Although many elementary schools treat library as another "specials subject" like art, music, or P.E., occurring on a fixed schedule, there are actually significant benefits to both staff and students if library time is scheduled flexibly.
Overview of Flexible Scheduling
Many elementary schools tend to view library as another "specials subject" like art, music and P.E., and they schedule it on a fixed basis. What this means is that at a certain time each week, children in each class will visit the library unaccompanied by their teacher, while the media specialist teaches some type of lesson that may or may not have anything to do with literature, library resources or the curriculum. While this does at least get the children into the library, the main benefit of this type of scheduling is to allow the teacher a planning period and does not make best use of the library or what is has to offer. The truth of the matter is, a library is a resource, not a subject, and all of its materials, in addition to the skills of the trained library media specialist, are best accessed on an as-needed basis by teachers as well as students.
More Frequent Student Visits
When students have the ability to visit the library five days a week (teachers permitting), they will often choose to do so - particularly if their experience is one of having the library be a pleasant, useful resource instead of just another class on the history of the Dewey Decimal system or how to locate a spine label. As it happens, students alowed to use the library on a frequent basis learn just as much - no, more - about the Dewey Decimal system, spine labels, and all other aspects of library use as do students subjected to specific lessons (be they dry lectures or "fun learning games") on the same subjects. Learning by doing is often the best way, and the fact that test scores tend to improve at schools where library media centers adopt flexible scheduling (as demonstrated by a study undertaken by the Illinois School Library Media Association in Fall 2003) reinforces this conclusion.
Increased Collaboration Between Teacher and Library Media Specialist
With flexible scheduling, teachers can bring their classes to the library at "point of use" - for example, if a first-grade class is discussing the Pilgrims and a student asks a question the teacher cannot answer, the entire class can accompany her down to the library media center where the media specialist will assist them to use the appropriate books or other resources to answer the question. The fact that the teacher is accompanying her class will give her some time to meet with the library media specialist to discuss her needs - both the immediate need of answering the question about the Pilgrims and any upcoming needs she may anticipate, such as the loan of a good movie about life in the colonial U.S. The library media specialist can therefore make sure that the resources supplied are precisely those most likely to be of benefit to both students and teachers, and to tie in with what is being presented in the curriculum.
"The Heart of the School"
If fixed scheduling is adopted in the library media center, at any given point in the week the library will be off-limits to some 90% of students and staff. With flexible scheduling, the only limit to library use is capacity - and even if the library is jam-packed full with two entire classes and several small groups of students pursuing independent research, another class or group wishing to use the media center need only wait a few minutes while the library media specialist does a little juggling and negotiating to make sure everyone gets a turn. The library can and should be a busy, happy place where everyone can come at any time to have their informational needs met - and even to do a little browsing for pleasure reading materials. If everyone in the school comes to think of the library as a place they can visit 5 days a week at any time rather than just "Tuesdays from 1:15 to 2 PM", they will all come to feel a certain sense of ownership and pride, and this, in turn, will turn the library into a place that can truly be described as "the heart of the school".