Big Bookstore School Library Fundraisers

In recent years, it has become an increasingly popular practice to hold school library fundraising events at a large bookstore chain.  We have all seen the posters, host a night at your local store, and 10-20% of money from purchases goes towards your school to buy books for your school.

On the surface this appears to be a win-win.

As a former teacher, teacher librarian and education librarian, I understand fully the realities of school libraries not being afforded the staffing or acquisition funding they deserve to support school success.   So on the surface, my discomfort with the events may appear counter-intuitive. What kind of person, let alone librarian, would poo-poo efforts to get more books in schools?

But as in most things in education, it isn’t at the surface where trouble lurks.  Let’s dig a little deeper.

De-professionalization of Teacher Librarianship & Reducing the Role of the School Library

On an academic level, I am concerned that the mentality of getting more, shiny new things from a fancy store is superseding the critical selection process.  It reduces the professional processes involved with school library collection development to, well, shopping.   School libraries should house reading content that reflects curriculum across grades and subjects. They should encompass that content at a variety of reading levels and in variety of formats.

Does this big bookstore carry non-fiction material on an important science and technology topic like electricity at a reading level appropriate for kids not reading at a Grade 6 level?

Limited Voice and Perspective

Publishers have come a long way in allowing for a greater range of voices to be represented in children’s material. However, we still have a looooong way to go before the protagonists of fiction are truly reflective of the children and families that populate our schools, or that will allow children in more homogenous communities to recognize that they are only one corner of a very diverse global village.

While the teachers or school library staff who will do the shopping with the gift cards will undoubtedly do their best to buy diverse materials with these critical thoughts in mind, they are still only able to buy what’s in stock. And what’s in stock, for the most part, is reading material reflective of middle class suburban and urban families with able bodied children who like to read.

Reading as Consumerism, ‘Helping’ Through Consumerism

Unfortunately, like just about every other aspect of North American life, somehow we have managed to commodify reading. In a bookstore, that very thing heralded as the great equalizer, the hallmark of the classless society, the gateway to all other learning, comes with a price sticker.  When we take the kids to the bookstore and glorify the act of buying books we reinforce consumerism as positive social behavior.

And, once again, who is NOT coming to these fundraisers?

The same kids who are NOT playing on team sports, and the same ones who don’t come on class trips or travel. The kids who do not have the support network in place to bring them to the event, the ones who don’t have money to casually spend. Once again, “all” are welcome to participate in school culture, to contribute to bettering your school community, as long as you bring your wallet. For the kids that do attend?  They get to say that they ‘helped’ their school, with very little effort or personal sacrifice involved.

Equity and Inclusion

These are critical aspects of equity, inclusion, and character education that should be considered when organizing this kind of event.  Without intent, social dividers like ability, first language, and socio-economic status can be reinforced with this fundraising model.  We are also reinforcing that School Libraries are rooms of books, not comprehensive programs integrated with professionals, curriculum goals, technology and that reflect contemporary practices in learning and reading engagement.

We are putting into the hands of corporate book marketers and sellers – not educators, not librarians, not reading specialists –  what our classroom and school libraries look like, and what it means to be a contributing part of a school community.

Better Practice

Despite these concerns, this is not a call to ban or abandon the bookstore based fundraiser altogether. It is a call to critically consider how to frame it, and how to minimize the potentially exclusionary aspects. Here are some ‘better practice’ suggestions for your big box bookstore fundraisers:

1. One of many.

Instead of making this THE fundraiser, create a plan for 3 different events throughout the year, all with the goal of raising money for school library materials. Further, be sure to provide many opportunities for children to be involved in school library improvement that has nothing to do with buying things. They can tangibly support their school library by being a reading buddy, being a classroom library ambassador, by shelving books one recess a month, etc.

2. Develop a relationship with your public library.

Make visiting the library or having a visit from someone who works in the children’s or teens area of public libraries a regular part of school life. Norm the ‘consuming’ of reading, listening, or viewing material from the library as strongly as going to the mall has been normed as enjoyable, everyday behavior.

3. Do your homework, together.

Before the event, have an authoritative team spend some time developing a wish list based on gaps in your school library collection. Ask questions like:  What don’t we have? What genres are already represented?  Whose voices are missing?  Is there a format we haven’t explored yet?  Is there a major world event – the Olympics? Historical anniversary or commemoration? – coming up that we can anticipate needing resources?

Then, when you are shopping online with the gift cards your fundraiser earned, you are not simply duplicating the top ten sellers, the latest movie franchise, or whatever author the bookstore is currently marketing the hardest. Remember, your voracious readers have likely already read the top ten, and your non-readers are highly unlikely to ever read them.

4. Encourage GIVING, not shopping.

Set up an anonymous reading wish list box for children to slip pieces of paper stating the types of things they are interested in. Then, the list can be compiled and posted.  Encourage your students who do attend the fundraiser to not just buy one for themselves, but one they recognize would be enjoyed by someone else.  They may have to rethink how much they are spending on themselves in order to make their money go further.  THIS is giving.

5. Think outside the print book.

Traditional print fiction is still very popular with kids and teens alike, but teachers know it isn’t for everyone. Audiobooks, non-fiction magazines, and multimodal kits make wonderful additions to school libraries. Use your fund raising dollars to buy unusual items that will bring added engagement to those students who may be disinclined to pursue print reading, but still hunger for places to engage in reflective, individual activities in other ways.

6. Materials supporting the Maker Movement.

Along with non-traditional book formats, also think about buying non-fictional material that supports MakerSpaces and Genius Hours in your School Learning Commons. Sewing machines, soldering and glue guns, robotics, Claymation, kite making,  are all activities that encourage kids to TRY things, get messy, make mistakes. Purchasing print books as guides to improving their design or just as inspiration can be wonderful complements to a Maker Space.

The Learning Commons / The School Library Program

Schools with cultures of recreational reading and of inclusion are two strong school effectiveness goals that hit a number of learning and development targets. School libraries have the potential to contribute immensely to those two goals.  In this era of chronically underfunded and inappropriately staffed school libraries, teachers and principals are filling the gaps as best they can but it is imperative that these gaps are identified and acknowledged.

A franchise bookstore can never be a learning commons and it is not a comparable option to a comprehensive school library program.

However, if holding big box bookstore fundraisers is an initiative your school is considering, the better practice suggestions above can help to separate the myths from realities, and hopefully, they reinforce that commercially based sellers of items are simply not equipped to be a replacement for non-profit based professionals designing places and acquiring materials for educational settings.

And when your school district is ready to talk about re-imagining and rebuilding their school library programs, there are many resources and OCT certified Teacher Librarians ready to do so much more than just go shopping.

Peggy Lunn is the Teacher Resource Centre Librarian at Queen’s University Library. She can be reached at Peggy.Lunn [at] queensu.ca or through Twitter @QueensTRC.

For more information and resources about the contemporary School Library and the Learning Commons movement, please visit the Ontario School Library Association’s (OSLA) Together for Learning website.