A ripped black curtain shrouded the doorway of the library at A.G. West Black Hills High School in Tumwater.
Inside, bookshelves were covered with red spatters. Creepy-looking characters stood around tables, and a sign on the wall seemed explain everything: “Warning: This area has not been checked for Zombies.”
Black Hills’ “Zombie Café” was designed to create some buzz about the school’s library and get more students through its door, said librarian Deb Nickerson.
“Apocalypse fiction is a big thing,” she said. “We just have a lot of kids who are really into it so we thought, ‘Let’s just capitalize on it.’ ”
It’s an example of how the typical school library is no longer a silent oasis of book-filled shelves, card catalogs and a sense of order ruled by the Dewey Decimal System.
Today’s school libraries are designed to be fun and comfortable hubs of information and entertainment. They are gathering places, and often serve as venues for student events, such as poetry slams, musical programs and movie screenings.
And their collections go far beyond books. Teacher-librarians can often match students up with digital video cameras, electronic books, tablet computers and access to expensive online research databases.
Some even break what one might think would be a cardinal rule: No food allowed.
“I happen to have a Friday book club where kids can come, have their lunch in the library, and talk about books,” said Ann Marie Ratliff, a teacher-librarian at Jefferson Middle School in Olympia.
When River Ridge High School in Lacey remodeled its library a few years ago, the new design included a “laptop bar” where students could plug in and work from their personal laptop computers and tablets.
In order to make space, several shelves were removed from the library.
“I got rid of a lot of nonfiction,” said River Ridge teacher-librarian Sarah Applegate. “I surplussed it — it was outdated and not used. I got rid of a lot of my reference books, and I created a lot more space for fiction.”
Over the years, the job duties for school librarians have changed, too. Many districts have changed their title to teacher-librarian.
“I think older people assume teacher-librarians have storytimes and sit at a desk saying ‘Shh!’ and guarding old books,” said Sara Glass, a teacher-librarian at Peter G. Schmidt Elementary School in Tumwater.
In addition to promoting literacy, teacher-librarians often lead research classes and serve as their school’s technology specialist.
“My school has more than 200 students qualifying for free- or reduced-lunch and some don’t have any opportunity to use computers except in the library at school,” Glass said.
Ratliff said a big part of her job is helping students evaluate information and become “good digital citizens.”
“It used to be you could hand someone an encyclopedia, and say, ‘There ya go,’” she said. “Now, they find all sorts of information, and we try to help them decide what is the best source.”
Much of a teacher-librarian’s job is behind-the-scenes.
Nickerson said she often helps students fill out job and college applications, and compile their senior portfolios. She loves to talk about books, and enjoys helping students find a book that they’ll be interested in.
“I have a lot of kids who come in just to talk or ask for advice,” Nickerson added.
At the height of the Great Recession, many school districts across the country cut or eliminated teacher-librarian positions, according to Susan Ballard, president of the American Association of School Librarians, a division of the American Library Association.
Now, a lot of school districts are trying to add those positions back into their budgets, Ballard said.
“We seem to now be going through a restoration — a course correction,” she said. “They didn’t realize how critical that role was until someone wasn’t there.”
Ballard sees librarians playing an even bigger role as schools work to address the federal Common Core education standards.
“They really are a utility player in the school,” Ballard said. “They’re a teacher. They understand instruction. They understand instructional design. They understand assessments.”
In Washington, 15 teacher-librarians from around the state are developing a training that will help their peers become “Common Core coaches” for their schools, Applegate said.
It’s a natural fit because much of the work required by the standards is already being done by teacher-librarians, such as integrating internet tools into classroom lessons, she said.
“We have a really big picture view,” Applegate said. “We know all the grade levels of the school. We are naturally good at connecting disciplines.”
Ballard described her profession as “a wonderful example of evolution.”
“(We) have evolved to meet the information needs of people over time,” she said. “And we’ll continue to do so. We’re like cockroaches; we’re going to stay around.”
Does that mean they’ll survive the Zombie Apocalypse, too?
“Yes, because we’re informed, and we know where to find the resources to survive,” Ballard said with a laugh.