JLG’s March 2021 Librarian of the Month honor goes to Abington Friends School Library and their kind and community-oriented director, Toni Vahlsing. A JLG member for 13+ years, Toni caught our eye because of her generosity and love for her greater community. Here’s Toni’s story...
From the Peace Corps to the Library
Toni’s journey to the library started long before she entered the workforce. As a youngster, Toni remembers as early as first grade playing a pretend library game where she would organize books and stamp them for checkout for her classmates. By seventh grade, she even volunteered as a library helper! But it wasn’t until a stint as a librarian in the Peace Corps that Toni fully realized her calling to librarianship.
After earning her undergraduate degree in English with a minor in Theatre, Toni spent a couple of years working in Papua New Guinea through the Peace Corps. She naturally taught English abroad but found herself also working in a library. One afternoon she had been hosting a book talk with her library students about the title Runaway Ralph by Beverly Cleary. At the end of the talk, she asked the forty students in attendance who would want to check the book out themselves. All forty hands shot into the air. “It was one of those meant to be moments,” Toni recalled.
So, when she returned to the states, she decided to go back to school and earn her MLS. She spent some time in Connecticut going to school and starting a family, and then working as the library media specialist at Edgewood School in New Haven for twelve years. But, after over a decade in New Haven, she decided it was time to move on and relocated with her family to Philadelphia where she landed her current job at the Abington Friends School. She found the right place, too – she really loves her job and the community it supports. Toni even mentioned that her first time visiting the school, one of her soon-to-be colleagues smiled at her and said, “welcome to paradise.”
The Abington Friends (upper) School Library
An A+ Librarian
Like many school librarians, Toni wears several hats. She’s the librarian for the upper school, the K-12 library director, a co-teacher, yearbook editor and supervisor, as well as friend, mentor, and helper. Her library is a well-traveled and cherished part of her small school and remains an open-door, quiet collaboration space (as Toni mentioned, it’s not a “shush, shush” library, but more of a place where students can quietly collaborate to get work done or just enjoy the space!).
Before COVID-19 restrictions, Toni would often move books around so that visiting students saw something new each time they walked into the library. She calls this the “Trader Joe’s Principle”. When asked, Toni chuckled and explained how every time you walk into a Trader Joe’s looking for something – like salsa – you'll realize it’s in a different place than the last time you shopped. So, as you peruse the aisles looking for the salsa, you find yourself noticing things you hadn’t seen before! She applies this same principle to her library, in hopes that students will stumble on something new they’ll love each time they enter.
Additionally, Toni spent a significant amount of time pre-COVID-19 creating stunning and artistic themed displays in her library each week. Her students really loved the displays, and when they were faced with virtual learning (and now hybrid), she had to think quick on how to bring these displays to her virtual students. So, she took to social and set up virtual displays! Using whatever physical and digital tools she could, Toni built up a fantastic Pinterest page filled with library displays and ideas that any librarian would love! You can follow her on Pinterest at @tvahlsing or by searching Toni Vahlsing. You can also view her wordpress blog where she breaks down the different #librarydisplays she creates at tvahlsing.wordpress.com!
Her creativity for helping her students didn’t stop there. When she was faced with online library orders and checkout, she quickly set up a service new to the US called AccessIt. AccessIt is a library management system with the tools and capabilities for users to set up a visual display that made using her “Library Lyft” virtual checkout process even easier! She uses this tool to give her students virtual displays like she would make in the library pre-virtual learning and help them more easily find books in the catalog that are right for them. Students can search by genre, grade range, topics and more. Plus, checking out is easy for any aged readers with drag-and-drop tools to add books to their library cart. How neat!!
(Left) a book display created to bolster interest in books similar to the movie "Enola Holmes" (Middle & Right) Toni's "Library Lyft" logo and stations!
Her Community Work and JLG
During our interview, Toni spoke a lot about Quaker values, as the Abington Friends School is a Quaker institution. While only about 15% of the attending students are practicing Quakers, the student body and greater school community espouse many Quaker values in their everyday lives. Two values she’s seen particularly shine in her students and their families is equality and community (qualities Toni definitely shares with them).
In fact, she and her library works with a Quaker organization and community called Historic Fair Hill (HFH). This organization has a focus on promoting community involvement and early literacy. Over the years Toni has lived and worked in Philadelphia, the HFH organization and community have hosted book drives to get books to the children of their community. Additionally, many of the elementary schools near and around the HFH community have no libraries, so one mission of the HFH organization is to house and stock a children’s library. When COVID restrictions severely limited access to books for these children, the HFH organization put out a call to find more for them to read from the safety of their homes and Toni was eager to assist.
In the past, she has helped organize book drives for the HFH, but lamented that many of the books donated were often old, beaten up, and void of diverse characters and circumstances that would best speak to the population of student readers in the Historic Fair Hill community. So, when she heard about JLG@Home Book Fairs and their wish list features, she thought “our school and students don’t need more books, but these kids do. Why not host a book fair to donate books!?” And with her school community having a kind and generous spirit, it was a success. They donated more than 186 new release, hardcover books to the HFH community! WOW! She was honestly shocked and excited to see how engaged her school community was in helping the HFH book drive – some shoppers even bought wish list books only to donate! Afterwards, she used the JLG credit she received to shop the backlist for more titles to donate to the HFH.
So, for Toni, JLG hasn’t just been a vendor to help keep her collection new and relevant – it's been a way for her to engage with and help her greater community, as well. We’re beyond thrilled to have learned the ways Toni uses her JLG membership and services to be an outstanding community member and ensure young readers have access to new, relevant books all year long!