Student Health & Well-Being: How Libraries Can Create Safe Spaces

Teens bring their brand of spirited energy to a library, including an abundance of chatter, hidden snacks, and their unaltered selves. When they enter through the doors, teens often shed the exterior armor they have donned for their parents, teachers, coaches, and peers. Libraries have long been a refuge for teens who might struggle to find their place at school, and it is often the one space that is readily open and available to the entire campus community.
 
In her book Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids, researcher and author Denise Pope reports of the toxic stress and increased depression evident in many of today’s teens. She writes that high-achieving teens are highly overscheduled and overwhelmed by homework load and extracurricular activities, leading to decreased sleep and high levels of anxiety. We know now that social-emotional learning is a crucial component to fostering secure, independent young adults. What role do libraries play in supporting student health and well-being?
 
In my 21 years as a librarian at independent, college preparatory schools, I have seen a shift in library programs and services. Libraries have always existed as resource centers, information hubs, and safe havens for children and young adults, but school leaders and librarians now recognize that it’s time to reimagine our spaces, redefine our services, and build stronger relationships with our students. In doing so, we can personalize the student experience and better support their health and well-being.

A Safe Haven

Whether it’s because it serves as a centralized hub for learning and student activity or because it was thoughtfully designed to be one of the most aesthetically pleasing and flexible spaces, the library is one of the most prized locations on campus. The library at Viewpoint School, where I’ve worked for 10 years, has floor-to-ceiling windows, bright lighting, and an outdoor patio along Calabasas Creek, allowing students to stretch out and find a sense of peace that isn’t always available in busy classrooms and hallways. Librarians enthusiastically welcome students throughout the day.
 
Our library staff of six seeks to build relationships with students in all grade levels, from K–12, throughout their time at the school. They address students by name, know their reading tastes, and regularly chat with them about their day. Librarians are trained to support scholarly research and are skilled at helping students manage research projects. They also serve as trusted adults on campus who are always willing to advise students, chaperone field trips, attend school programs and assemblies, and partner with teachers.
 
Librarian-teacher collaboration creates additional access to supportive adults across the campus, decreasing stress and increasing support. Our librarians partner with teachers to develop LibGuides—online pathfinders designed to help students find reliable resources for research projects. We co-teach the citation process and are readily available to check citations, hone research questions, and track down resources.
 
New, more flexible library policies also improve students’ health and well-being. Our library does not charge overdue fines, and we allow students to check out unlimited books with the option to renew their materials as many times as they need. Students often check out bags of library books before school vacations, including summer, knowing that they have more time toread for pleasure during their breaks from school. We allow students to eat in library spaces on rainy days, as well as during designated library programs and special events. For example, we host frequent reading incentive programs andcelebrations that feature food, such as Brownies and Books. 
 
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Students enjoy a Valentine’s Day chocolate tasting (photo by Sarah Davis); A library display encourages students to take a free tote bag and check out books for the summer (photo by Laura Monjoy).

Student-Centered Design

Libraries are also taking cues from the classroom, where innovative design is better supporting different learning styles. Areas in our library include flexible table seating for collaboration, study rooms for quiet or group work, and many furniture options at different heights that span the color and texture spectrum. Quiet areas or rooms for reading and silent study can aid in balancing out active common areas, providing the opportunity for students to complete their work or take a break from daily distractions.

Libraries can also encourage students to adopt healthy habits and mindsets. Many libraries/librarians have introduced drop-in makerspaces, coloring or craft stations, Legos and board game areas, writable walls or rolling whiteboards, and tactile items such as Rubik’s cubes and pop-up books, allowing students to reduce stress through creativity and play. At Viewpoint, we rotate “bibliotherapy” book displays that cover themes related to student well-being, including fiction and nonfiction on bullying, depression, and other mental health topics.

Student-centered visuals can make the library space feel warm and inviting. Viewpoint teachers are invited to share student work in the library, and we readily display student art, 3D projects, and posters on bulletin boards and on top of shelving. We also feature on our book displays fiction with diverse protagonists and themes, allowing students to see themselves reflected in literature and encouraging them to learn about people from different cultures and backgrounds.

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A Post-it mural created by a sixth grade design class is displayed in a library window (photo by Laura Monjoy); A Viewpoint student writes blackout poetry during National Poetry Month (photo by Sarah Davis). 

Beyond Books

Most independent school libraries now offer resources in multiple formats, including downloadable audiobooks and e-books. This decreases student stress by allowing students to read or listen to materials on their preferred platform when they want. Libraries also typically provide access to academic research databases, giving students remote access to resources 24/7.

Many libraries are also reimagining how print collections can best serve today’s students. For example, fiction books are often arranged by genre rather than the Dewey Decimal System, and reference books are shelved in the nonfiction area and can be checked out. Libraries are adding collections of graphic novels, manga, comic books, and other visual formats that appeal to teens.

Viewpoint’s middle and upper school library staff provide resources that allow students to be successful throughout the day. We check out loaner laptops and chargers, have communal phone-charging docks, and keep a stock of school supplies at the ready. Our library also keeps a complete set of school textbooks on hand; students who may have forgotten a textbook can make copies or check one out for the class period. These small, often unnoticed, gestures can create a safety net for teens.

Get with the Program

In her bestselling book, The Library Book, Susan Orlean writes that libraries may become “our town squares, a place that is home when you aren’t at home.” This concept is increasingly relevant in libraries on independent school campuses. Aside from hosting dozens of student and parent meetings, our library team has steadily added more student programs, including book clubs, writing contests, trivia quizzes, crafting sessions, and raffles for new books. Students will readily find comfort in spaces that reflect what is important to them.

Programming can also support and promote student wellness initiatives. Campus librarians might consider collaborating with school counselors and learning specialists to create a wellness fair, speaker events, or a library “wellness collection” that includes resources on mental health, sexuality, stress reduction, and nutrition.

It’s important for librarians to continuously assess programs through student feedback, including yearly surveys or advisory student board meetings. Giving students voice and choice in how the library’s services and policies are structured will ultimately build rapport and a sense of security.

Libraries have always served as havens for students and faculty. By examining our services through the lens of health and wellness, we can commit to deepening our practice, and to better understanding how we can best support personal and academic success.

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Students in grades 6–12 studying in Viewpoint’s Fletcher Family Library (photo by Sarah Davis).
 
More Resources
 
Librarians can also seek out best practices at other independent schools through organizations such as the Association of Independent School Librarians or the Independent Schools Section of the American Library Association. Conferences and visits to peer schools can be key in observing how libraries are shifting and defining success.

Share your library programs and insights in the comments.
Author
Sarah Davis
Sarah Davis

Sarah Davis is the director of libraries at Viewpoint School in Calabasas, California. She is a member and past president of the Southern California Librarians of Independent Schools (SoCaLIS).

Comments

Elizabeth Burke
9/14/2019 4:13:46 PM
Sarah, thank you for the reminder about the importance of libraries as safe spaces. I think I see a chocolate tasting in our future.

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