Jordan Lloyd Bookey, co-founder of Beanstack and host of the The Reading Culture podcast, recently sat down with the trailblazing, multi-hyphenate librarian-activist K.C. Boyd. Their conversation ranged from K.C’s passionate advocacy work to the strategies she’s developed for connecting with middle schoolers during her two decades in the field.
K.C.’s colleagues call her “the queen of advocacy.” On social platforms and her blog, she’s @boss_librarian. She’s also School Library Journal’s 2022 School Librarian of the Year, the most recent honor in a long list of accolades she’s earned over the course of her career. She currently serves as the librarian at Jefferson Middle School Academy in Washington, D.C., where she weaves makerspace activities and digital literacy into their reading culture by connecting directly with her students, their parents, and the school administrators.
Here are five lessons we learned from K.C. and Jordan’s conversation (all quotes edited for clarity and concision). We hope you enjoy hearing from the remarkable K.C. Boyd as much as we did!
1. Having access to books early in life impacts more than just kids’ literacy outcomes.
K.C.’s parents instilled a love of reading in her early childhood. She held onto that love of reading, along with the desire to ensure that all kids have access to an education that improves and enhances their literacy skills.
K.C.: “Growing up, books were always available in my house because both my parents were educators. As a result, I was an avid reader, and that has fueled the work that I do every day. I want the students I serve to have the same wonderful literacy experience I had growing up—I just adapt to the reading interests of young people today.
This also informs my activism. Librarians understand how library programming positively affected our lives. We want education policy to be changed so that librarians cannot be written out of the budget in Washington, D.C. If librarians are given the opportunity to work with classroom teachers to enact the joy of reading, together we can make a difference in the reading abilities of our kids so that they will become lifelong readers, and eventually, educated voters.”
[Editors’ note: Boyd refers to her activism as one of the drivers of a movement to ensure that there is a certified librarian in every school in the DC area, called the Students’ Right to Read Amendment Act. See Lesson 5 for more on her advocacy work.]
2. Library spaces can engage students by offering simple creative outlets and welcoming their authentic selves.
Many of the activities K.C. offers in her library’s makerspace are low budget, but they all speak to students’ interests. She also heavily uses DonorsChoose, a fundraising site for teachers, to fund some of the pricier items. But overall, sometimes simple things like updating your display or listening to music that kids like will help students take that first step. Just get them into the library, show them what’s there, and then they’re hooked!
K.C.: “There’s no special secret sauce! You have to draw kids in, and I use different methods to do that. Funny or cute displays are really powerful tools that a lot of people sleep on. The kids are really observant—they notice when displays have changed. They start asking questions, and that is a bridge to start a conversation. I also have a program that involves creative activities, like using Perler beads or making T-shirts. They get to be their authentic selves because they are in discovery mode. I also play a lot of hip-hop (the radio version!). Sometimes kids will come by and say, ‘Oh, you listen to this music? Okay, I’ll be back!’
Overall, keeping up with trends is important. That calls for me to have a really strong relationship with the children and to be an avid listener. In being an avid listener, you know their likes and dislikes, and their interests.”
3. Representation matters, especially in the library.
K.C. makes sure that her collection and displays reflect a diversity of experiences and authors. She also partners with educators in her school building to amplify their work in supporting students, especially those who identify as LGBTQIA+.
K.C.: “Growing up, I didn’t see a lot of books that featured me. As I got older I started to look for books that reflected me, that told stories through the lens of, ‘You’re African-American in this country, these are your experiences,’ and explained things that I still had questions about outside of the classroom. Those books helped me greatly with identity.
To help kids in my school have that moment of identification, I look at my student population and I look at their backgrounds, their culture, their age groups, and their interests. I also collaborate with the teacher at my school who runs the Pride Club to provide displays year-round to support kids and make them feel welcome. It’s different with kids who are in the Pride Club, because some of them may not have even come out to their parents. I always remind them, ‘This is a loving environment, no judgment. You are welcome here—please come.’”
4. Find ways to connect directly with students to spread the word at a grassroots level.
Sometimes, especially when you join a new school or community, you may not have the immediate support of teachers or administration. Although that ultimately will become important, one way to approach this is to start by going directly to kids and their families.
K.C.: “Teachers can be very interesting. They can sometimes say, ‘No, I’m not going to jump in headfirst and do this project with you. I’m going to sit back and watch and see who else does this with you. Then I’ll try your program.’ [At my school], I really had to start by interacting directly with kids. I made space before school, during lunch periods, after school, and then word started spreading amongst the kids. That’s when I started seeing more teachers asking for resources and interaction.
I also reach out to the parents. Social media has helped with that. I have a lot of parents who follow me and send their kids for help with reading—especially after getting progress reports!
Still, I need more access to the kids, much more. I want to do right by the kids and provide the very best service. I’m really passionate about working with your administrator, because that is very key to having a successful library program in your building. There are some teachers I can approach and we are going to build the reading culture together. Other teachers do better when they have that encouragement from leadership to say, ‘You need to try this.’”
5. Figure out what gives you energy, and then lean into that part of your work.
For K.C., that is focusing on equity across all schools, not just her own. She also is passionate about staying ahead of the game and being ready for some of the broader issues that could impact her city’s students in the future.
K.C.: “What gives me energy as an activist is the kids and their right to have a full-time, certified librarian. I felt it was unfair that we had staffing in certain areas of the city and in other areas it was nonexistent. That is inequity in service. You can’t replace a person with a reading program. It doesn’t work. When we went to the mayor’s office [for a Read-In to demand funding for full-time, certified librarians in every school], we sat and read in a dignified manner. We wanted people to see that we are serious about our students. We are going to sit here with dignity and demand that you respect us. And we did get a lot of respect after that.
In terms of book bans and other issues, I always say, ‘It’s not if this is going to happen, it’s when.’ Even though we are in a progressive city in D.C., these groups are very calculating and they are going on the attack. I am very passionate about this. We already have tools and organizations that will support us: EveryLibrary, American Library Association, Pen America, and ACLU. It’s just a matter of reaching out to them when we experience challenges. I am prepared if this happens. And I will say, there are far more people who are in support of there being books on the shelves for kids to freely access than people who are against it. The challenge is to get those people to be vocal, to be advocates, and to speak up.”
Becoming a “Boss Librarian”
K.C.’s students may have cheekily named her the “Boss Librarian,” but they had it right. She’s a boss and a true leader in the school library field. When she sees a need, she finds a way to address it. From leading her own virtual back-to-school professional development for librarians to supporting fellow librarians who are under attack in other states, K.C. shows up and takes action.