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May 30, 2002
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In Philadelphia, the ratio of students to librarians has increased dramatically. Schools are not only cutting the jobs of librarians, but they are failing to hire those who are qualified to perform the task. Some people, including principals, seem to have the notion that school libraries are a nonessential facet of high school education or are adopting idiosynchratic measures to keep school libraries in existence. The Toronto District School Board, for example, has decided that it will only offer a full-time librarian to schools with more than 710 pupils, leaving school libraries that are closed half the time or that remain substantially inaccessible to students. Laura Bush's Foundation for America's Libraries is an admirable idea, but will merely talking about the importance of libraries hammer the point home? What does it take to convince administrative types of the importance of school libraries? Where did the idea of the school library go astray? And what can we do to ensure that a reasonably accessible school library is there for any student who needs it?
posted by ed (23 comments total)

 
The sad news never ends!
Washington Post has another one today as well.
Libraries are getting hit hard on all sides.
posted by Blake at 7:58 AM on May 30, 2002


A reasonably accessible school library is all you need for a good education. Fire the damned teachers.
posted by Faze at 8:03 AM on May 30, 2002


I went to two different high schools. Neither of them had a library of any kind whatsoever. One school was a large urban high school with a few thousand students, so that comes as no surprise. The other school was a much smaller, somewhat experimental highly-academic college prep school, and that's a bit more alarming.

Well, it should have been alarming when I attended these schools 15 years ago, but it wasn't, since the last time I was in a school with any kind of library was 3rd grade. A big fat "fuck you very much" to the voters of 1978.
posted by majick at 8:13 AM on May 30, 2002


On a positive note...I work at a small liberal arts college and we recently met with folks from the administration, the library and the faculty and it was pretty much agreed that the institution needed to enhance the resources that are devoted to the libraries on campus. Part of the rational for this was that reference librarians are increasingly valuable assistants in a environment where the volume and kinds of data we have access to keeps growing.
posted by Tempus67 at 8:14 AM on May 30, 2002


Schools without libraries? The anti-tax people are idiots and they want the rest of the world to be like them.
posted by pracowity at 8:21 AM on May 30, 2002


School libraries suck. Never for a report or even my own hobby reading would I consider borrowing a book from the school library. When everyone does a report on the same thing, chances are the school library will be out of the books you need faster than anywhere else. I would always go to a local community college or to the public library. That's where the emphasis needs to be. Share the knowledge, with the whole community.
posted by banished at 8:28 AM on May 30, 2002


Also, on a positive note, the University of Kentucky completed construction on a new $60 million library just a few years ago with an endowment second only to Harvard. It helps to have rich folks with a yearning to have their names on a building though. And this is completely different than the plight of public school libraries, I know. But maybe there's hope. It's interesting how a new technology like the Internet makes people in power forget history.
posted by cowboy at 8:29 AM on May 30, 2002


I gripe about taxes plenty, but when the time comes around to cough up property taxes I don't say a thing. I can't undo decades of damage, but it's with a certain civic pride that I pony up the scratch on property tax day.
posted by majick at 8:31 AM on May 30, 2002


Same library cutbacks are happening in BC, along with the elimination of teachers' aides for special-needs children. As if your ordinary teacher has the training and time to deal with sexually-aggressive Johnny, or spastic Susie, or autistic Allen. This, combined with the elimination of per-classroom size limits is going to decimate our educational system.

Yes, our Liberal government is really fucking far-sighted. Asshole bastards.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:37 AM on May 30, 2002


"Primary students need to be able to locate, evaluate, interpret and communicate information." Without a professional librarian that task becomes almost impossible.


Sounds very nice, but in practise it doesn't work. Library exercises in English class often focus on "how to use a library" rather on the research itself, and given the lack of funds and interesting books, as well as the lack of student initiative, the library often ends up an unsupervised playground and the librarian is an enemy of fun who spends most of their day disciplining kids, which keeps her from her real job catologuing stuff.

I've never met the ideal librarian, someone knowledgable about how to find stuff and focused on directing you to the materials you need. Even at Universities it's all about discipline, the drudgery of knowledge and snobbery.
posted by dydecker at 8:44 AM on May 30, 2002


Has anybody actually seen the libraries they have in most public schools? In Mississauga, a large suburb of Toronto, Canada, they are not very useful or even practical. They hardly have any books and what they do have are not very good (and are censored arbitrarily by school librarians!)

We have an excellent public library system with easily accessible branches plus an online search and hold system that makes a lot more sense to fund. These resources are available to everyone, not just students, and several of the branches are actually located in new combination school/community centers (another great idea). More books and resources for everyone and more efficient use of tax dollars.

Other than being sssush'ed, I can't remember a single librarian contribution to my education.
posted by srboisvert at 8:50 AM on May 30, 2002


"Schools without libraries? The anti-tax people are idiots and they want the rest of the world to be like them." -pracowity

Sniff sniff, do I smell smoke? I think it was Andrew Carnegie who helped build a lot of American libraries:

Carnegie gave money to build 2,509 libraries throughout the English speaking world including the British Isles, Australia, and New Zealand. Of these libraries, 1,679 of them were built in the United States and in American possessions that were later incorporated into America proper (Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands). He spent over $55 million on libraries alone and he is often referred to as the "Patron Saint of Libraries." [link]

Of course you're right, pracowity. Obviously, anyone who is against state funded libraries, is against all libraries. Ever. I've heard this lovely line of reasoning before, I'll probably hear it again, so I'm not surprised, but I'm always a little disappointed.
posted by insomnyuk at 8:52 AM on May 30, 2002


I agree with those above who said that school libraries are basically useless. The books are old and out of date. And they were never there because we all needed the same ones. I just used the local public libraries when I needed a book.

With schools so short on cash, I'd rather they do away with the library and pay the teachers more. Perhaps those without libraries could set up a program to promote the use of the public libraries...automatic library cards when you get a school ID, a "field trip" to the library.

The real crime is that schools are so short of money.
posted by aacheson at 9:08 AM on May 30, 2002


As noted above, the problem is not just staff cuts, but also outdated collections. This press release from Jack Reed says that:
Over the past 30 years, funding for school libraries has plummeted. While the average price of a new library book is $16, the average amount spent by school district per student for books is $6.75 in elementary school, $7.30 in middle school and $6.25 in high school. Direct federal funding for school libraries was eliminated in 1981 and local school districts and states have consistently cut school library funding in order to address more pressing needs.

As a result, many outdated books which were acquired through funding provided under the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act in the mid-1960's are still on the shelf. Many librarians feel obliged to keep outdated books because they cannot afford to replace the books, especially volumes of reference materials, or the school districts do not have the trained staff to weed through the materials.
posted by eckeric at 9:28 AM on May 30, 2002


The loss of support for school libraries is an unspoken judgement that such libraries are becoming irrelevant. No, I'm not saying this is a good thing. 1. There is an increasing dependence on the internet for research, with all the advantages and drawbacks that we know and love to argue about. 2. Illiteracy is increasing at a frightening rate and reading is becoming a lost art, unmourned except by a dwindling intellectual elite. By intellectual elite I mean anyone who has college level reading skills, reads for enjoyment, and knows how to use the resources of libraries and the internet. 3. Most people do not read, if they can possibly avoid it. Why should they when the world is becoming more visually oriented and more amusing than anything found in books?

It's a trend that isn't going to go away.
posted by gordian knot at 9:43 AM on May 30, 2002


My god, this is horrific. If it wasn't for the freakin' libraries I'd be flippin' burgers or in prison by now. The only thing I had growing up was the solitude, silence and peace of being at the library.
posted by jkaczor at 9:47 AM on May 30, 2002


For the record, the public library in Philly isn't so hot -- I go to the main public library here almost weekly, and I can't even reserve a book online, instance. Only now are they experimenting with self checkout system... which they apparently canned.

The whole school system is in total disarray -- this thing with libraries is only the tip of the iceberg.

... and this is what I get for my 5% wage tax?
posted by ph00dz at 10:13 AM on May 30, 2002


A few other considerations: kill off the school libraries and say hello to a nation of kids who not only do not know how to read, understand and research properly, but who are wholly discouraged to read books or to run with the football that the teacher passes them. One of the things I remember growing up in the late 70s and early 80s were those mandatory school library hours, where the teacher led the kids from the classroom to the library and essentially turn them loose upon card catalogs and books. Sure, they'd be the inevitable stray from the path sharing Where the Sidewalk Ends with the other kids or, in my case, Frank Herbert and Isaac Asimov, which I discovered because of a school library. But because the teacher essentially said, "Go west, young lads and lasses! Research this president!" (in my case, it was LBJ), I picked up a few research tricks on my own that even surprised the teacher, simply because I was left alone to check out the goods.

Twenty years later, the situation is substantially different. As noted above, the library is no longer the inviting place it once was. Unless one travels to a library situated within a higher institution, one must deal with books that are not only poorly catalogued but that are often not available (which means, of course, ponying up your own dough to acquire something that should be accessible to everyone). And on top of that, the "librarians" being hired are entirely unknowledgeable about their milieu or even basic literature. At the San Francisco Public Library, checking out books seems nearly equatable to buying clothes at Nordstrom's (with jaded clerks, to match!).

Since the closing of school libraries seems to be happening in conjunction with that of public libraries, this concerns me a great deal. How can libraries offer a suitable and accessible collection of books (not just damned computers) for everyone? And who do we have to sleep with to get the magic dollar value that will preserve what was once an admirable public library system. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation could probably demonstrate their "philanthropic" nature right now by actually equipping schools and libraries with books and funds instead of computers.
posted by ed at 11:50 AM on May 30, 2002


Scathing indictments of school libraries on MeFi, film at 11.... All jocularity aside, in my high school library, we have striven to weed out obsolete, outdated and just plain unuseable titles since 1995, (as all school librarians I know do rather frequently). We've put all our holdings in a searchable computerized catalog available to any computer in our school. We constantly add new titles to replace old holdings and enhance our collection and I compare notes constantly with other high school librarians in my county to see what we can do to keep our library up to date and useable to all. I also order books from our county library system that are delivered by the bookmobile every 2 weeks, in order to meet our patrons' needs. We are fortunate in our district that our administrators believe in the power and efficacy of school libraries, as do the voters, who have approved a tax override measure that funds lots of educational "extras" like libraries.

All that aside, I still have not been able to find a book for every student, and being on the other side of the check-out desk, I see teachers bringing or even sending in classes in who are already bored, unclear on their assignments, unengaged in any sort of learning process before they get here and unruly in their boredom. Perhaps some of you who didn't like your school libraries were like that, too?
posted by Lynsey at 11:58 AM on May 30, 2002


Part of Carnegie's deal was that he provided seed money to build, but you had to demonstrate stable funding for the ongoing maintenance of the building. He gave up on the whole project because of all the towns that kept screwing around building grand edifices that mostly stood empty.
posted by djfiander at 11:59 AM on May 30, 2002


school libraries are basically useless. The books are old and out of date

it's just one step on the steady decline. school libraries are often out of date and seemingly useless because they cut the funding for acquisitions before they cut the librarian staff position.

This is also the savviest way to get rid of the librarian: Have her oversee a dwindling collection, sometimes buying books out of pocket or begging them from better-heeled libraries to make the collections not seem so lousy. Put the computer lab in another part of the building, so all the kids will want to hang out there. Keep telling people that everything you really need to know is on the Internet and don't use the library in any part of the school curriculum so kids won't even understand how to find books, much less read them. And don't forget to get a group of parents and teachers together to challenge some of the good books you do manage to have in your library so keeping it open seems like more of a liability than an asset.

Pulic libraries can't take up the slack, at least not with more funding for them, which is also not the way things are going. The answers are difficult but getting parents to agitate for better school libraries, remembering the libraries during school bond issue time and donating your old and still useful children's books to the school library are all ways to start.

My basic feeling is that I didn't learn to put sentences like this together in a school [or series of schools] with no library, my kids shouldn't have to try either.
posted by jessamyn at 12:01 PM on May 30, 2002


Books in school libraries below the college/university level are seemingly always out of date or if not, old copies that don't appeal to young people. I mean, when I'm looking for information I still tend to look at the copyright date before anything else. I want recent, baby, recent!
Even if all of the books in schools were removed, there should still be a resource center...of computers...and a librarian, or someone knowledgable in research and data collection in the book world. 'Cause that's the kind of stuff they'll need for college.
Having a school library doesn't mean more kids will read. It should, but I don't think this is the case.
So, computers are good, and so are books. But if you can't afford to have good books, you can't afford to have good computers. So what do you do? You cut the libraries and then our kids have no access to any information. Oy.
posted by jacobw at 2:08 PM on May 30, 2002


kill off the school libraries and say hello to a nation of kids who not only do not know how to read, understand and research properly

The reasoning, such as it is, goes the other way around, I think: we already have a nation of such kids, even with the libraries, so why waste more money on 'em?
posted by kindall at 2:47 PM on May 30, 2002


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