Reducing Barriers in the School Library

We are all aware of barriers. Some are for our benefit and safety – Railings to prevent falling from tall buildings, metal strips along roads to reduce the impact of crashes. However, other barriers are societal problems that cause great harm – stairs instead of ramps, door widths inaccessible to wheelchairs.

Barriers exist in our school libraries as well. In her presentation with EduWebinar in early 2023, Krystal Gagen-Spriggs shared research around influencing reading culture and spoke about the importance of removing barriers to promote reading and prevent readercide. I love that word. Readercide. Though, of course, I don’t like what it represents, but I do think it captures so accurately the severity of the act and the fact that it is an act, it’s something we do, intentionally or otherwise, to the students or staff who frequent (or avoid) our space. Killing a love or interest in reading. Killing the desire to be seen or identify as a reader.

Barriers in the school library

I am very aware of barriers in my school library. In my new library space I have what is often referred by staff and students alike as a ‘pit.’ We named it the Connect Lounge, but pit is an accurate description. It measures 11 meters across and 9 meters wide, 1.4m deep, set into the floor of the rest of the library space. There are five steep steps into the space that run the length of one side and wrap-around seating on three sides within the sunken area. Right from the moment that I saw the floor plans for the new build I was horrified by this large sunken area because of the barrier it presented. If you are in a wheelchair, there is no way to enter this large space which occupies much of the total floor area of our library space. It can probably be negotiated by someone on crutches and hand rails have been added to help navigate the steps, but it screams “able-body access only” and I hate it for that. It gets a lot of love from staff and students. It certainly has a cozy feel, sunk deep into the ground. I spoke to my principal and the architects about my concerns, but the plans were already set. Every single day I look out over my secondary library space and I see a giant barrier that I can do little about, except that I ensure there are no books or resources kept down there (not that I could wheel bookshelves or book trolleys down there anyway) and I make sure to rotate my lessons in different areas of the library, so this is not the only place we gather or have sessions together.

So, with that giant reminder in front of me, it makes me even more aware of other barriers in my school library and what I can do to reduce or remove them.


I think I talk about signage quite a lot, but it’s so important. I know that some staff and students face huge anxiety around having to approach a desk and ask a question, so I know it’s super important that they can find exactly what they are looking for without having to ask anyone, if they so choose. Signage is key for this. Signage is also super expensive and hard to get right. It’s a big decision.

As I have genrefied collections, I need signage that is clear, makes finding these collections easy and can be changed. I am forever making changes to my collections, altering the name due to student feedback, adding a new collection, combing two collections into one. It means I need signage I can change as often as I make changes. That’s one of the reasons I created my own signage rather than purchasing it. But I still wanted a really polished look. Here’s how I created my own signage. I love that students do notice the signage. Case in point was when we added some new signs in the new book display area but we didn’t update the displays. So many puzzled looks from students as they read the sign and then scanned the shelves below and what they were seeing didn’t match up.

Circulation desk

Okay, this one is a little controversial. On one hand, research has found that when you remove a watch-tower-like desk structure, students are more likely to approach and ask questions. But on the other hand, without this obvious point, students can struggle to know who or where to ask for help. I watch in amusement when my AmazingLibraryTech is away or not at the circulation desk and the students stand there waiting for help anyway. Even with me sitting nearby in a fairly prominent location. They stay at the desk. I also know that a circulation desk is helpful for admin staff to be able to talk to, connect with and help staff and students and still get work done, without being hidden away in a back office or having to constantly run between the two. That’s why I fought hard for a circulation desk in our new building (I won that fight, unlike the fight about the pit.). I know it’s a place where students and staff know they can come to for help, but I also know that it might be a barrier to some students or represent a barrier between them and the information they need. That’s why my opacs are not near the circulation desk and I try to sit elsewhere and not in an office or behind closed doors.


Yep, I’m going to go there. The Dewey Decimal Classification system is a massive barrier. For lots of reasons. It has inherent problems of racism, ethnocentrism, and anti-LGBTQIA which stem from the founder’s own serious issues (I’m not a fan). While many changes to the DDC system have been undertaken (look up Dorothy Porter, she’s seriously cool), the system still places massive barriers for our most marginalised students. The DDC also requires students to learn and understand a secret code before accessing information. I like this analogy. Imagine telling someone they need to learn how Netflix works, understand what an algorithm is and what each genre of movie means before they are allowed to pick up a remote and watch anything, and then only allowing them to scroll through a list of titles – no film covers. That’s exactly what we do with our readers. Lessons on dewey decimal, non-fiction licenses, restricting the age of being allowed to borrow non-fiction, spine out shelving. We put so many barriers in front of our students. Why should a student need to know what 599.53 means before they can find and read a book about dolphins?

A lack of diverse and representative books

Not having books on the shelf that reflect the student population and world population is a huge barrier to engagement with the library and with reading, as well as being a barrier to inclusion. If we want students – all students – to feel safe in the library, to be able to access resources for them, about them and which reflect them, then we need diverse books in a diverse range of formats.

Borrowing limits or restrictions

I’m not a massive fan of borrowing limits or restrictions due to overdue books. I know for some libraries, a limited collection and limited budget means every book is numbered and precious and there are not enough to go around, but if you do have ample resources then borrowing limits are just that, limits. My students know they can borrow as many books as they need, even when they have overdue books. For many students, they are living across two households, and so might not be always able to return items on time or need extra resources. For others, taking more at once and then returning them after a longer time period means they are more likely to read. While we’d love for students to be coming by every day, for some that’s just not possible, so removing limits removes barriers for those students and means we are catering for all readers, from the frequent visitors to the once-a-term visitors.


I’m sure there are other barriers we have in our library spaces – physical and systematic. What are some you’ve identified in your space and how are you removing them to provide better access and engagement in your school library space?


  1. Natasha Georgiou

    So true Madison. I broke my leg this term and have been on crutches for weeks. I notice every stair and ramp and distance now. When I was able bodied, I often didn’t think about it. So, in one way I’m glad I’ve experienced this pain and inconvenience, as it has made me super aware of physical barriers. I could not navigate your pit, even with a handrail for support. Thanks again for a great blog.

    • Madison Dearnaley

      Thank you so much for sharing, Natasha. Yours is a powerful story of access and the physical barriers we don’t often notice. I’m sad our pit would be a barrier for you and others. Here’s to making school libraries accessible for everyone.

  2. Felicity

    Great post! We also have to work around the limitations of our beautiful heritage space. Our library is up four flights of stairs… but we do offer a delivery service to students’ homerooms.

    • Madison Dearnaley

      Great example. So many of the barriers in our spaces we have to work around, we can’t change them. Love how you are providing for students despite this barrier.

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