When Upper Division Library Department Chair Caroline Bartels was in fifth grade, she ran a miniature library out of an extra desk in her classroom. Her friends would ask her for book recommendations, and she would loan books to them using a checkout system of her own, she said. Thus began her career as a librarian.
Fast forward a few decades, and Bartels left Bowling Green State University in Ohio three weeks into studying for a PhD in American Studies after deciding it wasn’t for her, she said. With 35 cents in her pocket, Bartels drove to New York City with a complete stranger – whom she had asked to pay her tolls because she had no physical money left – and got a job at Barnes and Noble managing their store at New York Institute of Technology, a position she had also held at Fordham University and at Northwestern University.
In 1993, Bartels started working as a librarian at the Young Adult section of the Allerton branch of the New York Public Library (NYPL). In just four and a half years, she took that branch from one of the lowest circulating branches in the Bronx to one of the top 10 in the NYPL system of 81 branches. One weekend in late August of 1997, her friends called her about an ad in the New York Times for a job at the school and convinced her to apply. Bartels interviewed with Ginny Nordstrom, who was head librarian at the time, and was was hired that same day.
Before meeting Bartels, Library Technology Coordinator Melissa Kazan had already heard about her from a friend they had in common, she said. When Bartels hired Kazan seven years ago, Kazan realized that her friend’s description was completely accurate: “She was vivacious and generous and super smart and helpful, and a great person to work for.”
Bartels started working three weeks into the 1997 school year. At that time, the library didn’t have any books for pleasure reading; it only had books required for classes or on student reading lists. “I couldn’t work here unless we got paperbacks for kids to read,” Bartels said. She ordered 600 paperbacks, starting the library’s collection of approximately 3,500 fiction books. Today, the library circulates about 30,000 books per year and approximately 100,000 items, ranging from laptops to mophie chargers.
The Book Day book during Bartels’ first year was Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Because she came to the school with experience working at the NYPL, Bartels used her connections from the Public Library to make that year’s Book Day strong, she said. “People would throw out the big ideas, and I would make them happen,” she said.
Bartels knew the Head of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the NYPL and brought him to the school to run a Book Day workshop on when it is acceptable to destroy books. She also knew Richard Peck, author of The Last Safe Place on Earth — a Young Adult novel in which Fahrenheit 451 is banned in a school, and he agreed to be that year’s keynote speaker.
In Bartels’s early years at the school, very few students came to Book Day. In 2001, after two consecutive snow days, students showed up to school under the assumption that Book Day had been cancelled to make up for the fact that they had just missed multiple regular school days. However, it had not, so all of the students who wouldn’t have gone otherwise ended up staying for the duration of the day. Most of those students were pleasantly surprised, and realized the benefits of the day, Bartels said. Attendance has gone up significantly ever since. Bartels eventually became the Book Day coordinator and has poured her heart into the event each year, she said. “I think it will be what I’m remembered for the most.”
Bartels soon became involved in responsibilities outside of the library. In 2000, Bartels became the advisor for the Mannikin, the school’s yearbook. One year later, she created Reader’s Forum for MD students (which later expanded into the UD as Lit Chat), and in 2004, she started coaching the Girls’ Cross Country team. She became extremely close with all three groups of students, she said.
“Cross country is a tough sport, so the sport lends itself to be really close,” Upper Division Physical Education Department Chair Amy Mojica said.
“We used to go on runs together and we would have these long, deep talks,” Bartels said. “And you’re just running for miles and people are crying and laughing… You get to know the kids so well.”
When Bartels became the cross country coach, she knew nothing about running. Throughout her nine years of coaching, Bartels learned a lot about the sport, and more importantly, she made long-lasting memories and connections, she said. “I was a good hugger, and I was a good listener,” she said. “I was also exceptionally good at carrying injured runners out of the park and holding back their hair when they vomited after a race, and I never minded how sweaty they were when they needed a hug.”
“She cares greatly about the student body,” Mojica said. “She puts time and effort into all different activities here, and [cross country] was one of those things.”
Bartels was part of a similar tight-knit community on the Mannikin. The staff would sometimes work until 1:30 AM into Friday morning. The next morning, Bartels would come to work to find post-it’s all over her desk with sweet notes like “we know it was really late, we love you, thanks for singing fake opera for us,” she said.
One night, a small group of editors ended up sleeping over at the school in order to meet their 160-page deadline in time. “Kids said the next day ‘wait, weren’t you wearing that outfit yesterday?’ and I was like ‘yes, I slept here, on the floor,’” Bartels said. “It was crazy.”
In 2006, Bartels became the Upper Division Library Department Chair. That year was extremely hectic, because she was still coaching cross country and advising the yearbook, both of which were major time commitments, she said. The next year, Bartels made the decision to give up the yearbook, which was hard because she enjoyed it so much, she said. Regardless, she feels lucky to have had the opportunity to reinvent herself in so many different positions at the school. Before she came to the school, librarians did not normally work many different jobs outside of the library, Bartels said.
That same year, Bartels teamed up with science teacher and former Dean of Students Susan Delanty to begin what would become a beloved school tradition: the senior events. “It’s become a part of the fabric of the school,” Bartels said. “I think it’s made a profound impact on the climate of care that exists, that wasn’t there before.”
Genesis Maldonado ‘16 vividly remembers all of her senior events and the effect they had on her and her peers. She also recalls how Bartels put in maximum effort into going to every event. Bartels made sure to come to Maldonado’s senior Dorr despite Bartels’ foot being in a boot, and her presence made the event even more meaningful, Maldonado said.
In the summer of 2010, Bartels became the Director of Summer School. This role somewhat encompasses the responsibilities of the head of school, the dean of faculty, and the dean of students during the summer — with a bit of counselor thrown in, Bartels said.
Science teacher Oleg Zvezdin, who teaches Summer Physics, can tell that Bartels is clearly passionate about her job and the people involved in it, he said. “She’s the type of person that she knows if we have a test coming up, she’ll spend the evening baking for the kids so when they finish taking the test they can relax,” he said. “Her organization, her personality, her bubbliness, makes summer school better for everyone.”
Three years ago, Bartels took on yet another role: Director of Student Activities. The position was created when Delanty and Bartels decided that the title of Dean of Students encompassed far too many responsibilities and that some of those tasks should be separated. Bartels took on the responsibilities that she had an affinity for, like taking care of the assemblies and speakers, she said.
Ever since, student activities have become much more robust and cohesive, Kazan said. “It’s not just one event here and there; there’s more of a program in place to increase unity and enthusiasm in this school and pride in this school, and also to just help students through the day or the week, in terms of snack in the library or fun assemblies,” she said.
“Bartels always provides such a positive and comfortable environment for us in advisory and really cares about how we’re doing in and out of school,” Rebecca Rosenzweig (11) said.
In 2015, the school introduced the 15 minute break period. Today, students use this time to go to the library, eat snacks, and socialize, but when it was first introduced, break wasn’t nearly as organized and students didn’t know exactly what to do with it. Sensing their need for something more structured, Bartels made snack distribution systematic, and started organizing break time events and performances. All of these changes came about from Bartels simply deciding to take matters into her own hands and saying “I’m doing this,” she said.
Bartels is known for coming up with wild ideas and figuring out how to make them happen. “A recent highlight for me was Bartels’ crazy idea to put up an ice rink outside of Spence Cottage two years ago,” Head of Upper Division Dr. Jessica Levenstein said. “She turned the place into a winter wonderland, just when students’ energy was lagging during the cold winter months. She is the master of the ‘it’s so crazy it just might work’ idea.”
Michael Shaari (10), a member of Bartels’ advisory, said that she is a mentor to everyone at the school. Once, Shaari was walking in the city with his sister, Diana Shaari (12), and his mother when he saw Bartels, he said. They happened to be talking about how she is a part of everyone’s lives when they saw her, and she said “kids!” and they exclaimed “Bartels!” in return, he said. “We ran across the street and gave her a big hug,” he said.
Bartels continues to be a mentor for students long after they graduate. Maldonado started working as an intern in the library in her sophomore year of high school and has continued through college. Bartels has always acted like an advisor for her, sharing wisdom and showing her what a good leader should be, Maldonado said.
Bartels is a mentor for faculty members as well. “She wants the people who work for her to grow in their position,” Kazan said. “She’s helped me personally blossom in the seven years I’ve been here. She’s also fun, and she doesn’t micromanage, and she trusts our judgement. She’s the perfect person to work for.”
During summer school, Bartels makes an equally incredible boss because of her kind and supportive nature, Zvezdin, who teaches summer school classes, said. She puts all of her energy into making sure that teachers have all of the resources they need to be able to do their jobs as well as possible. “It’s also the little things, like when we come into the office and she has coffee for us or a snack that she spent her evening baking,” Zvezdin said.
Bartels is simultaneously a role model and a “mom friend,” Myra Singh (10), a member of Lit Chat, said. Last week, Singh and a friend were in the bathroom talking about how hungry they were, and Bartels overheard and brought them to her office, — which is filled with boxes upon boxes of oreos, pretzels, and Smart Puffs, — to give them food.
Bartels keeps a lot more than food in the library; she is prepared for anything a student may need, in even the most obscure occasions. She recalls a day when various students asked her for items that would not likely be found in most conventional libraries, and she was able to meet every request, she said. Students asked her for ping pong paddles, googly eyes, a manicure set to fix a broken nail, two curling irons and a straightening iron, and more. “The minute a kid asks me if we have something, I make sure that we have it,” Bartels said.
“She confronts each individual’s needs, going above and beyond to assist,” said Bartels’ former colleague Mindy Lisman. Before retiring, Lisman worked with Bartels for a longer period of time than anyone else at the school. She watched as Bartels took on new roles and introduced all of her initiatives, all the while changing the school into a better place.
Bartels has even more plans for the school’s future. “My next big dream change is I want to get the whole upstairs glassed off,” Bartels said. “Where that railing is, you would go upstairs and go through two big glass doors, so that it could be truly quiet.”
As a reminder of the past, in her office, Bartels has a bulletin board filled with memories from her years at the school — pictures, post-it notes, and letters. “It’s a reminder of why you do it every day,” she said. “Every once in a while I get these really long Facebook messages from these kids saying ‘I just wanted to say how much you changed my life,’ and it’s so beautiful knowing that I touched people’s lives.”