How to Build a School Library from Scratch

Getting a new school library off the ground takes ingenuity—and elbow grease. Read how these determined librarians did it. Plus: grant opportunities and key questions for volunteers.
 Jess deCourcy Hinds with one of the student volunteers who helped build her library. Photo by Bruce Conwell

Jess deCourcy Hinds with one of the student volunteers who helped build her library.
Photo by Bruce Conwell

Fresh out of library school in 2009, I was invited to start a brand-new library for Bard High School Early College Queens (BHSEC Queens) in New York, a public high school and college associates degree program. On my first day, assistant principal Sue Leung Eichler presented me with an enormous key—gold and shiny and spanning my palm. “Good luck,” she said with her characteristic frankness and warmth. “You’ll need it.”

I found myself in a musty room, knee-deep in boxes of discarded papers. The bookcases were mostly empty, and the few titles were for much younger or older readers (including a title for newly diagnosed Alzheimer’s patients). One shelf contained only garden gloves and a package of radish seeds. How do you grow a library? I wondered.

Despite having dedicated administrators, colleagues, and financial support from Bard College, our mother campus, my task seemed daunting—if not impossible. Luckily, I’d brought a CD player, and saxophone notes helped me imagine the possibilities. The music also welcomed the dozens of volunteers who arrived with sleeves rolled up.

New libraries: Reason to cheer

I’m not the only recent MLIS grad who accepted this kind of golden key recently. While school libraries are imperiled or closing in many regions, including Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, new ones are also opening. An informal poll among my classmates at the Pratt Institute in New York City showed that 50 percent launched or overhauled a library in their first job. At library conferences, I always meet people who’ve founded multiple libraries. Elementary school libraries, especially, tend to be started by one person and lots of elbow grease.

“Administrators who are adding new school libraries understand the critical role school librarians play in supporting academic achievement,” says Terri Grief, president of the American Association of School Librarians. There are currently 98,460 school libraries in the United States, adds Grief. “The best situations are where librarians, administrators, teachers, and students work together to make the spaces as conducive to learning as possible.”

Many school librarian job postings describe positions overseeing start-up ventures. Others involve modernizing facilities whose retiring librarians left behind outdated facilities requiring massive weeding and a tech and digital makeover. I read about new or transforming libraries on library list-servs at least once a month, and cheer. What could be a more hopeful sign for the field than a fresh new library?

Starting from scratch

Minerva Aponte of the Bronx, NY, began with a $10,000 Department of Education “REACH” grant that her administrators secured before hiring her. A large portion funded her online catalog system. She also received her annual budget of about $6,000. Aponte works for a campus school, CS 102, which serves 1,200 students in four different schools from pre–K to fifth grade, one of which is primarily for special needs pupils. The majority of students are African American or Latino, and one-third are English Language Learners.

“With my library, I started from scraaaaatch,” she said, elongating the vowel to emphasize the immensity of her task. She began with a 50-foot mailroom filled with abandoned mail and packages.

A fan of yard sales and stoop sales, Aponte always kept an eye out for deals on popular paperbacks. A Laura Bush grant in the $5,000–$8,000 range offered a boost, and lucrative Scholastic Book Fairs provided a reliable source of books each year. In her fourth year at the school, Aponte applied for a grant from the office of the then-Bronx borough president Adolfo Carrión.

During her application process, a custodian learned that she was cold-calling Carrión—a “big shot.” He was incredulous. “Don’t you know he’s an important person?” He asked.

“Don’t you know I’m an important person?” Aponte responded. “What I’m doing is important.” She got the grant—$300,000 from Carrión’s office and New York City Council member Annabel Palma—and used the funds for construction and renovation (doubling her space), furniture, and materials.

Maggie Townsend and an architectural rendering of Townsend’s library. Architectural rendering courtesy of Contrax Furnishings.

Maggie Townsend (right) and an architectural rendering of her library.
Architectural rendering courtesy of Contrax Furnishings.

The uncertainty factor

Temporary space, uncertain timing, and design issues are also hurdles. At BHSEC Queens, we operated from a temporary location for a year. Maggie Townsend, librarian at the Legacy High School in Bismarck, ND, has run her library from two different locations for two years and will move to a permanent one this summer. “The biggest challenge is not knowing how many linear feet of shelving we’ll have,” Townsend said. She deals with this by striving for “a balance between physical and electronic resources.”

Being able to conceive of a library that exists without walls can be useful for all 21st-century librarians. Until now, Townsend’s strategy has been to only purchase newly released fiction and student requests. Going forward, she will focus on digital resources and high-interest books.

Debbye Warrell is the founding librarian of the Challenger K8 School of Science and Mathematics in Hernando County, FL, a space and technology-focused magnet school that serves approximately 1,600 students and hosts a gifted program. Her start-up budget was $275,000 for books and audiovisual materials, and she received furniture and equipment through other school funding sources. The original plans showed a two-story open space with a high ceiling. As a seasoned librarian (in her 28th year), Warrell knew that excited young voices would echo, so she asked the architects to lower the ceiling to 20 feet. They agreed.

That was the easy part. For Warrell, the most challenging aspect was the tight time frame between the delivery of books and opening day. She received the first 18 crates of books (of 25) on a Friday and wanted to get everything shelved by Monday morning, a task she accomplished with teams of parent volunteers. “Having enough time” was Warrell’s refrain when describing further challenges—“and materials not arriving on time.”

Founding school librarian Debbye Warrell. Photo by James Branaman for SLJ

Founding school librarian Debbye Warrell.
Photos by James Branaman for SLJ

She ensured that materials were shelf-ready and that her new library ran smoothly by rising at three a.m. every morning and starting work at 6:30 (a schedule she still follows most days). One Saturday, she and her husband shelved books until midnight so she could be ready for Monday’s classes and do other things she enjoyed—like playing Mrs. Claus in her school’s holiday pageant and dressing as Disney characters to help young students connect to her.

Unexpected challenges

Tamara Fornell’s four-language library at the International School in Portland, OR. Photo by Carrie Johnston

Tamara Fornell’s four-language library at the International School in Portland, OR.
Photo by Carrie Johnston

New libraries grow at different speeds—sometimes for reasons one can’t control. “It’s an evolutionary process,” said Tamara Fornell, founding librarian of the International School in Portland, OR, a private facility with 480 students enrolled in language-immersion programs. “You can’t just walk in and create a library,” especially “a four-language specialized library” like hers, she said.

Fornell’s school offers classes in Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese for students from pre–K to fifth grade, and her collection needed to support that curriculum. She launched her facility seven years ago with about $6,000 and a team of parents willing to fund-raise and volunteer. School and PTA funds expanded with time, and her part-time position became full time.

Fornell needed to purchase books in all four languages across every Dewey range. Initially, she found it difficult to obtain grade-appropriate books on certain topics in Chinese or Japanese, because children in some Asian countries often study topics at different ages than U.S. students. More recently, Asian publishers have started releasing books fitting her curriculum. Fornell’s determination—researching titles year after year—enabled her successful collection development.

Focus and flexibility

While a strong vision is key, flexibility is also critical to serving students well. Aponte knew exactly what she wanted in her library—a multimedia center with whiteboards, Spanish language resources, equipment for special needs students, and more. She drew detailed pictures of her ideal floor plan. Speaking with the borough president, she was very specific about her goals. “You can’t be hemming and hawing,” she says.

However, Aponte quickly refocused as needed. When a student with back problems arrived, she applied for a grant to buy him a special chair. For a student born with shortened limbs, she obtained funding for a computer mouse that could be operated on the floor—and rearranged her floor plan design to accommodate.

Curriculum design

Working at a school with a clear curricular mission and one where your viewpoint is welcome makes library building easier. Lauren Soucy started her elementary library in Manhattan when she was still an MLIS graduate student, and her connection to academia helped her design an entire curriculum. Soucy was immersed in Barbara Stripling’s Information Fluency Continuum—benchmark standards for grades K–12 that shape many librarians’ lesson plans. Starting from scratch enabled her to use Stripling’s “best practices” right off the bat, because no other librarian had set the stage before. Soucy broke down Stripling’s “big picture [skills] to grade, unit, month, lesson,” she said. Her own touch, “emotional literacy through books,” provided specific support to her students, many of whom had challenges at home.

BHSEC focuses on a rigorous liberal arts curriculum with celebrated great books seminars, so I was able to pen a list of seminal authors I needed for starters, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Virginia Woolf, and Sigmund Freud. Warrell’s school also had a strong theme—math and space exploration—and she built her collection around these topics. Her fourth and fifth graders earn certificates in multimedia technology, including Google slides, Audacity, and Garage Band. Her library includes models of a meteorite, an asteroid, and an eight-foot rocket hanging from the library ceiling.

Lists and list-servs

Online list-servs have also given me and others an opportunity to clarify our priorities. Kathleen Grupe, a librarian in the Birdville Independent School District in Haltom City, TX, recently shared with the national school librarian list-serv, LM NET, that her 1950s-era school is relocating and creating a new library in fall 2016. She asked for advice about envisioning her office. “I know that I want a sink,” she wrote (librarians often like to wash hands before and after handling books). Grupe also wanted to brainstorm about her circulation-desk space before meeting with an architect and requested suggestions for a “must have” list, promising to post responses. (See related post at

When I needed to give away thousands of middle school books I couldn’t use at BHSEC Queens, my local list-serv helped me find good homes. I also used the list-serv to connect with graduate students needing internships.

Grants and fund-raising has been good to me: my colleagues and I have raised over $25,000 in materials for our library over six years this way—receiving books, DVDs, art and office supplies, digital cameras, rugs, bookends, and a computer.

DonorsChoose’s policy is that each teacher can post two projects at once (below $500) initially. After winning grants and accumulating “points” (privileges), teachers can make larger requests (usually up to $2,000 in materials). My colleagues and I teamed up to maximize our grant-winning potential. The Spanish teacher posted one, the math teacher another, and we shared a commitment to pooling resources to grow the library.

Aponte has received so many grants that she can’t remember them all. “Apply for six, and you get three,” she said. At her school, she was affectionately nicknamed “the stalker” for her relentless pursuit of opportunities.

Making your imprint

Every day when I open my library with the golden key (not quite as shiny now), I reflect on my journey. We now have 11,478 books (including textbooks), thousands of digital movies, 13 iMac and PC computers, and dozens of research databases. I can’t claim to have started from nothing: there were early, generous donors, and an infusion of second-hand visual arts texts from a performing arts high school. A veterinarian and art historian each left about 1,000 books in bequests to friends of our library—instant zoology and art history sections.

Assembling a balanced library can be a puzzle, a great challenge, and a leap of faith. When Warrell tried to sum up her feelings of putting “heart and soul” into her library for 10 years, her voice cracked. “You know,” she said, “My imprint is there.”

“I know,” I said, and tears came to my own eyes. But then I had to jump off the phone. A long line of students with armfuls of books was forming at the circulation desk.

Jess deCourcy Hinds ( is the 2014-2015 Pen Parentis writing fellow and the librarian at Bard H.S. Early College in Queens. 

Connect quickly to grant opportunities, free materials, and volunteers online This online educational charity provides an accessible, step-by-step formula for writing smaller grants (usually up to $2,000). Rather than receiving money, you get materials directly from a list of approved vendors. The site also guides you through a process of writing thank-you notes to donors. After you have been awarded several grants, you accumulate points and can become eligible to expand the list of vendors and use funds for field trips and guest speakers.

Grant Wrangler This site includes grants and resources for free materials and a dedicated library section. It also lists grant application deadlines and guidelines, as well as free magazine subscriptions and reading packages from quality sources like PBS.

First Book This organization provides support to schools where 70 percent of students receive free or reduced-cost lunch. It offers these eligible libraries a 50–90 percent discount on new books, as well as free books.

Idealist  With your principal’s permission, advertise here to find retirees, new college grads, and career-transitioners with a passion for helping people and libraries. Most K–12 schools require that volunteers are fingerprinted and given background checks before working with children, at the volunteer’s or school’s expense (costs vary, usually about $50–$200).

VolunteerMatch  Libraries can register with VolunteerMatch to offer long- and short-term volunteer opportunities, covering tasks from painting to cleaning to labeling books, or whatever you describe.

Your Local Librarian List-Serv and Library or Graduate Schools Connect to your local librarian list-servs and email the deans at every graduate school in your area offering an MLIS, MA in education, or even an MFA in creative writing, to find student volunteers. Casting a wide net can help if you live in an areas without library schools.


Five Questions for Prospective Volunteers

What skills can you share with our library? Please think outside the box when considering what your “library skills” might be. A volunteer could be a horticulturist who can donate and maintain seasonal plants. A French speaker can help with translation. A chemist can help weed chemistry textbooks. An origami enthusiast with dexterous fingers might be the best person to attach plastic book covers. What do you want to learn? Volunteers find more meaning in opportunities when they are learning and growing. Perhaps a volunteer wants grant-writing experience or a chance to learn about poetry. Help volunteers find meaning in the opportunity so they stick with it. How much time do you have to give? Does the volunteer’s schedule mesh with yours? Make every minute count. If someone only has a 30-minute, one-shot volunteer spot, ask him to do something you’ve long procrastinated doing, like dusting remote shelves, alphabetizing books, or addressing thank you notes. If a volunteers wants to volunteer for twenty hours a week, start off with three hours one day the first week, and build from there. Some graduate students are required to donate up to 120 hours. Make sure the person is an excellent fit for your library before they sign up for a credit-bearing internship. How can I thank you for your work? At the beginning of a volunteer opportunity, determine whether the volunteer is looking to build professional contacts/references or have help with a portfolio. Make sure you know if they have tangible expectations for the outcome of the internship. If not, you can gift the volunteer with bookmarks made by students and letters filled with specific, detailed descriptions of how their impact has improved the library. “Before” and “after” pictures can also help solidify the impact of someone’s contribution. How well do you think you work with children? Some volunteers will be great at reading aloud or tutoring, while other volunteers will be best in the back office, alphabetizing files, or in the stacks, shelving. Both types of volunteers help a library grow. When interviewing, give the volunteer a short opportunity to chat with a student—and get a feel for how comfortable he or she seems. Decide where the volunteer belongs. Also, before interviewing a parent volunteer of a middle or high school student, make sure the student is comfortable with the arrangement. A student that age should have a say about whether their parent is present in their learning space, and a librarian might want to ensure that the parent volunteer works in the library at a time the child is not, to give both parties a some space.
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Ryan Hulland

Wow, it sounds like Jess is incredibly dedicated to her students' learning! I have found most librarians are dedicated, but starting up the library and working so hard every day takes willpower that some people just don't have. We have been involved on many new library (as well as renovation) construction projects. There is a definite momentum towards including more technology in libraries and setting up the framework to allow for future-proof libraries including low profile access floors, which allow wires and cables to be routed anywhere in the library. Having 11,500 books compared to 13 computers seems like a very high book:computer ratio. And I think this is a good thing, because I have seen so many libraries, from K-12, college and public libraries, getting rid of their books and installing more computers. Installing more computers in itself isn't a bad thing. To be honest, it's good for the user as well as the technology suppliers (including us, Netfloor USA). But, I am a big fan of paper books, and I've been dismayed far too often as I walk into a library and see all the kids clicking away at the computers and ignoring the books! It's a sad sight to think back to years past when libraries were full of books, row upon row upon row, and now, some libraries (especially in primary education) barely have enough books to fill a normal sized bookshelf. If you ever need advice on how to integrate more computers into a library, I'd be happy to provide some info on our access flooring products, as long as it is meant to augment the overall learning process without getting rid of the precious books! Keep up the good work!

Posted : Apr 02, 2015 11:34



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