Making Space for Math in the Library

Recommended activities and resources to help foster math and library skills. 

Math has a reputation for being a subject mastered by few and feared by many. But the library can be a space where all students feel comfortable engaging in math, says Meera Garud, an instructor and school library coordinator with the Library and Information Science program at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. For several years while conducting her master’s research, Garud explored math education in school libraries.

“Broadly speaking, I think a lot of elementary educators might be uncomfortable with math,” she says. “Math is part of the whole curriculum, and it’s important for a school librarian to be aware of the trends in math education so that they can figure out how to support the teachers in practicing those new approaches.”

Before she became a librarian and instructor, Garud had been an education analyst and spent much of her time pouring over data sets. This helped her see a natural overlap between math and library information instruction.

“I saw the connection between math awareness and the issues that librarians address, which is critical thinking.”

To help school librarians better support their students in math, Garud researched and compiled a website of resources—spotlighting math book lists, activities on statistics and data visualization, lesson plans based on Common Core State Standards, and more.

Middle school librarian Amanda Jones puts in an effort to provide support to every teacher in every subject at Live Oak Middle School in Watson, LA. But when it comes to mathematics, she has to think a bit more about the structure and scope of her activities.

“I don’t have a math background,” she says. “But if I didn't do math lessons, I’d be leaving out a whole population of teachers on campus.”

[Read: Check Out the Math: One Elementary School’s Library-Based Math Program]

When she collaborated with the school's math teachers, many expressed needing a way for students to review the concepts they learned in class with educator support and guidance. Working together with math teachers alleviated pressure, says Jones, who was able to better focus on activities that reinforce math principles during library time. She adapted an activity she had been successfully using in other classes: Breakout EDU games, where students have to solve problems to crack the codes of a locked box. Pairing math with library instruction, she has students navigate the library’s online Destiny catalog to scavenge for Dewey Decimal call numbers of specific books. Once they fill in the call numbers to a word problem worksheet, students have to add, subtract, multiply, or divide the numbers to break out of the breakout box. The activity gets students to combine library skills and mathematics:

“It’s a win-win because I’m hitting my standards and we’re hitting the math teacher’s standards,” says Jones.

Breakout EDU also has preloaded lessons that cover foundational math concepts, like exponents, the Pythagorean Theorem, and probability. At Glacier Point Middle School in Fresno, CA, teacher librarian Tommy Martinez takes advantage of these activities in Breakout EDU as a way to introduce key terms and topics that will be coming up next in class.

“Players are challenged to open various locks by using problem-solving skills, critical thinking strategies, collaboration, and their creativity to accomplish assigned tasks,” he says.

[Read: 10 Podcasts About Math for K-12 Students]

Martinez likes to use these types of “game-based,” digital programs as a way to deliver meaningful lessons that might differ from traditional classroom approaches, he says. He also draws upon Minecraft Education Edition for spatial and visual learning. The program features math lessons with built-in learning objectives, guiding questions, and performance expectations. Since students are often already familiar with Minecraft as a gaming space, they’re able to quickly grasp the learning objectives, he says. Martinez has even found that these gaming platforms and activities help reach more learners who are reluctant to engage with math.

“In teaching math, it’s important to help students develop a mathematical mindset and the willingness to try and fail,” says Garud. “The iterative process has been put into math education so that kids are comfortable trying to solve problems with whatever methods they come up with, but that learning comes with explaining their thinking. And librarians are great at facilitating conversations about problem solving.”


Lauren J. Young is a science journalist based in New York City.


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