In the fall of 2021, C.C. Mellor Memorial Library, Carnegie Free Library of Swissvale and Braddock Carnegie Library Association launched an ambitious initiative to distribute public library cards to every student in the Woodland Hills School District.
But, as C.C. Mellor Library Director Erin Pierce said, giving everyone a library card if they don’t understand what they can do with it is 100 percent useless.
Enter Taylor Akers.
Akers joined the CCM staff in January as the new Outreach Library Assistant. She spends most of her days traveling between the different Woodland Hills schools making sure that students and teachers can find and access all the many free resources they now have available to them. She also helps children and teens discover all the ways in which the public library can help them be successful both in and outside the classroom.
“I think the best way to create lifelong learning is to start early,” Akers said. “This helps the students know that whenever you graduate, if you change schools, even move to a different part of Pittsburgh, there are so many different libraries in the area and this card gets you into all of them. It’s about raising that awareness for the students, the teachers and the parents.”
Akers was a creative writing major at Slippery Rock, went to graduate school at Pitt and interned in the library at Falk Elementary helping teachers get the materials they needed for their classes. With COVID-19 concerns preventing children from accessing libraries, it was an important role. That, combined with previous student teaching experience, all led Akers to apply for the position.
“It all kind of translated into everything I needed for this job, because basically my job now is to help teachers get materials but it’s also kind of being in a teacher role as well because I have the attention of the room and I’m directing the kids.”
Akers’ lessons are educational but fun. For instance, she recently had a class with fourth and fifth graders and used the middle grade novel “Unplugged” by Gordon Korman to devise a creative problem-solving activity in which the students had to invent something to help them get off an abandoned island.
“Nothing I do is graded, and that makes the kids a lot more at ease,” she said. “It’s just a fun little activity to get them going and creative and doing problem-solving and teamwork activities.”
While having a staff member dedicated to school outreach is not unusual in large library systems, it is fairly unique to smaller public libraries such as C.C. Mellor. Also unique is the Library Cards For All program, which was the first of its kind in Allegheny County.
It all grew from the results of a year-long community survey that CCM undertook in 2019 to learn the concerns of the people living in the neighborhoods that the library serves.
“The thing that came up overwhelmingly as the thing that people see as an issue in the community, hands down, is the school district,” Pierce said. “Then we started having conversations with the folks at the school district about how the library could better support the schools. What could we do to be helpful? How might that work?”
Along with the idea to provide public library cards to every student, a program which will continue past this school year to include incoming students, they determined that offering professional support to teachers and helping students learn to use the cards would be of greatest benefit.
“Supporting our youth means, quite literally, supporting our future,” Pierce said. “There is a gap between how the library would like to serve kids in our communities and the ability of our families to access the library. This could be because of transportation, juggling of family schedules, or knowledge of what all we have to offer. Bringing public library services into the schools, where the kids already are, allows us to help close that gap. Partnering with teachers and supporting the professionals that are supporting our kids every day is another way to close that gap. Woodland Hills School District has been a vital partner in this process. We are eager to continue working with them and deepen what has already proven an essential relationship.”
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