Interview with Kelley McDaniel

YALSA member Kelley McDaniel has developed an exemplary school library program at King Middle School in Portland, Maine. Her work was recently honored with the The Carnegie Corporation of New York/New York Times I Love My Librarian Award. This honor did not surprise me. As a colleague, I know her for her innovative programming, commitment to intellectual freedom, and the fact that she will never back down from a fight.

In her acceptance speech, she explained what drives her as a librarian:

The motto of my middle school library is “Inspiring students to be lifelong readers, lifelong learners, lifelong library users and engaged citizens.” Students may not remember my name or the library’s motto, but, when asked about libraries, I hope they smile and think, “I like libraries. I feel welcome in libraries. Libraries inform and enrich me. I see myself in libraries. I support libraries.

Kelley graciously agreed to be interviewed for the YALSA blog.

How long have you been a librarian?

I have been a librarian for fifteen years. I completed my MLS at Simmons in 1996–the same weekend that my son was born! I was the district librarian for the Winthrop Schools for one year, then I was the librarian at Lisbon High School (Stephen King‘s alma mater) for three years. This is my eleventh year as the librarian at King Middle School, in Portland, Maine, where I live.

What drew you to the profession?

I really wanted to be a scholar, because I’m interested in everything. The great thing about being a school librarian is that you are learning all the time and you get to be involved with every subject and all kinds of projects and activities. My job at King Middle School is never the same two days in a row. I am a teacher, a consultant, a reader, a writer, a scientist, an artist, an editor, a party planner, a performer. I never know what activities I’m going to be involved in: researching at the historical society; facilitating a book discussion; creating zines; leading a tour about public art; organizing a science fiction convention; planning an author visit; hosting a sleepover.

You are a school librarian. Why did you choose to join YALSA as well?

I initially joined ALA and YALSA in 1997 in order to be eligible for the YALSA Great Books Giveaway. It was the first grant that I ever applied for and, much to my surprise and delight, I won! I suppose that experience left me feeling a special connection to YALSA. You never forget your first. I have stayed with YALSA because I have been consistently impressed and inspired by the professional opportunities that YALSA provides. And as an urban middle school librarian (grades 6-8), I consider myself more of a young adult librarian than a children’s librarian.

What program are you the most proud of at your library?

Genre organization. Eight and half years ago, my colleague and I reorganized and re-catalogued our middle school fiction collection by genre. In 2004, I was awarded a Frances Henne/YALSA/VOYA Research Grant to study the efficacy of genre organization for young adults. Genre organization changed the way I think about the purpose of organizing knowledge in libraries and the “sacred cows” of librarianship. Captain Barbossa said it best: “[They’re] more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.” In the years since “genrifying”, and although I have heard plenty of criticism from librarians, I maintain that genre organization is the next step in the evolution of library organization.

Can you talk a little bit about the experiential nature of King Middle School and how the library fits into that?

King Middle School was one of the first Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound schools in the country, and we have been an EL school for almost twenty years. In Expeditionary Learning students are engaged in authentic multidisciplinary studies where they take on the roles of real world experts and produce final products that address real world issues which they present to authentic audiences. The expedition planning process always made intuitive sense to me. Each expedition has guiding questions which inform all of the expedition’s academic activities. Each expedition begins with a “kick-off” which inspires excitement and enthusiasm for the upcoming work. Every expedition activity must relate back to the guiding questions, and activities must include working with real world experts, authentic reading, and authentic research. Each expedition wraps up with a “culminating event” that affords students the opportunity to present their work in a real-world setting. In addition to working with teams of teachers on their expeditions, most of the projects that I do in the library use the expedition planning process, e.g. Get Graphic!, in which comic book authors/artists came to King to work with students creating comic strips and mini-comics; Spring Into Poetry, in which national and local poets came to King to work with students writing poetry; After Gandhi, in which students served as a focus/advisory group for a local author/illustrator team; Understanding Courage: Claudette Colvin, in which students created an art display for the local city bus about unsung Civil Rights hero, Claudette Colvin; Bamboo People, in which students, including recent Burmese refugees, read the e-galley of a forthcoming book about the ethnic war in Burma and traveled to Boston to meet the author [Mitali Perkins] at a Burmese restaurant; and One Nation, Divided, which is a year-long series of humanities programs including book discussions, author visits, movies, and historic Civil War site visits to commemorate the U.S. Civil War sesquicentennial.

How long did it take you to build your program to the model it is today?

The KMS library is always changing. Every year I try out new ideas and new programs; some are one-time events, e.g. Poetry Tasting and decorating library furniture; while others become cherished annual programs, e.g. Thanks-a-Latte and Genre Punch Cards. I think–and I hope–that the KMS library program will never “settle”. There is a joke about the weather in New England, “Don’t like the weather? Wait a minute and it’ll change.” When I was first hired at King, the then-assistant principal said to me, “Don’t feel like you have to do things the way they’ve always been done.” That was like a blank check for creativity and innovation that I have cashed in over and over again.

Sometimes hearing about successful library programs can be overwhelming. If you were going to encourage librarians to make one change or to start one new program, what would it be?

My advice would be to start with something that you are passionate about, whether it’s Glee or the World Cup or zombies or Wii bowling. Brainstorm program ideas about your passion and choose an idea that is both interesting and do-able. Target a specific audience and advertise. Don’t be afraid to use enticements like food and door prizes. Run the program as if it’s the first one you’ve ever done and the last one you’ll ever do. Participants will catch your enthusiasm. Don’t worry if the attendance is small; three people who had “the best time!” at your first program will market your next program for you.

Thank you, Kelley, and congratulations on your well-deserved honor.

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