Limitless Libraries, 2016 Innovations in Reading Prize Honorable Mention

Each year the National Book Foundation, with support from the Levenger Foundation, awards the Innovations in Reading Prize to an individual or organization who discovers new ways to empower communities through literature. In 2016, Limitless Libraries received honorable mention.

Through Limitless Libraries, Nashville’s public and school librarians work together to help students become strong readers, successful learners, and curious thinkers and creators.

Metro government and private donors have embraced the program, which gives students and teachers on-campus access to Nashville Public Library’s catalog through daily delivery to 125 public elementary, middle, and high schools across town.

A 2013 independent study tied student’s use of Limitless Libraries to higher academic test scores. Meanwhile, Limitless has infused $6 million into strengthening school library collections and another $4 million into transforming eight school libraries into dynamic spaces for reading, collaborative learning, and creation.


Read our interview with Limitless Libraries’ Sarah Allen.

NATIONAL BOOK FOUNDATION: How does Limitless Libraries work?

SARAH ALLEN: Limitless Libraries is a collaboration between the Nashville Public Library and Metro Nashville Public Schools. Our program has two parts: we deliver Nashville Public Library materials to students and teachers at their schools, and we provide collection development support by purchasing materials that are added to school library collections. At the beginning of each school year, educators and students in grades 3-12 automatically receive Nashville Public Library cards linked to their employee or school ID numbers. When a student or teacher requests an item through our catalog, our system routes the item to the correct school using the school delivery system. We sent out over 130,000 items this way during the 2015-2016 school year— a record breaking number!

NBF: In what ways does Limitless Libraries motivate students to read more?

SA: Limitless Libraries gives students more access to reading materials and more opportunities to find the books they love. Instead of being limited to their local school library collections, students are able to browse Nashville Public Library’s 1.5 million items and pull books that appeal to them for school work or for fun. Students explore more when the entire NPL collection is at their disposal, and wait times for popular items are cut significantly. From a collection development standpoint, we are able to refresh school libraries with new, high-quality materials throughout the school year. We do pre-publication ordering of blockbuster titles every month, which keeps students visiting their school libraries to see what’s new. These efforts have driven a huge increase in circulation at the school level since Limitless Libraries began. We also sponsor programming and contests several times a year to add a fun, competitive element and draw in reluctant readers.

NBF: Do you think that use of technology for young students enables young readers to expand their reading choices to materials?

SA: There are some books that are only e-published, so in these cases technology does allow students access to books they cannot find anywhere else. Nashville Public Library also offers digital content, such as eMagazines through Zinio, ebooks through Overdrive, and streaming music, movies, and audiobooks through Hoopla. Students have access to all of those resources, as well as the research databases offered by both Nashville Public Library and Metro Nashville Public Schools. One innovative way we have implemented e-content is through bundled Playaways and print books. If a child (especially an English language learner child) is struggling to comprehend a book, oftentimes reading along while listening to the book improves the experience. Additionally, by having access to e-resources 24/7 there is no excuse to not complete that weekend homework on Sunday evening!

NBF: According to the a study you conducted, over 60 percent of students eligible for free/reduced school lunches in your service area are registered and/or active Limitless Libraries users. Why do so many students from lower-income families utilize Limitless Libraries?

SA: In general, Limitless Libraries users reflect the demographics of the broader Metro Nashville Public Schools community. Our delivery service removes the transportation barrier that prevents some students from checking out materials at Nashville Public Library branches, however, which might make the program especially attractive to lower-income families.

NBF: How does Limitless Libraries encourage students to check out their local libraries and their reading programs?

SA: Limitless Libraries is able to distribute information about programs happening at our Nashville Public Library branch locations through our school delivery system, and we promote NPL programming via a weekly e-blast to Metro Nashville Public Schools librarians. Our collaboration facilitates communication between the school librarians and their local branch librarians, as well. We host an in-service session at the beginning of each school year where school librarians are introduced to their local NPL branch librarians and encouraged to collaborate with one another. The strength of these relationships has led to more public librarian visits to school libraries for book talks and program sign ups.

NBF: Do school and local librarians collaborate to find recommended reading for students?

SA: Yes! Limitless Libraries works with Nashville’s school and public librarians to give Metro Nashville Public Schools students the best possible library experience. We achieve this goal through collaborative programing, collection development support, readers’ advisory, and resource sharing. Limitless Libraries would not exist if we didn’t have hard-working school librarians on our side.

NBF: Do you have a favorite story of a student’s experience with Limitless Libraries?

SA: There are two anecdotes that we love to share. We had a group of Burundi girls at one of our high schools who came to the library every day to get movies. When the school librarian asked how they were watching so many movies and keeping up with their school work, they told her that their entire family was learning English together by watching the movies. We also had a little boy who was getting more books than he could carry home and many of them were clearly not of his interest or reading level. He told his librarian that he had become a “librarian” and was getting cookbooks, car repair manuals, and picture books for the rest of his family. We love stories like these because they highlight the unexpected ways that Limitless Libraries impacts students and their entire families.

NBF: What’s next for Limitless Libraries now that it has been established in all 128 Nashville Public schools?

SA: The next step for Limitless Libraries is a huge one. We already have a combined catalog where students can see what is in their local school collection and what is available for delivery through Nashville Public Library. Next, we are going to be combining our Integrated Library Systems. This way, teachers can see what students have out, there will be just one place for librarians and students to manage their accounts, and we will be able to track usage and materials more closely.  This combination will save both Nashville Public Library and Metro Nashville Public Schools money, and the extra savings will allow us to buy more books for Nashvillians!