Denver school principal Karen Powell with students at their pop-up library.

Starting with a Pop-Up, a School Library Grows in Denver

By Janet Damon on May 22, 2018

“We don’t have a library.”

I was in a meeting with Karen Powell, principal of Montbello Career and Technical High School in Denver, CO. I had just told her about my new district-wide Diverse Books Initiative at Denver Public Schools, where I am the library services specialist. I’ve been asking educators of color and LGBTQ educators to share books that affirm their identity and empower them.

Powell is a champion of reading, but she cut me off. With a sigh, she said, “Our school is a pathway school and we are housed in an office building. There is no library.”

The Montbello community, located in a racially diverse subdivision in Denver, has 16 schools. Only two have certified librarians, while three have library paraprofessionals. The rest either have no library or a library with no staff. It’s the community I grew up in and have taught in for 16 years as a school librarian.

I thought for a moment and said, “What if I bring the books to you? What if we host a pop-up library?”

She was thrilled.

I sat down with Caroline Hughes, director of educational technology and library services at Denver Public Schools, to discuss funding options. Schools receive annual library funding per a voter-approved mill levy. For those without a library or library staffing, the funds usually go to an Overdrive digital library collection.

Initially, Hughes and I thought that ebooks could be the bridge to get students reading while we developed the pop-up collection. But we discovered a larger problem: kids weren’t reading at all.

I found this out when I asked 40 10th-grade students, “How often do you read for fun?”

The class looked at me blankly. One student said. “I have read stuff for classes, but um, well, I haven’t read for fun since like fifth grade.”


I then asked, “How many of you had a library in elementary school?” More than half raised their hands. “How many of you had a library in middle school?” Only three hands were still raised—and Montbello, as the principal noted, has no high school library.

This predominately Hispanic and African American community doesn’t have librarians to help them connect to books—and most kids don’t have the devices to read ebooks on from our digital collection. This situation creates a systemic problem: I believe that implicit bias creates a belief that students of color don’t care about reading. Students often internalize this negative belief.

A CONVERSATION ABOUT EQUITY

I shifted gears with the 10th graders to talk about equity instead. We discussed what equity would look like if we created a library at their school. They wanted diverse books, scary books, books about real life, and science fiction.

I made an appointment with Powell to get the pop-up library project going. I came  prepared: I brought Long Way Down and All American Boys by Jason Reynolds, Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper, Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Warrior, Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, and Nic Stone’s Dear Martin.

A week before we launched the pop-up library, I booktalked at the school, presenting to a generation of students denied access to a school library since elementary school. I read passages aloud, let my voice crack with emotion, showed them how books make me feel, and it worked. Students handed me tissues, came up to look at the books, argued who would read what first, and then demanded that I reserve specific titles for them.

On the pop-up library’s opening day, we set up books all around Montebello’s Room 223. Ms. Patterson, a language arts teacher, played jazz while students entered. At first, they hesitated but slowly they began picking up titles, asking for their holds, and checking out books. Some owed fines from eight years ago—the last time they checked anything out. We cleared them, giving those students a fresh start.

Powell hovered over students, ensuring that everyone find something of interest. Rebekah, a senior, begged to check out three books, promising to finish all by spring break. Three young men huddled around the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series. “Look Mrs. Damon, the last one we read was Roderick Rules, and there are nine more books now!”

Yep, my heart constricted. They had missed out on 10 years of laughs, adventures, and jokes with Greg Heffly and countless other characters. We planned more events at other schools.

Two weeks after the first pop up, Powell asked me to visit again. I walked in and saw Rebekah with a book in hand, grinning. “Hey Mrs.Damon! I’m finishing my last one!” Kalani, another student, ran up to me. “Do you have another copy of Dear Martin? I need that book!”

I went up to Room 223. Principal Powell was standing there and greeted me with a smile, “Welcome to our new library. I think we can make it work—we’ll just need to invest in some furniture and more books. What do you think?”

For the second time, I said, “Let’s do it.”

After that, community activists, families, students and faculty at Montbello High School became relentless in their pursuit to open a dedicated library space that was larger than a single classroom. They were incensed when they realized that some high schools in the city have amazing libraries and went to the Board of Education to protest.

Their efforts have been rewarded. This spring there will be a substantial renovation of a large Montebello Campus library space and expanded staffing next year. It’s a win for the whole community.


Janet Damon,  Ed.S, MLSIS, is the library services specialist for Denver Public Schools.  She is also the founder of Afros and Books, a team of black librarians who create culturally-responsive family literacy programs, promote diverse books, summer literacy camps and a yearlong series called “Sankofa Storytimes” with community partners, BCDI-Denver, and Project Proud Fatherhood.