it can’t be monitored so far from the circulation desk, but the sign is cheerful).

            The entry opens into the main library room, maybe 70’ square, with open high ceilings. It feels spacious and uncluttered, inviting and comfortably lighted. I learn this is brand new purple carpet (the school color). The circulation desk faces the entrance across the broad expanse of the room, and a lighted electronic marquis behind it scrolls a welcome message. (Later in the year it will scroll new book titles). Four plaques listing the Accelerated Reader of the Year for each grade for the past five years hang next to the portrait of the retired principal. Bright-colored reading posters decorate the walls, and a huge sign, “Career Center” is mounted above the computers.

Map from student orientation:  (top is west)


             Between the entrance and the circulation desk, the long reference bookcase (probably 42” tall) divides the middle of the room in two. Fiction books are displayed cover-out on top. On the north half of the room a special reading area probably 20’ x 20’, sunk down into the floor by two steps, is called “the Pit.” It holds a futon and pillows (leopard-skin) and some wooden chairs. On the near side of the Pit, the three-way bookcase arranged in a pinwheel pattern is used for a covers-out display of new books. On the far side of Pit, there are two tables where students may read magazines or study if they can’t participate in PE, and where high school students tutor junior high ESL students several hours a week. Behind the tables, five carrels for test-taking line up along the east wall. On the east, after the carrels, a magazine display, and the circulation desk, then a wall with windows looks into/out of the librarian’s office and a workroom.

            The other half of the room contains four computers used for OPAC and Accelerated Reader (AR) only. Below a huge sign reading ‘Career Center,’ a small low bookcase along the wall has career books, with their Dewey numbers on orange signs. The computers, sign and books were purchased with career grant funds. (Students use their computer login and password, as in the com puter lab, but there is no internet access allowed during the course of a normal day. The 8th grade research classes are allowed to use internet per school use policy, but only during their class time). Nine tables with chairs can accommodate a class, and chairs are arranged so no one has their back to teacher if she stands by the computers. Near the entrance is a bright orange wall on the west, behind three tall (5’) rows of double-sided shelves that form the non-fiction stacks to the right of the entrance. Red labels show Dewey number ranges for non-fiction books. The 5’ height seems quite manageable for Jr. High students.

Part of the spacious feeling comes from that there are only two walls to the library. The other two sides of the library open upon halls filled with orange lockers, with no walls. The south side completely opens into the hall, floor to ceiling. There are several classrooms along that hall, including the computer lab. On the north there is a 4’ half-wall with five openings in it. Three of those openings have been blocked by running the 42” bookshelves consecutively along the partition including in front of the openings, leaving only an opening at either end, to discourage students from cutting through the library. The solid wall by the entry corridor, and the wall behind the circulation desk are filled with curtained windows into conference rooms.

            From the circulation desk, the librarian can see most of the room, except into part of the non-fiction stacks, and thus the librarian is also visible to the students from most of the room, if they should need help. In hours when she has student helpers to run the circulation desk, she helps students find books at the shelves, not always from behind the desk.  

The halls along the sides of the library have 7th/8th grade classrooms, and students flow in and out through the open sides, so it may be easier for those students to pop over to get a book than for the 6th graders. However, 6th graders are scheduled to come weekly for library skills time and book checkout, and the reading teacher comes along. They also may come alone with a pass – a privilege to be trusted to journey down the halls to the library in their new(-to-them) school.

The location in the center of the building makes the library available to most classes, but also provides no windows to outside. (Lack of windows probably doesn’t bother students who come in for a short time and then leave, but I felt like I’d emerged into the sunshine from a cave after I spent the whole day in there. A skylight, non-leaky, might be welcome.) Rest rooms and drinking fountains are close by, and kids seem to float out to the rest room with only verbal permission, without requiring hall passes. Because the library is in the building’s addition, the library is air-conditioned, but the older part of the building is not.

The library has 8000 books, and a dozen magazine subscriptions, and 2 newspapers. The librarian’s agenda is to improve the non-fiction collection -- a good plan, as it looks old -- as well as expand AR choices, and student workers are cataloging Newsweek and Ebony plus developing a newspaper database for research.

The books are organized simply. There are not a lot of special collections to have to learn call numbers for. Paperbacks have been shelved into the hardback books. The fiction, biographies, and non-fiction are sequential, and there is a career book collection and reference in separate sections. Some picture books are inter-shelved with the fiction, since this is Jr. High. The fiction does seem to be the most-used section. Videos are for teachers only, and are stored in the librarian’s office. There are no audio tapes. Primarily the role of the library is to encourage reading print and some non-print materials. (It might make an interesting grant project to add tapes for auditory learners, though.)

Literacy and reading promotion are evident in the atmosphere, the collection, and the teachers and librarian making use of the library. A display of new AR fiction books attracts students, and display of non-AR recommended books for non-AR classes sits atop the reference bookcase. The condition of the fiction collection is inviting; there are older books, but plenty of new books too. The non-fiction, biographies, and reference are not as inviting in terms of age and appeal; however they are the focus of this year’s collection development.  Later in the semester there will be book talks. Posters promote reading, bright colors and people of many races reading.

The reading teachers, particularly AR classes, keep a steady stream of students flowing through the library. The school is 25% black (and 60% low income), and teachers make a point of finding the black authors that they have found students connect with, at a variety off reading levels, when we pull books for a book cart. The positive feelings when the librarian goes out of her way to help kids find books contribute to the feeling that it is a positive place to be. The librarian seems to know the 7th and 8th graders by name and reading interest and have connections with many.

The purposeful activity in the Media Center gives it a bustling feeling, and students are inquiring about titles ordered over the summer. Many students seem comfortable on the computers, with the OPAC and AR, and searching the fiction shelves for books. It is an unspoken reward for finishing a book, to get to leave the classroom on a library pass. The sound level is moderate, rather than hushed, which allows conversations, and I see some peer book recommendations occurring, as well as students helping other students navigate the shelves—cooperative efforts toward literacy.

Since this is a Jr. High library, I don’t expect it to have furniture or materials oriented to very young children. Actually I was surprised but pleased to see a dozen picture books among the fiction. Though there can be a big difference between a 6th grader and an 8th grader, Jr. High student’s eye level and body size is approaching adult eye level and body size, so the furniture seems fine.  I expect the library to direct itself to kids who can read signs and who have computer experience. I hoped the materials will look new and engaging, (although mostly the fiction was at this time—nonfiction and reference were a little disappointing.) I anticipate that there will be computer access. Because the library is in a school, the librarian has to manage group behavior, and the space has to accommodate both class groups and individual users so rules are required.

I knew they used AR but I expected a larger AR collection (1500 books for 500 kids seems small). The way that they do AR is different (and more confining) than the last school that I worked in. In fact it seems quite tedious, which I didn’t expect. The librarian says in an aside that she is not happy with two AR teachers in particular who dwell on book levels. Finding an exact book level --  that no one else in the room has read this quarter--  and that is checked in-- is extremely time-consuming, particularly with a flaw in the OPAC. A search must begin from the level list or the OPAC AR search. It does not leave the students freedom to shelf browse, or to pursue a series in some cases, and it limits peer recommendations.

I didn’t expect a library without walls. I do like the uncluttered feeling of the space, and it is interesting to watch the 7th and 8th graders flow in and out of the library from the classrooms. It also is easier to monitor their hall activity when they are visible all the way back to class. But although it is visually pleasing and portrays a message of openness via its aesthetics, if I were designing the library I’m not sure I would keep the two most striking design features:

A definite price for the spacious feeling and no walls is the noise level. One 6th grade class loses almost ten minutes of class time from the locker clamor in the halls when 8th grade lunch ends. In a way, the open walls contradict the open idea of the library, because the librarian’s rule #1 and #2 involve not cutting through the library and requiring entering through the west (which is not by the circulation desk). She tells me she had lost materials because kids slip in and out the side entrances, and it also disrupts the quiet and mood of the library if they use it as a hall between classes. Also “the Pit” is dangerous if kids would be running through. Someone falls in it every year; last year a teacher wracked his knee. So the aesthetics of the space have generated a lot of controlling rules. The “Pit” reading area is used for reward time, so it looks inviting, but is not actually used much. The rules seem to be respected, and are needed to maintain the limits that make the library a welcoming space for browsing and for study. 

If there were more wall space, it might be possible to add a smart-board mounted on the wall, and even a small whiteboard for instruction. Currently the librarian teaches 8th grade research daily and 6th grade library skills weekly (not collaborative). She writes on chart paper on an easel because there is no chalkboard or whiteboard. The chart sheets that she wants to save for them to refer to the next class session are taped to the wall, but they are covering a door to the AV room and look sloppy. The 8th grade class is also instructed using a computer from the lab with LCD projector on rolling table, but the image is too small to see from the farther tables.

The spacious size is a plus and a minus in another way. It is large enough for individual students to browse while a class is going on. Yet because the space is large, it feels like the new book display is miles from the circ desk, and it takes time to walk over to Fiction to find a book for a student. Perhaps in an ideal design, skylights (leak-free, of course) could bring natural light into the space.

The arrangement of the furniture was fine-tuned over several years and the effective arrangement creates areas that are practical and uncluttered. I did wonder if it would be helpful to have the circulation desk by the entrance/exit, since they lost 100 books last year, but with multiple entrances/exits, maybe visibility of the whole library is best where it now sits. It is convenient to have it by the office. The florescent lighting in the entry and in the reference area created a glare that made titles hard to read, too, so could be improved. The 6’ shelves are too tall to be manageable height for some students, and would be better at the 5’ height like the non-fiction shelving. I helped a young student find Debbie Dadey books, and they were on a high shelf that he couldn’t reach, and then neither of us could read the spines.

If I were to change the library, I might try to make the futon reading area more available to students. It looks quite inviting, but students are seldom allowed to use it except as a reward, or if two classes are in the Media Center at the same time and need more seating space. The issue seems to be that it is difficult to negotiate a privilege for 24 kids when there is ‘fun seating’ only for 10. Maybe it will collect another sofa or two. Or the book display rack from the entrance could be moved down there to be used for browsing. It seems like it should not be off limits.

            It might be appealing if there were more area for book displays, but perhaps that could make it harder to locate books, because then they’re not alphabetically co-located. The shelf signs foster independent library users, and there seems to be a strong policy about being able to find your own books. The librarian teaches terminology so that she can say, “look on the second bookcase on wall one, fourth shelf,” and they know which is wall one. She is starting a new policy about writing sentences if she has to find the book for you and it was right where it should be—a policy to promote independence, though it sounds too severe to me.

I might choose to eliminate the Career Center sign – it has 2’ tall letters and is actually bigger than the bookcase of career books. It gives the impression that there are major career happenings in the library space, when in fact there are not. It seems to have been part of the grant necessary to get the computers, but that was 5-6 years ago. I would also get rid of the circulation desk screen saver with ocean theme, which makes loud sound of bubbles when it comes on. I find it distracting during the 6th grade lesson, and the kids are amused to think it sounds like a body function.

Were I to bring the Centralia Sentinel city reporter to see the library, what would most tell the story of the library might be a before and after photo of the library before this librarian started 3 years ago. This would be a good year to point out the new automation system (this will be the second year with it) and how the library catalog can be searched from library, classroom, and home (and students may place holds). The reporter might admire the spacious interior with new furniture arrangement and new carpeting; the size of the collection, especially the new award winning books and new book display; the before and after-school hours; and the independent way that students are industriously locating books, at the OPAC terminals and at the shelves. It is apparent these young people have information access skills that will accompany  them through life. A photo opportunity  might be one of the well-trained student workers checking out books at the circulation desk, or students reading in “the Pit.”

The point that most impressed me, besides the uncluttered cheerful space, was the level of comfort that the 7th and 8th graders seem to have in the library. In a future job, I would like my students to be independently locating titles and information in the way that these students do. I imagine the 6th graders will be right on their heels by the end of the school year.