Bringing the School Library and Community Together through Service-Learning

Service-learning, where students use what they learn in the classroom to help solve real-life community problems, is gaining momentum in education. As a school library media specialist, you play an integral role in connecting your media center to the local community. One of the best ways you can accomplish this is to collaborate with a classroom teacher and assist students with their service-learning projects. The media specialist is in an ideal position to help students conduct research on community issues, use research findings to promote critical thinking skills, offer students the opportunity to evaluate and reflect on their projects, and use the media center for service-learning presentations.

What Is Service Learning?

Service-learning has been defined by the National Service-Learning Clearinghouse as "a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities." Service-learning projects may include students from K-12. The media specialist may work with a group of students, one or more classes, or the entire school. Students can integrate what they have learned during their library sessions and apply it to real-life situations in the local community.

What Are the Characteristics of Service-Learning?

Successful service-learning collaborative efforts between the school library media specialist and the classroom teacher have some common characteristics:

  • Design, implement, and evaluate a service-learning activity in the local community.
  • Conduct research in the media center to determine local issues faced by organizations.
  • Enhance academic skills.
  • Provide structured time for student reflection to think, talk, and write about their service-learning project.
  • Foster civic responsibility.

Service-learning is not:

  • A volunteer program
  • Only for high school students
  • One sided/only benefiting the student or community

Examples of Service-Learning Projects

Elementary school students:

Picture book giveaway. Students conduct research in the library on the importance of reading at a young age. Donated picture books in good condition are collected by students and brought to the media center. Throughout the school year, picture books are sent to a local public library to be given out free to younger patrons.

Middle school students:

Senior bookmobile. Locate information on the Internet regarding literacy and the elderly. Select books that appeal to this age group, such as mysteries, westerns, or biographies. Students can collect discarded library books from school and public librarians. Have book donations dropped off at the school library media center. Transport books to the elderly, and let them check out books. Go back on a monthly basis to collect and check out more books.

High school students:

Community health fair. Students visit the library and research the health problems that result when poor nutrition occurs, and then organize a Saturday community health fair in the school gym. The fair features speakers such as the school nurse and a hospital nutritionist. Brochures created by the students will be distributed to all visitors. The media specialist can offer to help by funding the printing costs of the brochures.

The Role of the School Library Media Specialist

Collaborating with the classroom teacher:

To help each student achieve success in their service-learning project, the media specialist must work closely with the classroom teacher.

  • Meet with the teacher to preplan service-learning activities.
  • Arrange for scheduled class visits to the library.

Preliminary questions:

During a scheduled library visit, ask students questions to help them become more focused on the service-learning project they would like to be involved in.

  • What would you like to do to help your community?
  • What is a major goal you would like to achieve?
  • What could you do that would benefit the most people in the area?
  • Are there other students who would join you?
  • What services can I, as a media specialist, provide to help you be successful?

Research assistance:

A service-learning project gives students the chance to have a real-life connection with a local community need. Students should select a community issue that interests them. The library media specialist can offer research assistance. Some possible areas of interest might include safety, the environment, health and wellness, or senior citizens.

Media specialists must work with individual students to help them locate Internet sources on their local community partner:

  • Locate the contact information of the organization that students have selected.
  • Browse authoritative websites to obtain information and become familiar with the organization.
  • Know how to access local public libraries on the Internet for additional books, journals, and databases.

Service-Learning Benefits: The Unique Role of the School Library Media Specialist

The media specialist can play an important role in helping students during any phase of the service-learning project so their goals are achieved, classroom learning is enriched, and a positive relationship between the school library and the community is enhanced.

Benefits of a service-learning project include:

  • Develops a positive relationship between the library media center and the community. Service-learning projects supported by the school library media center help students engage in activities that address community needs.
  • Improves academic performance. In a 2002 national study conducted by the Learn and Serve America program, it was found that successful service-learning programs improved academic grades, increased attendance rates, and sharpened problem-solving, research, and computer skills.
  • Enhances the classroom curriculum. Because students are so actively involved in a service-learning project, they will gain new skills by working directly within the community. Information found through research can be applied to a real-life situation.
  • Encourages teamwork. Students often work together to achieve a common goal in order to meet their community partner's needs. Students learn to communicate better, make decisions, and establish leadership skills.
  • Helps develop future career goals. When students graduate from high school, they will, eventually, look for a job. When they do, the employer will be impressed by a young adult who has been involved in a service-learning program. This experience can be on a resume, mentioned during an interview, and provide students with future career choices.
  • Promotes civic responsibility. In our society, people need to work together as well as look out for each other. When students get the opportunity to work side by side to help community members, they become civic-minded individuals.
  • Breaks down preconceived prejudices. A service-learning program puts students in touch with people they might not normally meet. Being involved in a real-life situation enables students to identify biases they might hold.
  • Encourages reflection. To help students in the process of reflecting on their experiences and how the community project has enriched their lives, provide them with journals (e.g., ten sheets of notebook paper stapled together).
  • Involves students in a real-life situation. Students gain new knowledge and skills by working directly with the local community. A service-learning project can have a significant effect on a student's academic performance, self-esteem, and civic role in society.
  • Offers opportunities for mentoring students. The school library media specialist is in an excellent position to mentor students. Ways to help students include researching the local community organization, using authoritative search engines, keeping daily journal entries, and having library discussions about what students experience in the service-learning environment.

Reflection Stage in Service-Learning

One important component of service-learning is the reflection stage. Students can look back on their service-learning experience and understand how they have made a contribution to the community. The library media specialist can focus on the reflection process by doing the following:

  • Provide opportunities for students to think, talk, or write about their experiences.
  • Help students connect their service experiences to their class work, the school library, and the community.
  • Assist students so they can understand how the project was personally relevant to them.
  • Re-examine the critical issue related to the project and decision-making strategies that were used.
  • Discuss the impact students had on their community.
  • Help students reflect on how the service-learning project can allow them to achieve future career goals.

Evaluate the Service-Learning Project

At the end of the project, the media specialist can assess students in the following ways:

  • Have a class discussion on the students' experiences; share journal entries.
  • Distribute a handout with the following questions for students (share these sheets with the classroom teacher):
    • How did you decide what issue or problem you were going to work on in your community?
    • Who helped you the most in the organization?
    • Did your project fulfill its goals and objectives?
    • What was the feedback from your community partner?
    • What effect did your service-learning experiences have on you personally?

Sharing Community-Related Events in the Media Center

The library media center is an ideal place to set up special events during which students involved in a service-learning project can make a presentation to an audience.

The media specialist and classroom teacher can help students organize each event and advertise via fliers, school announcements, social media, or word of mouth.

During the event, students reflect on their experiences and show how their community involvement has impacted their lives. Some activities students might participate in are: Present a video or PowerPoint presentation, display posters, give speeches, or have panel discussions.

Display student journals on library tables or the counter for the audience to view.

Students can write a poem, story, essay, or newspaper article. Some might want to compose a song or musical piece, or come up with a dance.

Positive Outcomes for All

No matter what career a student goes into, he or she will always be a member of a community. Some projects students might consider are cleaning up a neighborhood, getting donations for a homeless shelter, visiting a local senior center, selling wristbands to help our troops, organizing a food drive, or scheduling recycling events in the community.

Service-learning is a dynamic process. A community organization benefits from the service being offered, and it is a powerful learning experience for students. Having a school library media specialist on board will provide meaningful experiences for the students and teachers, and help strengthen ties between the school library and the community.


Originally published in Library Media Connection 33, no. 3 (November-December 2014).

Further Reading

Barry, Maureen. "Service Learning Librarian." American Library Association. Feb. 2011. Web. 15 Jan. 2014.; Lewis, Barbara A. The Kid's Guide to Service Projects. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing, Inc., 2009.; National Commission on Service Learning. "Characteristics of Service-Learning." No Date.; National Service-Learning Clearinghouse. "What is Service-Learning." NSLC. 2013. 28 July 2013.; Prentice, Mary and Gail Robinson. "Improving Student Learning Outcomes with Service-Learning." American Association of Community Colleges. 2010. Web.

About the Author

Julie Harris is a school library media specialist at Raceland (Kentucky) High School.

MLA Citation Harris, Julie. "Bringing the School Library and Community Together through Service-Learning." Library Media Connection, 33, no. 3, November 2014. School Library Connection,

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Entry ID: 1945894

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