The School Library Book Budget Project: Empowering Readers through Responsibility, Support, and Trust

By Micki Uppena and Matt Renwick

“We should purchase a couple of books on ADHD, so that I can share them with my friends and they can understand what it’s like to be me.”

This comment, overheard during a conversation among fourth graders, is a microcosm of the outcomes hoped for when students are empowered to update the school library.

The project: analyze the library catalog at Mineral Point Elementary School and make recommendations for new titles. While our librarian, Micki Uppena, had updated the books available for check out over the last four years, a number of texts needed to be replaced or were missing.

With this in mind, our goal was simple: empower students to lead the curation of texts in order to improve the school library.

The rest of this summary highlights students’ responses to the project, described in more detail through our action plan, outcomes, and lessons learned.

Action Plan: Responsibility, Support and Trust

From the start, we knew that we wanted students to have as much responsibility, support, and trust possible when examining, evaluating, and ultimately deciding on how to improve the school library.

At the time (2021), we were transitioning to a renovated and expanded school due to a recent referendum and facility upgrade. New shelving and seating were purchased for the new library. Mobile tables and other flexible furniture prioritized a more personalized learning experience for students. The stage was set to take that next step in empowering our students to make decisions on behalf of their peers and themselves.

The following three elements – responsibility, support, trust – served as pillars in structuring the experience for the students.

Element #1: Responsibility

All readers in fourth and fifth grade were formally invited in the fall to join the library book budget project.

The initial enrollment totaled over 60 students. After some dropped out once the expectations were explained at the first meeting, the group of over 50 students coalesced around clear steps for improving access in the school library:

Examine the current selection of texts.
Ask students what they want to see in the library.
Work to represent their interests, identities, and needs with the acquisition of new texts.

From this point, students got to work.

Micki Uppena facilitated a variety of literacy leadership experiences for students, including:

Brainstorming sessions around interests, needs, and observations regarding the current state of the school library Collecting this information both in print (chart paper) and digitally (Google Forms). Working with classroom teachers to secure time for students to come down to the library, as well as to connect with peers.

The responsibility for updating the school library was embraced by the students.

Of note is how infrequently the students needed redirection or reminders for appropriate behavior in school while engaged in this work. They thrived on the authority given to them. As only one example, students connected with peers throughout the school to log their interests for books. They carried iPads with digital forms queued up on the screen to enter each student’s preferences for new texts in the library.

The student survey data was later organized in a spreadsheet with Micki’s guidance to find patterns and trends about what texts to purchase.

Element #2: Support

Students made selections for books they would like to see in the school library.

None of this work would have occurred without the financial support provided by Bring Me a Book and Title IV grants.

Bring Me a Book is a nonprofit organization founded by Judy Koch and led by Dr. Lois Bridges. Its mission is to help schools and organizations that serve children overcome book scarcity, bring book abundance to all children, and help them grow a sustainable reading habit. Through Bring Me a Book’s generous donors, Mineral Point Elementary School was granted $5000 to purchase the books the students selected. Bring Me a Book’s partnership with the online independent bookstore, Bookelicious, enabled children to select the books.

These dollars were matched through the U.S. Department of Education’s Title IV “well-rounded education” non-competitive grants, designated for students in underserved communities (Mineral Point Elementary School qualifies for Schoolwide Title I services).

In addition to financial support, it is important to note the support of the Mineral Point Elementary School faculty and staff. They were flexible and gracious in allowing the student leaders to leave the classroom to participate in this project.

Element #3: Trust

The list of books requested by students generally fell into three categories:

Books to replace “well-loved” copies, e.g. the Harry Potter series.
Books to expand on current offerings, especially nonfiction for younger readers and graphic novels.
Books to better represent our diverse community and world; for example, texts about understanding individuals with special needs, and non-traditional family structures.

The actual purchases were made through online vendors as well as directly from book publishers.

From a previous school research project we learned that how books are positioned—i.e., the library design—was influential in getting students to check out and read more books.

The students walked away with a better understanding of how to design spaces with readers in mind (as well as several boxes of new books!).

Just as it is rare that students are entrusted to make thousands of dollars in purchases of books for a school, it is also uncommon for a business to be so welcoming to a large group of students. Signs are typically posted at the front of stores with limits on what can be brought in, and sometimes, young people are not even allowed to enter without an adult. It is difficult to become an engaged, literate person unless the adults in our communities trust kids and open the doors, literally and figuratively, to opportunities such as these.

School Outcomes: Surprises, Challenges, and Hopes


That students involved in the book budget would be motivated and engaged in the process was not necessarily a surprise. What was a surprise was how motivated and engaged the students were by the project.

For instance, Micki noted that a few students who were typically disengaged during the classroom literacy block would regularly come to school early and head down to the library to see what they could do for the project. They helped unpack deliveries and put school labels on their new books. When there was no work to do at the time, students found other tasks such as turning on the library computers.

This enthusiasm carried over in the form of positive attention for the school.

As an example, the book budget project caught the attention of State Superintendent Dr. Jill Underly at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Dr. Underly and her staff made a stop at Mineral Point Elementary School during a visit to the region. Students explained the book budget project and gave her a tour of the school library. Several titles the kids had selected were proudly displayed.

Two 4th graders explain the book budget project to Dr. Jill Underly.

This project was highlighted on the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s website.

A final surprise was the utilization of the students’ book choices for the annual family reading night.

Typically, books are purchased for these events as sets organized by a publisher. Instead, Title I funds allocated for the reading night were used to purchase two additional copies of each text selected through the book budget process. This was highlighted at the reading night when families selected a book as part of the event.


While the book budget project was overall a success, two challenges – one expected and one a surprise – were discovered through the process. The expected challenge is: how do we sustain this project long term? This inquiry is founded on additional questions, including:

What if current funding becomes unavailable to support the project?
Relatedly, how can we secure financial support from individuals and organizations?
How does this project become “institutionalized” to ensure sustainability and become an annual part of the school library programming?

The surprising challenge is: how can students see this book budget project as one and the same with their formal learning experience at school?

This issue came up during our visit to the local independent book store field trip. One student (who also happened to be one of the disengaged readers who regularly visited the school library in the morning) shared that he was “happy to be on the field trip because I got to get out of school.” While it was explained that he was still in school even though we were at a book store, he did not see it that way.

The underlying issue here is how we break down the mental barriers that some readers hold between projects like this one and what they experience in the general classroom. This student has a caring teacher who employs similar practices in his classroom including a robust classroom library, opportunities to select books of his interest, and time to read independently. Still, he perceived the book budget project as the preferred experience.

With that, we carry three hopes going forward from this experience:

To start developing lasting relationships with individuals and organizations to support the book budget project long term.
To break down the mental barriers between what students learn during the project and in the classroom.
To support students’ enthusiasm for marketing and promoting what the library has to offer to peers and the community, e.g. book recommendation posters, book talks.

These challenges and everything else we learned also serve as lessons that other schools can consider and apply to their contexts.

Lessons Learned: A Replicable and Sustainable Model for Other Schools

If other educators want to implement the book budget project, they should consider the following lessons going forward:

Ensure faculty, staff, and administration are on board and supportive of releasing students to engage in the book budget process.
Review expectations for the project at the first meeting.
Invite all eligible students to participate in this experience, and consider special invitations for students who have demonstrated disengagement in reading in the past.
Consider this project as a potential reading intervention for historically reluctant readers.
Stay current on related topics, such as diversity, inclusion, and representation when examining school libraries.
Share updates and summaries about the book project regularly with your school communication director and/or online via social media and newsletters to garner their support.
Look for and organize promising strategies for initiating and nurturing relationships with individuals and organizations that have the resources to financially support this project.
Assess participants’ engagement levels before, during and after the project. Data/information can be collected through surveys, observational notes, images/video, transcripts of student discussions, library check-out rates, and reading proficiency results.This information, collected over years, can be summarized and shared with students, teachers, and community partners to strengthen their support long term.

© 2022 Micki Uppena and Matt Renwick