Elmhurst school librarian turns another page adapting to pandemic
Lauren Blanford had finished reading the children's picture book "The Undefeated" when a student raised a hand.
"Mrs. Blanford, what was that book about?"
"It's about Black people," another student said.
"It's about love," one of their classmates said.
Over the past year, the pandemic has forced Blanford to rethink almost every aspect of her job at Emerson Elementary School in Elmhurst. Among her colleagues, she's known for her ingenuity, for finding ways to bring the world of books to children learning at home.
But that moment in a class of kindergartners captures the essence of what Blanford does: Making the school library a place where kids see themselves reflected in the pages of a book, a place where students can learn from each other and feel more connected, pandemic or no pandemic.
"It was one of the best moments of this year," Blanford said.
A second career
Before she became a school librarian, Blanford's career had a few plot twists.
She got her college degree in psychology, worked in human resources and did some consulting out of her home while she raised her two children.
Volunteering in their school library in La Grange District 105, seeing her kids discover award-winning literature and new technology, made her realize she wanted to work in one.
Blanford also wanted students to experience the freedom she felt growing up reading books she had picked out herself from her public library in Oak Park.
Blanford usually had her nose in the modern classics. "Bridge to Terabithia" and "Harriet the Spy" were some of her favorites.
"It's a very visceral experience remembering what it was like to walk through those doors and go in and choose whatever I wanted to read," Blanford said.
She also remembers what was lacking in those formative trips to the library: children's books written by and featuring people of color. So Blanford makes a point of promoting diversity in the selection of books offered in the library at Emerson, where the student population is nearly 16% Hispanic and 9% Asian.
One such book is "The Undefeated," a celebration of Black history written by poet Kwame Alexander and illustrated by Kadir Nelson.
"I want to make sure they see themselves represented in our collection," Blanford said. "We've really been working to ensure that we have a collection with multicultural resources where students can see other kids who look like them."
Blanford stepped into the role seven years ago with the guidance of her mentor, Mary Greska, a former attorney who also found a second career as a librarian in Elmhurst Unit District 205.
"Mary is extremely enthusiastic and incredibly energetic," Blanford said.
Which is exactly what Greska says of her former protégé. Early on, Greska saw that Blanford had lots of energy and lots of ideas and the relationship skills -- "that very well could be her HR background" -- to make herself indispensable to teachers and curriculum efforts.
"You get recognized as a leader pretty quickly because of your reach," Greska said. "Librarians have a pretty big reach into all the grade levels. You are quickly viewed as a leader because you are so involved."
Greska instantly recognized that they each shared the same philosophy about running a school library. It's not a museum. There's no stuffy library etiquette or shushing between the stacks.
"It's a very welcoming environment," Greska said. "She wants, and I think has succeeded, in making the library the hub of the school."
But what happens when the library has to close?
Blanford brought her boundless energy to virtual library programs and all the other changes wrought by the past year of the pandemic.
Throughout the fall, almost weekly, she was organizing curbside pickup of books requested by students who were learning at home.
Every Friday, Elmhurst mom Beth Cliffel and her daughter, Stella, would pick up books reserved through the library's online catalog and get to see the librarian the 10-year-old has "always adored," albeit at a safe distance.
For holidays, Blanford would offer books about Halloween or Thanksgiving so kids could still feel like they were celebrating. She'd even set aside picture books so younger siblings like Stella's brother, who's in first grade, could access the library remotely.
"That was like the highlight of their week," Cliffel said.
Blanford came up with another idea to create videos of school librarians across the district reading from the books nominated for the Monarch Award, an annual recognition sponsored by the Illinois School Library Media Association.
Students in kindergarten through third grade are eligible to vote for their favorites from the list of 20 titles.
Normally, librarians would read Monarch books aloud to a class of students in the elementary school libraries. But with a shortened school day, librarians instead recorded the videos for a virtual audience.
Blanford read "How to Give Your Cat a Bath in Five Easy Steps" by Nicola Winstanley and "What If ..." by Samantha Berger.
"It really requires a team, and I'm so grateful for all of the hard work of all of the people, both here at Emerson and across our school district," Blanford said.
Blanford also encouraged some students to produce book trailers using the WeVideo platform so they could recommend a good read to their classmates.
"I think our role as educators is to help students feel more connected to us as their teachers and also to each other and hopefully to inspire them to continue learning during this time," Blanford said.
"And I feel like the educators here at Emerson have done a fantastic job with that, really looking for ways just to stay connected with students, whether they're learning here or learning at home."
The district plans to return to five full days of in-person learning at all grade levels starting April 12. Students who already are learning in-person come to the library for weekly lessons.
Blanford hopes to eventually get back to a normal routine -- robotics, coding, all the activities that make the library a bustling and inclusive place.
"I think it just brings a whole new level of gratitude for the time we're able to spend both together as a staff and together with our students, and I'm really grateful for that, whatever it looks like."
• • •
Name: Lauren Blanford
Residence: La Grange
Occupation: Librarian at Emerson Elementary School in Elmhurst Unit District 205
Education: Bachelor's degree in psychology from Knox College; master of science in industrial relations from Loyola University; and master of library and information science from Dominican University
Honors: The district's 2018 Shining Star award. Blanford was nominated by teachers and staff at Emerson.