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Ensuring Equitable Access to Books in the School Library.

Ensuring equitable access to library materials is the responsibility of the entire school community. School librarians, teachers, and school administrators must be aware of potential obstacles that could limit or restrict students during checkout. In this way, informed policies and procedures can be developed to support literacy through equitable access and student choice.


Barriers to student checkout can come from several sources, including classroom teachers, school librarians, and administration. For many, "the tension between stewardship and principles of access challenges the development of policy" (Johnson & Donham, 2012, p. 8). Knowing possible barriers is essential before effective practices and procedures can be developed.

Limiting the Number of Books Checked Out

One barrier for student checkout is limiting the number of books students can check out during each visit to the school library. One very logical explanation for limited checkout happens when libraries are short staffed. The more books students check out, the more books library staff must process and reshelve. If there is a lack of support staff or volunteers, it falls to school librarians to not only plan for and provide library instruction but also to find time to attend to returned materials. A study conducted by Library Services for Omaha Public Schools (OPS) in 2015 (as cited in Lickteig & O'Garro, 2016) found that "library use is lower without a paraprofessional. Less than half of our elementary libraries have a paraprofessional assigned, and those that do have higher checkout rates than those that don't. Of those school librarians without paraprofessional sup port, 60% reported limited checkout as a result" (n.p.).

Another reason for limited checkout relates to perceptions of personal responsibility. Teachers may feel obligated to return the materials students check out, while school librarians may feel financially accountable for unreturned or damaged materials (Moreillon, 2012). Some feel that limiting the number of books a student may check out helps teach responsibility (Beckham, 2011). This practice happens most frequently in the primary grades. According to Loertscher (2013), 71% of school librarians were checking out one book per week to kindergarten students. No matter what grade, it means if students visit the library once per week for checkout and are only allowed one book per visit, that adds up to 4 books per month or about 36 books per school year. Is that enough to encourage literacy and a love of reading?

One school librarian, Keisa Williams (2013), admitted she had a restrictive checkout procedure for her kindergarten students: "Initially, I was fearful about loaning books to kindergarten students. I made excuses, rules, and restrictions that protected the books from the school's smallest patrons" (p. 15). Williams admits that eventually she came to the realization that her fear of losing books was limiting the benefits her students had from expanded access to materials. "Deep down, I always knew that only allowing four books per student, per month, was not enough to make an impact" (p. 16). At times that fear can be justified. Students will lose or damage books. It's the price of doing business, but the reason for doing business is to encourage literacy, and that should be the driving force for checkout policy regarding the number of books allowed.


Another barrier to checkout involves fines. Johnson and Donham (2012) found that 64% of responding schools would not check out additional books to students until previously checked out books were returned. Adams (2010) cautions school librarians about restricting access to book checkout for students who have fines or unreturned materials, because the American Library Association (1993) asserts that "all library policies and procedures, particularly those involving fines, fees, or access, should be scrutinized for potential barriers to access" (p. 48). In other words, denying students checkout privileges based on fines and fees goes against the fundamental purpose of school libraries.

As the number of students living below the poverty line grows every year, librarians must recognize that enacting restrictive checkout practices for children related to library fines can have long-term effects: "Taking financial responsibility for replacing damaged or lost library materials can be an obligation some families do not want to assume and cannot afford. This may be a barrier for many families who could most benefit from access to library materials" (Moreillon, 2012, p. 27).

The school library is first and foremost a place of learning where students can begin to understand the responsibilities of library patronage without restrictive or punitive consequences. Instead of punishment, students should be encouraged to share any missteps or mishaps with the school librarian and discuss how to make better choices next time. By inspiring responsible be havior and showing students that it is okay to make a mistake and learn from it, students may also associate positive experiences with using a library-- something that can translate well into their adult years.

Limiting Choice

One of the most counterproductive restrictions to checkout is limiting student choice. One way this limitation occurs is if students are only allowed to check out from a small selection of books chosen by the school librarian and placed on a special shelf, on book carts, or one of the tables. Or students may be restricted to only checking out from specific sections of the library-- that is, only picture books or only nonfiction books that align with curricular activities in the classroom. Some may feel that limiting access in this way still allows for student choice, but having access to only what the teacher or librarian designates as appropriate for that visit is still restrictive. The OPS (2017) information access policy clearly expresses that if materials are in a library, students should be able to check them out: "All materials designed for student use should be made available to the student for individual examination and personal choice" and "the student should be free to make the final choice of materials" (n.p.).

Reading Level

Another limitation to student choice is to limit checkout to books at the student's identified reading level based on structures such as Accelerated Reader, Lexile, and Fountas and Pinnell. It is important to remember that reading levels are to be used to help inform teacher instruction, not to make personal reading selections. Fountas and Pinnell explained in an interview with Parrot (2017a) that the goal of the program was "for teachers to learn about the characteristics of each level to inform their decisions in teaching--how they introduce a book, how they discuss a book, how they help children problem-solve as they process a book." Asking students to read only leveled books "stems from research that children's reading comprehension improves when they read texts at--or slightly above--their reading level" (Parrott, 2017b). While the intent is to improve the reading ability of students, there are consequences to this practice.

Unfortunately, as Fountas and Pinnell (as cited in Parrott, 2017a) point out, "when we restrict kids to reading on a specific level, we're really restricting their opportunities. " Another reading instruction expert, Donalyn Miller (as cited in Parrott, 2017b), author of Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer's Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits, has called leveling "education malpractice." She also asserts, "There is a lack of fundamental understanding by many educators about the limitations of leveling systems and their role in children's reading development" (as cited in Parrott, 2017b). While setting up a procedure to organize a school library by reading levels and/or only allowing students to check out level-appropriate books may seem like the right thing to do, it goes against the goal of leveling programs like Fountas and Pinnell: "Educators have sometimes made the mistake of thinking that guided reading is the reading program or that all books students read should be leveled. We have argued against the overuse of levels. We have never recommended that the school library or classroom libraries be leveled" (Fountas & Pinnell, 2012, p. 281). Years later, this stance still holds strong: "It is our belief that levels have no place in classroom libraries, in school libraries, in public libraries, or on report cards" (as cited in Parrott, 2017a).

Unrestricted access to age-appropriate school library materials is especially important for students living below the poverty line. A report by Scholastic (2016) found that the number of books children have in their home is directly affected by the household's average family income: "Households with income less than $35K only have an average of 69 children's books vs. 127 books for kids in households with income more than 100K." The study also found that kids who identified as frequent readers had access to more books at home: "Children who are frequent readers have 141 children's books in their homes vs. 65 books for kids among infrequent readers' homes." If school leaders want students living in poverty to become frequent readers, then students need to have more access to books than their household can currently supply. This is another place where school libraries can make a huge difference in literacy through access if the right policies and procedures are in place.


When creating policies and practices, it is important for district and building administrators and faculty to work with the librarian to ensure access is available for all students in the following ways.

Come to a consensus on the purpose of checkout in your school library using information from the American Association of School Librarians as guidelines. For example, the information access statement from OPS (2017) states, "The school library is the one place in the school where a student may satisfy his/her informational/cultural, social, and personal needs regardless of chronological age, ethnic background, grade level, or achievement level" (n.p.).

Provide support for the school librarian for processing returned materials by ensuring that paraprofessional or volunteer support is available.

Ensure that the library budget not only covers new materials but also supports replacement costs for lost or damaged books. Emphasize that literacy, not safeguarding the collection, is the focus of the school library program.

Make sure teachers clearly understand that they will not be held personally responsible for materials that are not returned by their students.

Encourage a culture of learning over a culture of punitive restrictions. Students need opportunities to learn from mistakes when checking out materials.

Students should be allowed to check out age-appropriate materials from all sections of the school library. Students should not be limited to a specific selection of books based on school librarian/teacher choice, curricular content, or reading level. According to OPS (2017), "All students should be allowed to select materials for their personal use. Teachers or the school librarian may offer guidance upon student request or where it is felt that a student is not aware of other materials better suited to meet specific needs.

Advantages and disadvantages may be pointed out, but the student should be free to make the final choice of materials" (n.p.).


Ultimately, unrestrictive library checkout policies and procedures are the responsibility of the entire educational community and need to be reinforced and championed by all. It is possible to be fiscally responsible and encourage responsibility in students without placing barriers to equitable access to materials: "Being stewards of our school resources doesn't mean books should remain on the shelf in pristine condition, but instead means resources should be placed in the hands of students to explore" (Beckham, 2011, p. 53). There are risks involved with creating policies and procedures that open up access to students, but the benefits outweigh the concerns (Moreillon, 2012): "A challenge for school librarians is to weigh the importance of supporting young readers--especially those who may not have reading resources accessible in the home--against perceived risks of loss" (Johnson & Donham, 2012, p. 12). As literacy is one of the main purposes of any school library, it is up to the school librarian to lead the charge in supporting barrier-free, equitable access to library checkout by having critical conversations with building/district staff and administrators.

"School library collections are not merely extensions of classroom book collections or classroom teaching materials, but rather places where children can explore interests safely and without restriction. A minor's right to access resources freely and without restriction has long been and continues to be the position of the American Association of School Librarians." (AASL, 2011)


Adams, H. (2010). The "overdue" blues: A dilemma for school librarians. School Library Monthly, 26(9), 48-49.

American Association of School Librarians (AASL). (2011). Position statement on labeling books with reading levels. Retrieved from aasl/advocacy/resources/statements/ labeling

American Library Association (ALA). (1993). Economic barriers to information: An interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights. Retrieved from http://www.ala. org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/ interpretations/economicbarriers

Beckham, S. (2011). Promoting the joy of reading without killing it. Knowledge Quest, 36(4), 50-54.

Fountas, I., & Pinnell, G. (2012). Guided reading: The romance and the reality. Reading Teacher, 66(4), 268-284.

Johnson, L., & Donham, J. (2012). Reading by grade three: How well do school library circulation policies support early reading? Teacher Librarian, 40(2), 8-12.

Omaha Public Schools (OPS). (2017). Information access policy. Retrieved from https://district.ops. org/DEPARTMENTS/Curriculum an dins tructionSupport/Library/ LibrarianResources. aspx

Lickteig, S., & O'Garro, J. (2016). Data crunching proved this school library program was crucial. School Library Journal. Retrieved from http:// /

Loertscher, D. (2013). For fluent readers--kindergarten is key. Teacher Librarian, 40(3), 14.

Moreillon, J. (2012). Policy challenge: No kindergarten checkout until December. School Library Monthly, 29(3), 26-27.

Parrott, K. (2017a). Fountas and Pinnell say librarians should guide readers by interest, not level. School Library Journal. Retrieved from http://www.

Parrott, K. (2017b). Thinking outside the bin: Why labeling books by reading level disempowers young readers. School Library Journal. Retrieved from readers/

Scholastic. (2016). Kids and family reading report: Key findings. Retrieved from /index.htm

Williams, K. (2013). Let them go: Empty shelves means they're reading! Teacher Librarian, 40(3), 15-17.

Courtney Pentland is a school librarian for Omaha Public Schools in Omaha, Nebraska; adjunct faculty for the University of Nebraska Omaha graduate School Library program; and the past-president of the Nebraska School Librarians Association.
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Title Annotation:FEATURE ARTICLE
Author:Pentland, Courtney
Publication:Teacher Librarian
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2019
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