Behind the books

Walking through the hallways of the upper school, it’s impossible not to glance at the rows of books that line the walls in the center of campus. From classics and comics to senior speech archives and old yearbooks, anything a growing reader could ever want can be found in the stacks of the library. Still, it remains an underutilized resource for many, while the staff dutifully works to draw students and teachers alike into the space and reignite their love for reading. From staying up to date with trending releases, gathering research materials, and carefully curating displays, what really goes on behind the books?

The library staff consists of head librarian Cat Mullen and assistant Vicki Janisch-Tri. Coming from the public library system, Mullen joined the SPA community this fall, and Janisch-Tri has been the assistant librarian at the Randolph Campus for 11 years. Bringing their expertise, passion for connecting with students, and love for literature, the library staff care deeply about their role in the community.

“I just love talking about books with students, especially those who are reluctant readers or don’t like reading, and helping them find something that they enjoy. I really think there is a book for everybody; you just have to find it,” Mullen said.

I really think there is a book for everybody; you just have to find it

— Cat Mullen

In addition to providing one-on-one guidance, another key way the staff helps community members find the book for them is through the displays dispersed throughout the two stories of the library. Mullen and Janisch-Tri work together to rotate the offerings on the displays consistently, with Mullen focusing on the young adult section for the middle schoolers and Janisch-Tri organizing many of the themed displays. The duo focuses on highlighting diversity, incorporating different genres, and creating shelves that are accessible, fit a variety of interests, and can catch the eye of a developing reader.

“It’s important to create displays that engage the community and often include books that you maybe wouldn’t necessarily know about,” Janisch-Tri said. “Intersectionality is really important to include, so, for example, during Black History Month, we make sure to have categories like queer black writers or writers of different genders highlighted.”

Each display starts with a theme. February’s largest display focused on Black History Month, and the staff makes an effort to curate sections that honor other recognition dates throughout the year, like Native American Heritage Month and Hispanic Heritage Month. Beyond recognizing authors of specific backgrounds and identities, displays are often created based on topics, current or historical events, genres, and literary themes.

To form the displays, Janisch-Tri often looks at the resource list in the online library software that contains records of books included in the past that she can put on the shelves or look to when in need of inspiration for new additions, but she also hopes to include more student voice in the process in the future.

“Going forward, I’d really like to have the identity or affinity groups participate more or work with us in some way, potentially by recommending books that they’ve read, resonated with, or maybe just books they haven’t seen in the displays before that they think show an important perspective,” she said.

When purchasing books for the library, Mullen looks to a variety of sources like the School Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, the New York Times, and Goodreads to stay on the lookout for must-haves and highly-rated books for the library collection. If a student is looking for a book that hasn’t been purchased, or they are having trouble finding it in the stacks, Mullen and Janisch-Tri are always open to lend a hand or receive student suggestions and the library resources website makes it easy to place a hold and await the notification when it’s available to check out.

With an extensive collection of fiction, creative writing, nonfiction, and scholarly materials, the library has so much to offer, still, many students, even those who are avid readers, are often intimidated by the organization system or feel that seeking guidance is out of their comfort zone.

“I really love to read, and I’m constantly looking for new books, but I tend to just go to Barnes and Noble or check things out from the public library because I’m not as familiar with our library as I would like to be,” senior Andrea Gist said.

Mullen and Janisch-Tri hope that they can find simple ways to help students engage with the space and take advantage of the extensive resources available. In the future, they hope to come into classrooms more frequently to talk about their work as well as collaborate with students on projects, give recommendations, and help students form a more positive and fulfilling relationship with reading.

While getting back into reading may feel like a daunting task, the library staff offers a simple but effective piece of advice: don’t be afraid to experiment, even if it means abandoning a book.

“You really have to give yourself grace and the ability to say, ‘this book isn’t my thing, but that doesn’t mean I can’t find what is.’ I think people put a lot of pressure on themselves to finish a book once they start it, but there are so many options out there and if you keep trying, you’ll find the book for you,” Janisch-Tri said.