Library R&D: Starting a Student Advisory Committee in the Library

Middle school librarian Tammy Byram shares her experiences starting a student advisory group in her school library.

I believe I’m a good school librarian: I can maintain a decent collection, collaborate with my staff, teach a media skills lesson, book talk, create reading programs, and interact well with my students.  I do my best to learn how to use the equipment that I or the division purchase, but time and lack of technical knowledge often leave me frustrated.  I’ve always thought I should put myself in the students’ shoes to think about what they need and what they would like, and that works okay I guess.  Recently, though, I’ve felt that something was off.  And then it hit me: I was missing actual student voices, as well as their expertise.  I was just a middle-aged librarian posing as a middle schooler and trying to think like one.  What I needed was the real deal.  The spark that got me going was this little clip I came across in eMediaVA about Innovator Insight.  So, in January of this year, I decided to create a Library Advisory Committee consisting of me and a group of students.  Who knows more about being a student than a student?

I started small.  Since it was the middle of the year, I wanted just a small group of vetted students.  I sent out an email to my colleagues asking for the names of a few students they thought would be interested in helping me out.  I tried to make it fun and special by creating an invitation for each student recommended to meet with me in the library during lunch and explore an interesting opportunity. I explained my frustrations, my limitations, and my visions.  In the end, I landed about nine incredible students willing to work with me in trying to make the library more welcoming and more integral to the school life of our students.  I approached it as if the students were conducting some research and development for the library.  Once they (with parent approval) agreed to be a part of the mission, I set up a schedule in which we would meet twice a month for an hour after school.  I also stocked up on snacks since that was payment for their participation!  With that, the Library Crew was born.

Each visit was different and fun. Most of the time we honed in on a specific need I had. Sometimes, though, it was clear that they did not want direction, they just wanted to play. They are kids, after all.  That’s when I just set things out, watched, and listened.  Here are some of the things the Library Crew has been working on in our short time together:

  • Testing out my existing directions for the 3D printers and makerspace activities. They then edited them so they were more understandable and user-friendly for students.
  • Learning the intricacies of the Makey Makeys and writing directions for those.
  • Playing with the Sphero robots and discovering some of the higher-order, cool things to do with them.
  • Testing a lesson I created with the Spheros.
  • Setting up an AV room with a green screen and videoing paraphernalia and a podcasting microphone.  They tested the various platforms for recording and green screen apps and made recommendations.
  • We got new VR goggles and they researched good apps that were school appropriate to use with them
  • They created a running list of “dream” things to have in the library so I can work on getting donations and grants
  • Suggestions for makerspace activities to set up around the library (they LOVE low/no-tech ideas like knitting, calligraphy, and puzzles!
  • They kept asking why I couldn’t just “buy the books we want on Amazon and have them here tomorrow?”  So they learned about the process for purchasing books for a school library.  After that, their suggestions always came with reviews!

These are some of the bigger things they have helped me with.  I am looking forward to growing the group next year.  I plan to advertise the program at the beginning of the year and have different students every 9 weeks. I will also try it as a signup program rather than a teacher-recommended one, more like a school club.  

Overall, I was so incredibly happy with the result of this small test run.  I think the potential is huge for me and the students.  I gain insight into their wants and needs, but I also get to tap into their knowledge and their desire to experiment. At the end of the day, it can be exhausting to think about having to learn about things that are out of my wheelhouse – like 3D printers and robots, so I am so grateful for everything they’ve learned through trial and error. Students also benefit by getting to spend time using the library’s resources and by having a voice in what they’d like to see in the space.  More importantly, I hope they have felt essential and validated, and that their opinion matters. 

My library R&D experts really gave me some insight into not only what they want to see and do in the library, but it also gave me some much-needed perspective (theirs) and helped open my eyes to some assumptions I had made: about them and about my library space.  It has really helped me to recognize that I don’t have to have all the answers…I just need a team of experts who are willing to help me find them!

Some resources and articles I found interesting, motivating, and helpful:

Student Voice and Choice:  Student Library Advisory Team

Middle School Monday:  Making Use of a Middle School/Tween Advisory Board

Library Influencers: How Tween Advisory Boards Optimize Programming

Tammy Byram is a librarian at Chancellor Middle School in Spotsylvania County Public Schools and an eMediaVA Ambassador.

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