Why #Membership matters: One Librarian’s Take

Last fall, I attended the AASL conference in Hartford, CT (membership in a national organization is just as important as in a local one). One of the many excellent sessions I attended came from our very own Newton Public School librarians on the topic of elementary learning commons. Though I’d only been working in Carlisle for about ten weeks, I returned to Massachusetts brimming with ideas, new perspectives, and a mission: somehow, I would transform my library into a genuine learning commons.

The first step was to begin gathering information on the rare elementary learning commons out there. I downloaded the Newton presentation from AASL’s eCOLLAB platform (another membership benefit), and put out a query to the MSLA listserv (again, a membership benefit) asking for resources. Within 24 hours, I had a wealth of information from librarians around the state: bibliographies, links, suggestions and more. Over the summer, I began to formulate my proposal, and in the fall, I presented it to my superintendent, who in turn shared it with our parent-led education foundation. They jumped at the chance to get involved, a return to their origins (they were founded to save the library during budget cuts), and I was asked to start thinking about this project in earnest.

Now I had to start thinking more carefully about what I would include on my wishlist. This seems like an easy, fun activity – scouring websites, blogs, and Pinterest for inspiration – but the reality is that it’s more than a little overwhelming. So once again, I turned to the listserv to crowdsource suggestions, and just as before, the suggestions came pouring in: a TV to show digital work, a media lab, makerspaces, a spot for reader’s theater, and more. Some were ideas I’d come up with on my own, but others made me go “what a WONDERFUL idea! I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of that before!” Especially as someone who is the sole librarian in my district, I value having a virtual “team” more than I can say.

Flash forward to March and the MSLA unconference and conference in Amherst. Sunday morning dawned, and the fantastic Laura D’Elia and Dan Callahan kicked off the Unconference. The morning session I attended focused on makerspaces, and I loved hearing about technology-centric makerspaces (video production/green screens/stop-motion apps) as well as the more practical ones, like knitting or sewing. My afternoon session of choice focused on learning commons – about 20 of us, representing a variety of schools and different stages of the process. Ellen Brandt from Westford shared her experiences (which she’s also been documenting on the listserv), but it was also great to hear from others who have started to make small changes, or who are trying to figure out where to begin. The beauty of an unconference is that each of us had a voice instead of one presenter who answered a handful of questions at the end of a session. I am looking forward to participating in a more general unconference at some point in the future, but only MSLA can provide a library-specific unconference where we can share experiences and topics that are directly relevant to our work.

I also attended a fabulous Monday session by Jessica Lodge, where she shared how she’s incorporated learning centers into her library. A learning center is a dedicated activity students can do after they’ve checked out books, and Jess has managed to incorporate fun and learning into her stations. As someone who’s followed her blog for years, it was great to see some of her learning center materials in person and to have the opportunity to ask her questions. It was great to get inspired with simple, easy ideas, like the genius thought of putting straws and tape in a bin and having kids create original structures. Makerspace, engineering, and fun all in one! I also loved Zoinks the Robot, a small creation who asks students a weekly question that they must use a library resource (PebbleGo, BrainPop, Britannica, etc.) to answer.

When my superintendent offered specialists the chance to visit other schools during parent-teacher conferences this past week, I knew exactly what I was going to do. Using the MSLA directory (you guessed it, another membership goodie), I reached out to Jess, Jennifer Reed, and Sheila Packard, all of whom work in Newton and have made changes to their spaces that I wanted to see in person. They graciously welcomed me into their schools, answered my questions, and let me take as many photographs as I wanted. I saw how Jess has used the side of a shelf to mount a Lego board, and how she uses a flat space under her circulation desk for a Boggle board. I saw how Jen has implemented great signage and made good use of limited display space, and got to test out collaboration-friendly tables in Sheila’s space.

Being a librarian is not always easy. We’re usually the only one in our building who does what we do, and some of us don’t even have a team. MSLA has allowed me to build a professional network of librarians across the state who I can turn to for advice (my superintendent, who attended the conference with me, came away highly impressed by just how many people I know from across the state). MSLA provides me with relevant professional development that directly benefits my students (I walked away from this summer’s Better Together conference with at least two projects that are now in development). Most of all, it has allowed me to make friends with colleagues whose names I recognize from the listserv when I take a class or go to a workshop, colleagues who are funny, wise, helpful, encouraging and just generally fabulous company whenever we meet. I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing without the support I’ve gained from being an MSLA member, and I’ll be sure to keep you all posted as my library begins its transition in the hopes that my experience can help others. #membershipmatters

Maya Bery is the librarian at The Carlisle School in Carlisle