No library card? No problem. Every Seattle Public School Student Now Has Access

by Ben Adlin

It’s no news to Seattle parents and caretakers that educating kids has become even more of a challenge since the city closed school campuses in March. Many have been asked without warning to take on the roles of teacher and childcare worker while still having to travel to essential jobs, find new employment or adapt to working from home.

A newly expanded partnership between Seattle Public Schools and the Seattle Public Library hopes to ease the transition by offering families free access to a suite of online resources. With just their school identification number, all K-12 students can now log in to the library’s digital databases and electronic media. 

Families can watch movies and documentaries, browse scholarly databases and even digitally download popular comic books — no library card required.

“You can get your research done,” said Josie Watanabe, Youth and Family Services Manager at the Seattle Public Library, “but then you can also watch movies, read comic books and access entertainment.”

The program, called Library Link, launched as a pilot program in 2017 but until this month was available only to middle- and high-school students, as well as teachers and staff. Last week the program expanded to include elementary schools, opening library access to all K–12 students enrolled in Seattle Public Schools. It’s among a handful of programs the library has adopted or expanded since the state’s stay-at-home order in late March.

What all is available? Digital books, of course, but also instant access to a laundry list of other services: Hoopla, an online media platform, includes free access to all sorts of books, music, comics and movies — and there’s no limit on how many people can borrow them at a time. Scholastic Bookflix is geared toward younger learners, offering educational short stories and materials meant to help children learn to read. Other resources include Britannica Library and its Britannica Library Children edition; Access Video, which streams unlimited on-demand video; and dozens of other platforms. There’s even an online language-learning platform, Mango Languages, offering 75 different languages — including “pirate” for stay-at-home scallywags.

Many of the other resources are also available in multiple languages, allowing multilingual families to watch, read or listen together at home. Some have phone-based apps that allow access to students who might have a smartphone but not a computer.

Darcy Brixey, Library Services Program Manager at Seattle Public Schools, said the expansion is designed to allow library access to as many families as possible in light of recent school and library closures. “They need to know that they’ve got this place to go,” she said.

While Library Link is intended to be a separate resource from public school curricula, Brixey said, the district is encouraging school librarians to familiarize themselves with the services. “We know what our adopted curriculum is. Teachers will continue to use that. But then they’ve got this other set of resources that are valid.”

Students and families can also seek advice from Seattle Public Library’s own librarians. “A powerful service that we have that’s underutilized is called Ask a Librarian,” Watanabe said. “People can call and ask questions about our resources.” Even without a library card, families can get help with everything from how to access online resources to where to start with a student research project.

“My child had to write a three-page paper on gaming. I used Ask a Librarian,” she said. “They provide age-appropriate resources to answer questions. … That’s where parents can really get the support that they need.”

Students who already have library cards can continue to access services that way. Library Link doesn’t add any extra functionality. Rather, it provides another way for students to access library services if they don’t have a card.

“The problem is there are so many kids who don’t have library cards,” said Brixey at Seattle Public Schools, who joined the district from the King County Library System. Maybe they had a library card long ago and lost it, she said, or maybe they had avoided getting one because of late fees, which the library got rid of this year. Other families may have been hesitant even to apply for a card.

“One of the greatest benefits that I can see to having this kind of arrangement is there are some students and families who were undocumented, and they were so uncomfortable going to any kind of government agency and filling out paperwork,” Brixey said. With Library Link, all a family needs for access is their student’s ID.

Another goal of the program, Watanabe said, is to ensure that people without much expendable income still have access to education and entertainment during the state’s stay-at-home order. “There’s a huge divide between people who can afford these resources and people who can’t,” she said. “Libraries started out as very serious, academic places, but we’ve really become a place for the whole person to access things they need.”

At Seattle Public Schools, Brixley said they’ve already seen an uptick in student library use since the stay-at-home period began. “They’re turning to their library more. That’s the silver lining in all of it,” she said. And if that means more parents and children can sit down together to work on homework or watch a movie, “what a wonderful gift that is to the whole family.”

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based journalist. 

Featured image by Ming-yen Hsu.

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