Safe and Self-Actualized: Addressing Student Needs

Is your library a safe space? Should it be? The terms "safe place" and "safe space" have appeared in many articles that describe school libraries being safe, quiet, places for students to study and not be bullied. However, safety is more than the absence of harm and danger. A safe space gives students an environment to risk new thoughts, learning processes, and products. These may involve reading choices, creating presentations and art, exploring new ideas, debating and discussing potentially emotionally charged topics, developing new friendships or connections, acquiring communication tools, and asking questions. School libraries should be places where students take risks to think, create, share, and grow—the four domains of the AASL's National School Library Standards.

Social and emotional learning and restorative justice are shared principles in my district in Nashville, Tennessee. While we serve the academic needs of students and collaborate with teachers to enrich all aspects of learning, the steps we take for social and emotional learning seem to have the strongest impact. Valuing our students where they are, while presenting opportunities for them to grow, enables students to engage with speakers and programs that challenge their beliefs, excites them to inquire and explore, teaches them skills to communicate and collaborate, and includes them in the planning and implementation of projects.

I particularly value the section of the AASL standards that calls on school librarians to lead students in demonstrating "empathy and equity in knowledge building" and to create "opportunities that allow learners to demonstrate interest in other perspectives" (AASL 2017, 76). How can your school library connect learners to others' perspectives? Try programming events with teachers, before or after school, or even during lunch.

Set the Stage

School librarians develop relationships with students. We strengthen students' abilities to question, inquire, explore, challenge, react, and grow. Simultaneously, we guide students through processes of civil dialogue. Dialogue does not have to be quiet, meek, or agreeable. Disagreeing with others is acceptable. Listening respectfully with sincerity enables learners to think, consider, and make informed decisions.

Most students don't know what a civil discussion looks like. The website for Revive Civility, an initiative led by the National Institute for Civil Discourse, has excellent definitions for civility and civic discourse: "Civility is showing mutual respect toward one another" while a civic discourse is "the free and respectful exchange of different ideas. It entails questioning and disputing, but doing so in a way that respects and affirms all persons, even while critiquing their arguments" ( Teach what an ad hominem attack—a response that focuses on undermining the person rather than rebutting their argument—is and what it looks like. Don't assume students know. Instead, show them what a civil discussion looks like by doing a mock demonstration with a teacher partner. Then, let the students begin while listening in to be sure the rules of decorum are being followed.

A powerful school library connects its users to the tools, opportunities, and people they need both virtually and physically. Librarians make connections to what users need along all the levels of Maslow's hierarchy of needs including physiological, security and safety, emotional, esteem, academic, and self-actualizing. How can librarians move from helping meet basic needs to enabling students to discuss social justice and the world beyond themselves?


At the basic level, libraries provide a comfortable, safe environment for students who have limited or no access to heat/air conditioning, furniture, food, and transportation. Many librarians stockpile snacks for students. I compile community resources and build connections to teach students how to meet their needs. During the Lunch Bunch time at my school, I have brought in guidance counselors and social workers to share resources. When I get frustrated taking the school ID photos, I recall that students use their IDs for their first jobs and that these photos are used on city bus cards to enable them to get to school. I have the curated community resources to activate our safety net if a student becomes homeless and let people in our school know who can help. Because we build emotional connections with students in the library, they see librarians as safe people to ask for help.

Simple items can free students to focus on higher needs. My list includes:

  • Basic needs. Since I receive many requests for help, I keep a list of supplies for potential donors: everything from safety pins, buttons, needles and thread, mini tubes of toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, lint rollers, and shampoo to small cans of food spaghetti or tuna, crackers, chips, juice boxes, and PB&J sandwiches. School supplies like pencils, markers, pens, poster board, notebook paper, and glue sticks. I even have emergency neckties for job interviews and USB sticks and powerbanks.
  • Security and safety. Lucy Dixon, librarian at West End Middle Preparatory School calls her library a refuge for all purposes. It is a place where students often come with a note from the teacher and say, "I just need a place to get away from the noise." The library may not be a particularly quiet place, but it is generally quieter than the gym, lunch room, or classroom.
  • Affirming reminders. I post welcoming messages and signs affirming safe zones and ally-ship. Pinterest is filled with welcoming, inclusive signs for libraries. During my teaching, I emphasize to students their rights and resources. Through humor and modeling respectful interactions, I show the library is a "drama-free zone" that welcomes all and doesn't tolerate bullying and harmful language or actions.


My library serves as a gathering place for grieving when we lose a student to senseless violence and as a place for celebration when students learn they are accepted into college. While preparing for this article, I asked one of the students reading over my shoulder what he thought about the concept of the library as a safe space. He pondered this and said, "If more kids came to the library after school, they wouldn't be getting shot on the basketball court in the neighborhood." Last year, one of my seniors was killed on the court in her housing complex. The next morning several students came to talk about their reactions and how they handled being on that court when this happened. Through collaborations with the guidance and social work departments, the library became a grief station and a place to question why this was happening in our society.

When we lost another student this year, faculty joined students at tables where we wrote sympathy letters to the family and shared our feelings. Students created tributes, songs, and poems. I provided a box of sympathy cards from my local dollar store in the makerspace area. My middle school students asked what sympathy cards were for and how you mailed them. An impromptu lesson on addressing envelopes and locating addresses and zip codes ensued. Soon there were students grouped around tables talking about the violence they had experienced in their lives and the lives of friends and family lost. Every card was used.

Esteem and Academics

Through positive environments and protections of privacy, librarians help learners access resources, value intellectual freedom, and embrace intellectual property. My school library provides opportunities to work through volunteering, peer tutoring, community service, or applying for jobs during job fairs hosted in the library. Thanks to Nashville's Limitless Libraries project, I am able to check out laptops to students and provide lists of wifi access points. Several students have shared their successful college acceptance letters and new job offers after using the laptops at home.

Planning for instruction includes opportunities to explore sexuality, politics, abuse, societal changes, gentrification, mental health, and social justice. Many of the titles teachers ask for involve social issues. Students want to read, not only about diverse students like themselves, but also titles that have characters solving problems they face—whether it's poverty, incarceration, homelessness, or academic struggles.

Collaboration occurs in the library among teachers, library staff, guest speakers, community organizations, and students. Librarians teach students and teachers how to curate resources and work collaboratively using Google Drive, One Note, and other cloud-based tools. Technology and digital tools provide enhanced access to people whether it's face-to-face events in the library during lunch, classes, or extended hours or virtual connections via Skype, Zoom, and other video software.

Nashville School of the Arts High School librarian Hope Hall serves a population with a very high percentage of students and student family members who identify as LGBTQ. Like many librarians, Hope offers the library space for the LGBTQ club meetings to show her support and interest. She used MackinVIA to beef up her eBook collection since her students prefer the privacy that an eBook checkout provides. Within MackinVIA, she created a group for her LGBTQ club, where all the titles they felt belonged in this book group were collected. Hope presented this collection and a cart of books, including fiction, nonfiction, and graphic novels, she thought would interest the LGBTQ club students at the beginning of the year.

For Valentine's Day last year, students helped her create a display including books that highlighted acceptance, diversity, and different kinds of love. This was very well received by all students.


Libraries provide opportunities for students to explore who they are. Students come to the library to connect, research, discover reflections of themselves, try on other personas, and rediscover hope. Through transforming our libraries and community engagement, we open possibilities for learners in education, college, careers, and relationships. We provide the safe places for students to "be" physically, mentally, emotionally, globally, and digitally. Libraries give students not only the chance to connect with others in a protected environment, but also the room to distance themselves and learn who they are.

Lucy Dixon at West End Middle Preparatory School shared that her students participated in Project LIT during their personal learning time, focusing on a civic-mindedness theme. The fall theme was "We Are Driven" and included monthly drives to collect things for the community (warm clothing, books, pet supplies, and items for summer use). Her students often explore topics that are controversial. They delved into Refugee, Full Cicada Moon, and Towers Falling, which led to lots of discussions and further investigations.

Katie Garrett at Isaac Litton Middle School taught a project-based learning unit about social change that was open-ended. Students chose a topic they cared about, researched it, then brainstormed ways they could make it better either by building a product or creating an awareness campaign. Students have chosen topics like racism, police brutality, LGBTQ rights, and sexual harassment..

Librarians encourage students to think, create, share, and grow. We teach students how to ask questions, dig deeper, check facts and sources, and evaluate the information and the producer. We provide authentic opportunities for students to share their learning processes and their creations.


After the 2016 election, Amanda Smithfield, Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet High School librarian, worried that her students were choosing to be polarized into political parties where they read, spoke, and listened to only people who thought the same as themselves. She asked, "How can we see what we have in common if we don't know anybody who sees things differently than us?" Amanda began offering monthly Lunch and Learn sessions she called ProjectCiv.

ProjectCiv gives her students opportunities to make better decisions, avenues for learning and civil discourse, and connections to community speakers. Amanda says, "I believe in them and what they have to offer. It is my duty and my privilege to expose them to new ideas, books, speakers, and articles." Her students are too busy with AP classes, school activities and clubs to invest in reading long texts, so Amanda curates two to three articles each month that students read either before they meet or during the first five minutes. Participants discuss in groups of six people for twenty-five minutes, and each group summarizes their thoughts on paper or verbally. Everyone eats pizza or snacks while they talk.

These programs impact not only her students, but community leaders, visitors, and colleagues. Amanda is a student of new librarianship and believes in a constructivist approach to discovering new ways to bring in knowledge and knowledge creation. Participating gives students a chance to refine their ideas. They might not articulate their ideas perfectly at this point, and Amanda does not expect them to be great policy analysts, but ProjectCiv gives them the chance to think and speak and to see nuance in arguments.

Smithfield encourages everyone to use social media, while letting principals, parents, and the community know about ProjectCiv and inviting their participation. She has had city council members, the mayor, a local rapper, a former writer for George W Bush, and many others visit and discuss with the kids. This lets her students see the project is embraced by the community and adds an extra layer of community support to what they are doing. This helps build up the school library and libraries in general and reminds her community that libraries aren't just about checkouts but about all learning experiences.

Amanda's tips for implementing ProjectCiv:

  • Connect with civility organizations (
  • Begin with one discussion a month. Start small by reaching out to a few students. Partner with a teacher.
  • Emphasize this is not a debate.
  • Find three articles. There are many sources of different sides of arguments but limiting the discussion to three enables students to explore quickly.
  • Use argumentation websites that are standards-based and provide collaboration with academic partners, like Opposing Viewpoints In Context, AllSides, Newsela, and Smithsonian's TweenTribune.


David Lankes. New Librarianship.


Revive Civility

Argumentation resources:



Opposing Viewpoints in Context

Smithsonian's TweenTribune

Work Cited

AASL. National School Library Standards. ALA Editions, 2017.

About the Author

Diane R. Chen is the 5-12 school librarian at Stratford STEM Magnet School in Nashville, Tennessee and a member of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) Board of Directors and American Library Association (ALA) Council.

MLA Citation Chen, Diane R. "Safe and Self-Actualized: Addressing Student Needs." School Library Connection, May 2018,

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Entry ID: 2147965

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