One of the posted rules for middle schoolers using the library at Franklin STEAM school in Minneapolis this year is an encouraging directive: "There is a book for you — find it."

And the students have. More than 1,500 titles have been checked out so far this school year, representing a four-fold jump over the number of books that left the shelf by this time last school year.

"As much as I want to say I managed to shoot book checkout up 400%, it's not because of anything incredible that I personally did," said Ted Anderson, the school's librarian. "It's because I'm here and the library is actually open."

Like a handful of other Minneapolis schools, Franklin had no library staff last year, meaning it was often closed to students.

Anderson came to the school as part of a librarian hiring wave across the district, marking a renewed investment in the positions that are often among the first to be cut when school budgets are squeezed. Minneapolis Public Schools has doubled its number of librarians since last year and met its goal of staffing at least a half-time librarian at each of its more than 60 schools.

But most worth celebrating, staff members say, is the number of books finding their way into the hands of young readers across the city. Circulation is way up in many schools — it's doubled since last year at Nellie Stone Johnson Elementary on the North Side and also at Transitions Plus, a program for 18- to 21-year-old students with learning disabilities. Stadium View, the district's juvenile detention program, now has a functional library that has loaned out more than 400 books.

Justice Page Middle School had a grand reopening of its library in November. According to Mandy Bellm, the district's media content lead, the school had officially checked out just one book by this time last year. Over this past semester, Justice Page students grabbed 1,500 volumes, representing what Bellm is calling a "gazillion" percent boost in popularity.

"With libraries, there's the analogy of a garden," Bellm said. "Gardens take work; libraries take work. If you don't keep them up, they can look kind of shabby and kids don't want to be there."

The interest from middle schoolers is especially heartening. Research suggests that the percentage of children who read for fun drops off during middle school and those percentages have continued to fall over the past few decades. A survey by the National Assessment of Educational Progress asked U.S. 9- and 13-year-olds whether they read for enjoyment. In 2020, less than half of the 9-year-olds and less than one-third of 13-year-olds said they did. Those percentages were several points higher when the survey was conducted in 2012 and 1984.

Bellm and Anderson say comics are the most popular choice for preteen readers in Minneapolis. Anderson is a comic author himself and has curated an entire wall of shelves in the library for the growing collection of comic choices for his students. At least one of those shelves sits empty most of the time because so many of the books are checked out.

On a recent morning, Anderson directed students to nonfiction graphic novels about civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., shortly after checking in a high stack of other comic books returned by a classroom of sixth-graders.

"The library is a growing organism — you have to respond to the needs of what they are looking for," Anderson said. That's something that can only be done by a trained librarian, he said. Although volunteers stepped up last year to help staff some of the shuttered school libraries in Minneapolis, volunteers were limited as to what they could do. Ordering new books, for example, can require a library media license.

In addition to more books, many of the school libraries also got new furniture, including bean bags for students and rocking chairs and rugs for story time. That has helped create a space where students want to gather, Bellm said. A couple of schools are in the process of launching book clubs based on student demand, and other clubs are using the library as their meet-up spot.

The Franklin library is connected to the cafeteria and has become a go-to destination for many students who want to read or find a quieter spot to hang out with their friends during the lunch hour, Anderson said.

"I feel like it's a safe space for me to enjoy," said sixth-grader Darrell Wells. "And I'm actually finishing my books now because I can take them home."

Sixth-grader Monroe Carlson said he is also reading more this year and often heads to the library over the lunch hour.

"To me, it's an important place because I can come to learn what I'm curious about," he said.

For Anderson, feeding that curiosity is what a librarian is there to do.

"If kids are actually engaging with the space and wondering about the books, that's a success," he said while groups of students chatted loudly in a circle of arm chairs, each with books at their sides. "The last thing you want is a quiet library."