A group of Schenectady students busied themselves at Oneida Middle School on Thursday cutting, assembling and painting shelving units.
“I don’t even know what it’s for,” said Mekhi Johnson, a rising ninth grader, as he painted one of five shelving units white.
“It’s a bookshelf,” said 14-year-old Asherri Guerra, who worked alongside Mekhi.
She was right. As part of the summer enrichment program, the rising ninth graders are helping to renovate an old school bus, building shelves and seating.
“I think we are gonna take a bus, take out all the seats, put in couches and bookshelves, so it can go around and give people books,” Asherri said. “I think it’s pretty cool.”
Right again. In the Oneida parking lot Thursday, a used school bus, one of the short ones, sat waiting for its new life as Schenectady City School District’s bookmobile. Northland Transportation, which contracts to service some of Schenectady’s bus routes, donated the bus to the district earlier this summer, so a team of librarians and teachers could refurbish it to distribute books. The bookmobile team also scored a $15,000 grant from SEFCU to help with the renovation.
“We’re gonna have to gut the bus,” said Mike Forkin, a high school technology teacher working with students at Oneida to prep shelves and seating for the interior of the bookmobile.
The shelves of the custom-built bookcases are slanted just a bit to prevent books tumbling off the shelves in transit; the units will also be outfitted with wheels so they can be easily moved when the bookmobile sets up outside for business. The team plans to install an awning for shade and speakers for music, anticipating stops at parks during the warm summer months, where they will look to build up excitement around books and reading.
“The bookmobile does bring a different kind of energy,” said Kerri Messler, the district literacy and library director and one of the organizers behind the bookmobile.
The district bookmobile first launched during the 2017 summer months as librarians and teachers looked for a way to keep the district’s library collections circulating over the summer and to keep kids reading. But since its initiation, the bookmobile has really been bookmobiles.
Teachers and librarians have volunteered use of their cars for the bookmobile events – one week it’s a minivan, the next an SUV or truck. The educators, who also volunteer their time over the summer, pack up the car with books, tents and seats, heading out to different stops around the city.
“Some cars are better than others,” Messler said.
The bookmobile team in 2017 partnered with a basketball league at Jerry Burrell Park, looking for a place they knew kids would be. Last summer, they expanded to more stops at events throughout the summer, including at least one stop at each of the district’s summer program stops. This summer the volunteers are aiming to make two stops at all of the summer program sites. Over two dozens stops were scheduled for the summer.
During summer 2017, the bookmobile checked out 267 books at six stops. Last summer, the bookmobile checked out over 2,000 books at 15 stops, and the fall return rate improved slightly to 68 percent, according to Messler. So far this summer, the book mobile has checked out over 1,200 books with more stops planned before the start of the school year.
The collection of bookmobile books tilts heavily toward fiction and new titles published in the last two years, with a major focus on stories that focus on people of color and touch on hot topics like sexuality and gender, Messler said. The district has for years been working to create book collections that are more representative of its student population, but turning over the district’s massive collection can be slow with funding constraints. But the bookmobile enables a selection that put diversity at the fore; Messler said about 90 percent of the bookmobile texts feature characters of color.
The collection of books includes board books for infants and stretches to titles appropriate for high school seniors and beyond. If a family shows up with a school-aged child and a toddler, there will be options for both kids.
The bookmobile team on Thursday visited Howe Elementary School, setting up tents, rugs and bean bags for students to lounge about on as they paged through new books. Librarians on hand for the stop helped as the students lined up to pick out a book and formally check it out.
“They all have books in their hands,” Oneida Middle School librarian Michael Sheridan said as he stood watching the students peruse their books. “The librarian in me loves this.”
Camari Grant, 7, checked out a book called "The New Kid." Why?
“Because I was the new kid on Tuesday,” he said.
Mason Birch judged his book by its cover – and its inside pages.
“I opened the book and I looked at it, and I think it’s cool,” the second grader said. “It looks cool from the outside and the inside, and it’s my level.”
Jakayla Teshera, joining her classmates in the book line, selected a book called Zombies Revisited. What did she think it would be about? Well, zombies, of course.
“I can literally see zombies on the cover,” she said incredulously.
The librarians handed out sunglasses and blasted music, taking special requests from students. As "Old Town Road" blared from the speakers, students sang and danced along.
“There is a cool factor to it,” Messler said. “What is going to actually make it cool? We don’t actually know. But the kids know what’s gonna make it cool.”