A Million Books Matters: The Citywide Digital Library Success Story in New York City Schools


When schools closed, a new digital library created opportunities for students across New York City. The library is growing rapidly, with over 1.5 million cases to date.

Melissa Jacobs (pictured) monitors an online ticker that tracks the circulation of digital securities like a day trader monitoring the stock market.

“Today we distributed 6,162, just at 3:15 p.m. on a Friday,” says Jacobs, director of library services for the New York City Department of Education and a library newspaper Mover and agitator. “This month we have chttps://soraapp.com/welcomeirculated 25,700… oops, that just changed… 25,819. You gotta be quick.”

It’s this kind of demand that has made the success of the new citywide digital library. The project began in the summer of 2020 to create a collection of diverse and engaging digital books to help students and teachers navigate remote learning. By the end of 2021, NYC DOE students had borrowed over a million ebooks and audiobooks.

Jacobs had long advocated for increased student access to digital collections, but it was the pivot of remote learning driven by the pandemic that presented the opportunity to launch the new initiative.

Like all educators who had to transform their process when remote learning began, librarians had to figure out how to provide access to a rich collection without a physical library. For Jacobs, the answer became the city’s digital library.

“A lot of teachers would go to Google and look for a PDF of a book because we switched to remote learning overnight,” says Jacobs. Teachers relied on anything they could find, and sometimes those digital versions weren’t legal. “We understood the frustration. They wanted to teach the book, and we had to be the copyright police. But we wanted to help.

Jacobs was instrumental in securing more than $4 million during the pandemic from a variety of sources, including several private grants from the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation to launch the digital library, and his leadership in supporting the literacy has been recognized by EdWeekwho named Jacobs a 2022 leader to learn from.

Today, the DOE has built a collection of more than 20,000 unique digital titles, including fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, and cookbooks, all in multiple languages. These titles are available to all K-12 students, who can log in with a single school ID through the Sora Reading app on their computer, tablet, or smartphone. Not only does this make the system easier to use, but students can keep track of everything they read.

“I consider that to be instrumental in how we teach a love of reading,” says Jacobs. “Students can see all documents, grades, annotations, badges and everything from K-12. It’s a tool that grows with them, and there’s not a lot that stays with them throughout their school career.

And that digital ticker with its rapidly changing stats? It helps librarians meet real-time demand, according to Rachel Chapman, school librarian at the George Westinghouse Educational Campus in Brooklyn.

“I can see how many kids are checking out books, which books have a long shelf life, and buy new ones instantly,” Chapman says. “When someone reads a series and number six is ​​checked, we can go ahead and buy it and have it ready in 24 hours. It’s really cool.”

A library for everyone
For students, there is always something new to discover. Just as physical libraries build displays to showcase new books, the City’s Digital Library main page is constantly refreshed, highlighting new titles or collections related to topics or events, such as “The Moment always came to do what is right” in February. in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Keeping it fresh and exciting for every student was crucial to Jacobs. That’s why she also worked to create a brand for the system that stood out as unique to New York.

“It’s the city’s digital library and what makes it special is our librarians who have curated collections” especially for New York City students, she says. This included developing an application form for librarians across the city and developing various reading lists for the NYC DOE Universal Mosaic Curriculum program built with a sustainable, culturally sensitive education and social learning lens. -emotional.

Librarians have also been instrumental in creating collections based on their own expertise. Before becoming a school librarian, Chapman was a classroom science teacher and now manages a collection of STEM-related books. Previously, recommendations from subject matter experts would have been only for students and teachers with access to a specific library; now everyone can enjoy it.

“It brings interlibrary loan into the modern age because now I can purchase the same amount of content, but it’s not just limited to students in my building,” Chapman says. “Now we can invite librarians and educators and it’s much more interactive and community-focused. I think we can reach more people.

A good side of remote learning was that the NYC DOE distributed a large number of devices to students. Even if network connections at home are unreliable, students can download books from school and read them at home regardless of internet access.

“One of the best things about the citywide digital library is that we’ve reached kids who unfortunately don’t have access to a librarian or library,” says Jacobs. “Now these students have access to documents selected and curated by librarians.”

Lindsay Klemas is a librarian at Forest Hills High School in Queens, one of New York’s largest high schools. With the Digital Library, Klemas appreciates the opportunity it provides to students from all learning backgrounds. For example, students with physical disabilities can use features such as high contrast mode or the ability to zoom in on text; and audio books help students learn English.

“One thing for English learners is that I will tell them that they can borrow a physical copy of the book and listen to the audio version,” Klemas says. “They have the ability to level up and read something that interests them. There are so many options like that for little kids, but having the option for older kids is really helpful.”

Educators have also come to appreciate the flexibility of the new system. Teachers no longer have to worry about students forgetting a copy of their book, and students can read a physical copy of an assignment in class and then have the ability to access it digitally at home, wherever they can also save annotations and highlight important quotes.

While some teachers are still hesitant to use the system, citing concerns about students using their phones in class, Chapman thinks students should benefit from the doubt.

“At the library, I spend most of my day having free time, and I see kids on the couches on their phones, and I’m checking, and they’re reading a book. I think we’re jumping to conclusions, and you’d be surprised if students want to read more than adults give them credit for.

Jacobs expects the city’s digital library to reach two million loans by the end of the calendar year. While this is impressive, she says there is plenty of room to grow in order to reach more students.

She also aims to engage more educators through a new Teacher-2-Librarian program that allows New York State-certified teachers to receive their librarian certification. The professional texts required for the program will be purchased and available through the digital library.

“These cohorts of new librarians will use this platform,” says Jacobs. “With every program and initiative we run, I figured out how to integrate the city’s digital library. You can’t just throw that away. It becomes an integral part of raising children.

Andrew Bauld (Twitter: @AndrewWBauld) is a freelance writer covering primary and higher education.


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