By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Laurel Taylor has always enjoyed getting lost in the library.
An avid reader from an early age, Taylor would escape into the pages of Beverly Cleary’s “Ramona Quimby” series and spend hours in her local library. The arrival of the bookmobile was like Christmas morning, and the two older women who drove the portable literary treasure trove were like Santa Claus. The reason Taylor learned how to write her name was because these women promised her a library card.
“Books were just my life as a kid. I used to play library. … I got a worker’s permit when I turned 15 so I could work at my local public library. I just loved it,” Taylor said. “Books were kind of my safe haven.”
Now, as an Alexandria City High School librarian, Taylor spends all day getting lost among the bookshelves, shepherding students through the more than 17,000 books in hopes of helping spark in them the same passion for reading that she had as a young student.
Taylor was recently celebrated for her work in Alexandria: She was named as one of two librarians sponsored by the American Association of School Librarians in the American Library Association’s 2022 Emerging Leaders. The program aims to connect librarians from around the country by placing them into problem-solving workgroups and giving them the opportunity to assume more leadership.
Although Taylor only became a librarian in 2019 after receiving her master’s from Old Dominion University’s online library program, she was already deeply familiar with ACHS. Prior to stepping into the library, Taylor worked as an English teacher at T.C. Williams High School, the former name of ACHS, for a decade. Although Taylor said she enjoyed classroom teaching, she realized that moving into the library would allow her to potentially impart the importance of reading, critical analysis and media literacy to the entirety of the ACHS student body, not just her class.
Matthew Zahn, an ACHS English teacher and former chair of the English department, said that even as a teacher Taylor had shown a gift for moving beyond the canon to find works that appealed to students’ modern tastes.
“She really had her finger on the pulse of new texts about writing and new texts about reading and things that were written through a really student-friendly lens as well,” Zahn said. “A lot of the things that she established in her classroom were different books and texts that really became foundational for different people in our department.”
That student-centric approach has made its way into Taylor’s work in the library and allowed the library to stay up to date with students’ needs and interests, according to Beth Ebenstein Mulch, an 11-year ACHS librarian.
“It’s one thing for us to say, ‘Read this book. This book is great.’ It’s another thing to help students understand how to decide for themselves what they might enjoy reading and be able to navigate the collection and find those materials,” Ebenstein Mulch said.
When it comes to students who admit they don’t enjoy reading, Taylor said she has only one response: challenge accepted.
“One of the challenges of being a librarian but one of the beauties of being a librarian is that you serve everyone,” Taylor said. “So, everyone who walks in the door, regardless of how much they do or do not like books, no matter how much of a bad experience they’ve had in the library in the past or good experience, you’re there for them and you’re trying to let them know that this space is for them.”
Taylor’s experience in ACHS made for an easy transition – all of the relationships and connections she needed were already in place and she could hit the ground running. Taylor said she has fully embraced what has amounted to a dream role, but she said her classroom experience still comes in handy, as she not only leads workshops and instructional programming but collaborates with teachers on their curriculum.
“I know that pressure of building a lesson and having it connect to the standards, and I can think about pacing and what that might look like,” Taylor said. “I think it’s been really good to have that teaching background specifically in this building because then I know the rhythms of the school year for a classroom teacher, which then allows [for] some interesting collaboration between the staff here.”
Some of that collaboration has required Taylor and her team, which includes Ebenstein Mulch and librarian Lindsay Hall, to think outside the box and find new and interesting ways to get students engaged in whatever topic a teacher is trying to cover.
Taylor routinely finds inspiration for collaborative lessons and potential guest speakers from social media and online spaces where she knows her students are active. The library team also often organizes events called “book feasts” where they pull together a “tasting” of books for a single class that are all built around a single theme. When a sociology teacher wanted their students to read a fiction or nonfiction book about race and its impact on peoples’ lived experiences, Taylor, Ebenstein Mulch and Hall were quick to pull together a set of young adult literature that tackled that theme head on.
During the last two years, Taylor has also started to increase her focus on media and news literacy, and the ability to assess the reliability of information and sources.
“In many cases, students are more adept than many teachers at knowing where to find information, and they are significantly less adept at determining the credibility of that information,” Zahn said.
Taylor has collaborated with science teachers to run workshops where students have to analyze two news or academic articles on a single topic: one that they would recommend people read and another they would tell people to pass on.
Another media literacy exercise allowed Taylor to collaborate with a history teacher on an exercise that tasked students studying the Revolutionary War by comparing an article from a British newspaper from the time with a letter written by an American colonist. Students then did the same sort of comparison with two articles written from different perspectives about the American withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“We did that to help them see that not only is history shaped by where you’re sitting while it’s happening, but our modern understandings of that are shaped by that too,” Taylor said.
With the advent of the internet and the vast amount of information available to modern students, the job of school librarians had evolved from the traditional model to serving as search engine maestros and media literacy gurus. According to Taylor, librarians are more important than ever before.
“When I was a kid, the librarian checked out your picture books to you in elementary school, and it was so fun and they were one of your favorite people in the building, but now it’s a lot more of the librarian preparing you for a world that is overwhelming in the amount of information you have access to,” Taylor said.
“We’re really realizing that our main job as librarians is not to give the kids a checklist of things to go through, but it’s really to teach them critical analyzing skills,” Taylor added. “How do you look at something and figure out that a lot of the language on that page is emotionally motivated and so it might not be that objective?”
After Taylor had been in the library for six months, the COVID-19 pandemic struck and public schools closed their doors. While everyone struggled to adapt to a new way of life, Taylor said she and her team had to completely rethink their role and how to connect with students. Like the rest of the world, library staff hopped on Zoom and organized virtual classes and author visits.
They also launched a curbside pickup program for library books, which proved helpful but did not allow for the same level of service as a physical library.
“That was helpful, but it was hard because you’re just not seeing the same flow of students,” Taylor said. “… There was just that breakdown of casual readers coming into the library.”
“It’s tricky because we don’t have a set roster of students to build relationships with. So much of it is interacting with them in the library,” Ebenstein Mulch said. “So, not only were we adapting our instructional lessons … but we also had to stretch and really get creative to figure out how do we still connect with students in terms of a library.”
Since ACPS moved back to full time in-person learning in fall 2021, circulation of library books has “skyrocketed,” according to Ebenstein Mulch.
Taylor’s acceptance into the Emerging Leaders Program is the culmination of her time as a librarian at ACHS. Taylor said she hopes to use the program as an opportunity to network with other librarians and share knowledge she has gleaned in Alexandria.
“I also know we’re really fortunate in Alexandria to have a lot of resources, a lot of access to things, a lot of access to each other, so I also feel an obligation to share,” Taylor said. “If I have the bandwidth professionally to be part of a larger community and help librarians as a whole, I want to do that.”