I want to start by saying that this isn't a post about semantics. In my experience, a lot of people use the terms (or hashtags) student voice and student agency interchangeably. And that's cool. I'm definitely not here to suggest that those folks are "doing it wrong." But at the risk of being pedantic, I've also been thinking a lot, recently, about the differences between these two phrases AND about how those differences are reflected in libraries.
For the purpose of this post, I'm going use the term "student voice" to reflect practices in which learners are given a voice, vote or say in how the librarian develops policy and practice in the library. Some examples of this might be:
creating a virtual/physical suggestion box - so that kids can suggest titles for purchase.
creating a menu of product options for learners to choose from when demonstrating learning.
creating opportunities for kids to publicly/privately reflect on how the library (ie: shelving or circulation policies) works for them.
There are countless other examples. And all of them give kids the chance to share their opinions and thoughts about the library (or classroom) and how those spaces work for them as learners. But ultimately, it is up to the librarian to take action based on that input. Or not.
Which leads me to student agency.
In my mind, student agency is when learners are empowered to actively contribute to how the library works. Some example of this might be:
creating opportunities for kids to select and purchase items for the library's collection.
creating opportunities for kids to contribute to the development of shelving practices. This could take the form of having your student advisory board (or "friends of the library" group or whatever you call a group of kids who help you make decisions about the library) do things like 1) review existing genre classifications and 2) decide if a genre is missing or needs to be renamed or rethought. Those same kids could then assist in the process of making those changes and/or read new titles to help decide which genre a book best fits into).
creating opportunities for students to help you conduct a diversity inventory of the library's holdings, displays and policies. Using a tool like the Culturally Responsive Scorecard, kids could then develop a strategic plan for continual improvement.
creating policies that support self-checkout/check-in. Even if you are lucky enough to live in a world where library support staff positions still exist, empowering students to check books in/out themselves helps prepare them as life long library users (public libraries have long been leading the way in this area) and frees up your library clerk/aid to do more meaningful collection work, such as weeding or repairing well-loved titles, etc.
Again, there are countless other examples of how librarians can cultivate learner agency, but all of them provide kids with the opportunity to do more than just say what they think about a thing. Student agency is when kids are empowered to act on those thoughts by developing, implementing and reflecting on them.
When I talk to librarians about how they can evolve policies and practice to include learner agency, I get a lot of "yeah... buts" and "what ifs." And I understand where those concerns come from. Our jobs are big. It's tough enough to keep all the balls in the air when we're the only one juggling. But at the same time, I've gotta say, the older I get, the more libraries I visit, the more librarians I talk to, the less I care about the management of stuff. Don't get me wrong, we have to be good stewards of our collections, but moving books (or ipads or chromebooks or whatever) from shelves to backpacks and back again can't be the reason why we go to work each day. It just can't. If we want the people who make decisions about libraries to see that our work matters, we must do work that matters. It's not enough to just be busy. We also have to go to work each day determined to:
transform not-yet readers into forever readers.
grow an information (in all its forms) literate populace.
build bridges of understanding between different cultures, beliefs and ways of life.
make everyone we meet feel safe, represented and valued (in our spaces, collections, displays, etc).
change the world
In my view, student agency must be a part of this, at all levels of librarianship, if for no other reason than we know that the human brain doesn't retain information that it doesn't care about.
If we want kids to care about the library, if we want them to care about each other and to grow into thinkers and world changers, we have to create spaces, collections and learning that belong as much to them as they belong to us. This means taking risks. It means accepting that things won't be perfect (but, hey... are thing really perfect now??). And it means that instead of focusing on all the things they'll get wrong (ie: "they will forget to check a book in/out..." or "they'll suggest books we already have..." or "they'll shelve the books incorrectly," etc.), we need to take an accounting of all the strengths our kids bring to the table and look for ways to harness them for the benefit of all of us.
All of that said, let's talk a little bit about what this might look like. Over the last few weeks I've been curating some examples of why student agency matters and of how some librarians are putting it to use in the library. This is a work in progress (as we all are) that I plan to add to this collection over time. If you have some resources you'd like to share, please do so in the comments**.
Now... here's my challenge to you:
Identify one way that you are already giving students a voice in how the library works. Then...
Find a partner in crime: a professional co conspirator. Together, brainstorm some ways that you can nudge this practice towards agency. REMEMBER: there's no bad ideas in brainstorming. List every crazy idea you can think of. You never know what will stick.
Spend some time (but not much) identifying potential obstacles that stand between current practice and a future in which kids have ownership of the library. But don't dwell there. Instead...
Conduct a strengths inventory wherein you think about the assets your kids/community bring to the table. Instead of dwelling on all the ways they might fail, intentionally focus on ways you can leverage the awesomeness of your community to make the learning in the library even better.
Go back to your brainstormed list of ideas and prioritize, sort and sift until one or two rise to the top.
Then... do what you do best: plan, implement, iterate and reflect.
I'm not going to promise you that this won't be messy. In fact, let's plan on things getting messy. I'm not going to claim that it will be easy. Meaningful work rarely is. But to paraphrase one of the greatest teachers in history, Albus Dumbledore, there comes a time when we all have to choose between what is easy and what is right. In the end, if we really believe that libraries matter, if we are truly devoted to making our spaces places of empowered, joyful learning, if we really want our learners to leave us armed not only with the skills and dispositions to be life long library users but also with an understanding of the fundamental value of libraries, we have to stop creating policies and procedures that make life easier for adults and start framing those decisions around what is best for kids.
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