Lowell — Christine Beachler wants books to catch students’ eyes.
That’s why she’s implemented “dynamic shelving” in media centers to instill life-long reading habits.
That means displaying books cover forward.
“The vast majority of the books that get checked out are the ones facing forward,” said Beachler, explaining how students gravitate to covers with catchy art, vibrant colors and expressive illustrations like the upside-down crown on Red Queen and the bespectacled face of the young wizard Harry Potter.
When it comes to getting books in students’ hands, enticing them with creative shelving is just one of Beachler’s strategies. She is a literary scientist, taking a forensic-level approach to organizing the district’s 125,000-piece library collection. She’s also a book gardener, weeding ones that are in poor condition (or haven’t been checked out in years) or sprucing them up with a repaired binding or mended pages.
“I do a lot of analysis of the collection. I look at every single line item and see how many books we have on every single topic and what the average age is. I also look at the average age of the overall collection in each specific area,” Beachler said. “I do a lot of balancing collections and making sure we have an up-to-date collection for our kids, and that our resources are relevant to them.”
Though her title is library media director, Beachler is a true school librarian. It’s a title often used loosely that actually requires a teaching degree and a master’s degree or its equivalent. She’s the only one in the district, dividing her time between six schools. Her role is something of a rarity in Michigan schools, where the ratio of students to certified school librarians ranks 47th in the country, according to 2018 data from the State of Michigan.
‘It’s really important for people to see themselves reflected in the stories we have and also for someone to read a different perspective from their own…’– Christine Beachler, library media director
Beachler supervises eight media assistants, curating the schools’ trove of curriculum resources, fiction, non-fiction, print and digital collections and overseeing many other tasks, including never-ending maintenance of students’ district-provided Chromebooks. The job is so detailed that it takes two or three years to fully train an assistant. Spring is inventory time, when everything needs to be collected, accounted for or marked as lost.
“She does a fantastic job. She’s always helping. She is always letting us know the new things to work on to make it more friendly for students and staff, and to make everything run smoother,” said library assistant Kandice Way.” Being a librarian is “not just taking care of books and putting them away; there’s so much more to it, and she does a fantastic job.”
Added media assistant Michelle Graft “She’s a wealth of knowledge. She helps in all areas.”
Beachler and her staff also have the fun job of opening boxes of new books and adding them to the shelves. Money from the district’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund allocation paid for $100,000 in library books this school year split between the six school libraries.
The Legacy of a Librarian
Beachler has worked for Lowell Area Schools for the past 35 years, a tenure that surpasses many administrators and staff members. Originally from Lake Odessa, she began as an accounting teacher at Lowell High School before becoming the district librarian 22 years ago. She earned her teaching degree at Central Michigan University and a master’s in business administration and library science degree from Grand Valley State University.
Her husband, Phil Beachler, teaches math at Lowell High School and is a graduate of the district. Their two children are also graduates.
“I love reading, and I love working with kids and I love technology, so all of these things fit together really well,” she said. “I love it. It is exactly what fits my personality well. The only thing that’s hard is, it’s very, very busy.”
Over the years, she’s seen students grow up and school libraries become more high tech. While they still use the time-honored Dewey Decimal System, their main program is the online Follett Destiny Library Management System.
Still, the avid e-books reader has noticed that students want the real thing — not the digital version— when it comes to books.
“I don’t see (printed) books ever going away. The kids don’t like reading books online. I’m still surprised by it; it’s always been that way, and it has not changed a bit.”
Beachler is passionate about her job and the role of libraries in general. Books are a portal to experiencing the world and seeing things through others’ lenses, she said. It’s important that every student has access to books they find relevant.
“(They say) ‘Books are windows and mirrors and sliding glass doors,’” she said. “It’s really important for people to see themselves reflected in the stories we have, and also for someone to read a different perspective from their own.”
Beachler also emphasized another side of being a school librarian: teaching students how to get credible versus non-credible sources, identify fact versus fiction in the media and biased and unbiased sources, cite sources and use the Michigan eLibrary. “I would like to do that a lot more, working directly with the kids.”
She and her staff have received recognition in that area. Last year, the district was awarded by Michigan School Libraries by 21st Century Schools program for commitment and work in promoting information literacy.
While it may seem like one of the least threatening occupations, it’s a controversial time to be a librarian and Beachler has been the brunt of attacks from a small group of individuals challenging books.
She has spent many hours outside of her job this year reading books challenged by community members for removal. Beachler has amassed information on frequently asked questions about library media services.
“To be honest, it has been a very challenging and difficult two and half years; the hardest of my 35-year career. The comments directed at me personally on social media and at school board meetings with individuals attacking me, by name, have been horrible,” she said. (They) criticize me, again by name, pretty much weekly ⸺ I guess because they disagree with our library policies and procedures. They don’t even know me, don’t know how hard I work, don’t know how much I care about students, don’t know how passionately I feel about teaching students to read, don’t know how important instilling a love of reading in children is to me and it seems they don’t care how much they hurt me and my family with their misinformation and lies.”
Still, she feels blessed with the support of her family, the vast majority of staff, a huge segment of the community, the Michigan Association of School Librarians, Kent District Library and many other supportive library groups.
“On the positive side of things, there are hundreds of community members that have been graciously supportive, encouraging and empathetic. I have received hundreds of thoughtful and kind messages from people that truly care about our district and the Lowell staff that work so tirelessly on behalf of our students.”
Senior Addisen Rodriguez said she is thankful for Beachler’s commitment to students’ “right to read.”
“I feel that as a student and as a senior, Mrs. Beachler completely understands that we are old enough to understand mature rhetoric and use it to expand our love and knowledge for the topics they might contain. I’m thankful for her advocacy to protect that right, and others in the community might not realize how much of an impact she’s making by speaking out on the topic,” she said. “Without leaders in the community like her, students wouldn’t have the right to expose themselves to literature that speaks to them and helps them feel seen.”
Beachler joined other adults in reading and discussing the books, learning the content for herself. She spoke of one book in particular read at a book club.
“It was a very powerful story of a black gay man. Obviously, I will never know what it’s like to be a black gay man. To understand life walking in his shoes helps you so much to broaden your horizon and to be able to look at things differently. One of the people (during the discussion) made a very profound statement that I will never forget. He said, ‘I feel like I am a better person for reading that book.’”
A Few Clarifications
Beachler works hard to explain the role a school library serves.
In Lowell Area Schools, parents have always had the final say in what their children read, she said. Parents have access to their children’s library accounts.
”Every parent can see every book that’s in every library here. It’s always been that way … If a parent wants to review every book title before their kid checks it out, then we will do that.”
But their control does not extend to other people’s children, she said. “They have the ability to make those choices for their own children. They don’t have the ability to make that choice for other people’s children.”
“It is so important for people to understand we are a public school. We are nonpartisan. School libraries have never been partisan places.”
Beachler’s libraries are busy, welcoming places, with shiny titles ready to draw in young readers. Creating those spaces for the district’s more than 200 teachers and 3,500 students is enough to keep her and the crew of assistants busy year round.
There’s always another book to track down, Chromebook to fix, staff member to train, or system to upgrade. There’s always another student who needs just the right book.
Like her shelving strategy, Beachler’s got it covered.
“We don’t want to just inspire kids to read because they have to for school, but we want them to learn to love to read and be life-long readers.”
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