Focused on creating more book-filled classrooms across the country—particularly in underserved communities—Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit First Book, along with education researcher Susan Neuman, has launched a tool to assist educators with designing libraries that maximize their potential. The Literacy Rich Classroom Library Checklist, which helps assess a library’s functionality and usefulness, was released last month in conjunction with a nationwide educator survey, providing greater insight into the struggles and financial challenges pervading low-income school systems.

“Kids living in poverty come from book deserts,” said Neuman, professor of teaching and learning at New York University, who led this research study. As further evidence, she pointed to the U.S. Department of Education’s finding that 2.5 million children are enrolled in districts without school libraries. “People don’t realize what a classroom library should look like, and we wanted to support our teachers in designing one,” she said.

Survey Says

To gain a better understanding of the current state of classroom literacy in the U.S., First Book surveyed more than 1,200 registered member educators working in Title I (or Title I-eligible) schools about students’ accessibility to books for independent reading. Among the key takeaways: 96% of teachers personally funded some or all of their classroom libraries, spending an average of $346 on books and other literacy materials. In addition, 47% of the respondents said it took more than six years to build their libraries, and 28% noted that it took at least 10 years to obtain enough books for a well-stocked library. First Book’s survey also called attention to a lack of robust collections, revealing that 54% of educators had 10 or fewer books in their respective classroom libraries.

Perhaps the biggest surprise that came out of First Book’s survey, according to Neuman, was how highly teachers had initially rated their libraries. “When given our checklist, they realized it wasn’t as good as they had thought; it didn’t have cozy areas to read, multiple levels of books, or books of diversity,” she explained.

When creating the checklist, First Book and Neuman sought to take the guesswork out of constructing a high-quality classroom library. “We know that educators are strapped for time and money,” said Julianne Appleton, director of research and insight at First Book. “The checklist gives them the guidelines to build a library from scratch or to enhance an existing one.” Classroom libraries with at least 10–20 books on a revolving basis are designed to maintain students’ interest and engagement. “We also recommend books that represent diverse characters and storylines where kids can learn about themselves and others,” Appleton added.

Tools They Can Use

After completing the checklist, educators can arm themselves with the results of their individual assessment when seeking assistance from authority figures. “We are hoping the checklist will enable classroom teachers to take this to their administrators and policy makers and advocate for their libraries,” Neuman said. With a pending list of 200 classroom libraries on tap to receive funding from First Book, the checklist is positioned to benefit schools across the country—allowing for fewer book deserts and more literacy-rich meccas.