The dirty little secret about school libraries

One day when I was in 2nd grade, the librarian and my teacher Mrs. Zimmerman whispered, heads together, by the counter when it was time for my class to leave. And then–wonder of wonders–I was allowed to stay, gifted a few extra minutes of library time. The rest of the children lined up and it was back down the hall to SRAs and spelling. For a couple weeks I could only choose from the shelves for “our hall” with their picture books and early readers. And then I hit the jackpot. Mrs. Zimmerman worked me quickly through a set of readers (Eight books with captivating plots I like: “Up, up, up. How far is up?” Are ya kiddin’ me?!) and when I had finished them all … I could choose any book from any shelf in that library.

school library
By Jgjournalist (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
I chose Tom Sawyer. Not a great choice for a seven-year-old, but I read it. I didn’t follow much of the plot, mind you, but my bookish little self just knew Tom Sawyer was an Important Book. The next week I put my pretensions aside and was hooked on Rummer Godden’s Doll’s House stories. Then Lois Lensky. And …

All because I had a teacher and a librarian with a roomful of books who fed the book worm that was me.

School librarians in my state are a dying breed–and many of their libraries are going the way of the dodo. Dwindling resources mean tight budgets and school administrators must find savings in every line item. They privatize the cafeteria. Outsource custodians. Subcontract busing. And many districts do away with their media specialists, or make do with only one librarian for the entire district. One.

It may be penny-wise, but it’s pound-foolish.

school library
Chris Hearn@Flickr

Today’s school librarians are no longer the Marion the Librarians of the past who shush-shushed us and carded books. Good media specialists understand curriculum so well they find teachers books that support math, science, and history instruction, making an abstract concept come alive. Good librarians spend hours pouring over catalogs, checking forums, connecting with local bookstores, and attending reading conferences so that their shelves are stocked with quality books by well-respected writers and illustrators.

So who is left to run the library when all the librarians are gone? Part-time parent volunteers. Maybe a paraprofessional if we’re lucky. Or, in the case of my high school … no one. After twenty years as a librarian, administration added an hour of teaching freshman World History to her day. Then two the next year. Oh, and continue to oversee the libraries of five schools in addition to your teaching load, will you? (Is it any wonder the poor woman retired after two years of this?) We have a grand remodeled media center with modular seating, comfy chairs, and carts full of laptops–but the books?

Oh, they are a sad, sad lot.

We’ve had no  systematic ordering in years. There may be some budgeting for library books at the building level, but if there is, no one has ever told me–or asked what books my students are reading or requesting. Fiction is supplemented with donations. The non-fiction is outdated. Biographies end in the Bush administration. If I take my kids down to choose a Reading For Enjoyment book, there’s not a whole lot of reading available for enjoyment. Let’s face it–kids like the latest, the hot titles, the latest buzz. Some take a Harry Potter or Twilight for the umpteenth time just to have something. (I say “take” because that’s what we do. There’s no check out process, no inventory that I know of–I have kids sign out their titles on a form I created, but, still. When kids return the books, I carry a few crates down to the library and put them on a cart where they sit until a student volunteer shelves them.

I try to excite my students about reading. Sing the praises of a good book. Lend them titles I bring from home or have collected over the years for my classroom. But it’s not the same. A classroom is, well, a classroom. It’s where we work and test, day in and day out.

But magic happens in a library. A distinct hush that whispers pleasure. Displays of Newbery winners, holiday books, mysteries. Posters on the walls. The sun warming a special nook, just perfect for reading. Student art in the windows. And “Do you know any good books?”

Then the special someone whose mission in life is to answer that one question springs into action–with a roomful of books to offer and all the time in the world.


Thanks for reading! To return to the FICTION WRITERS BLOG HOP on Julie Valerie’s website, click here: http://www.julievalerie.com/fiction-writers-blog-hop-sept-2016

Comments

  1. weesied@hotmail.com'denice says

    Perfect. and not to toot my own horn, I was that person in the paragraph after “It may be penny wise but pound foolish.” Teachers and administrators from the whole district would call me for support and book talks. But I was the para-pro doing a media specialist’s job on para-pro pay. Oh, don’t get me started! And I am sorry I missed this month’s posting. I need to remember!!

    • Laurie says

      I was trying to toot your own horn as inconspicuously as I could! That last paragraph was for you 🙂 And, yes–you got paid pennies for a job someone is getting big bucks for. It’s a crime.

  2. drstaublin@gmail.com'Dave says

    I, too, found joy in my elementary school library. In addition to the joys of reading, I was given the opportunity to shelve books – a perfect fit for my need to organize. I still love going to the library. The public library in Charlevoix, my home town, is absolutely gorgeous, made more so by the displays of books, and local crafts and art, and historical features.

    My sister was a media specialist (formerly librarian) for a public school system in Illinois. Her district suffered the same casualties as ours. Originally staffed with a degreed media specialist in each school, they were replaced by para-pros, volunteers, or no one, as each retired, one at a time. My sister was the last to go, having eventually taken over responsibility of every library in her district. What’s left there now? I doubt there’s much. I hate to ask her because it pains her so much.

    • Laurie says

      I can only imagine her sorrow–I’ve always thought of libraries as librarian’s homes. They put so much of themselves into those walls, those shelves and displays–to think of all that work, just *poof* left to the dust mites. I hope our public libraries stay strong. I’m not a regular yet–though I did start Jonas at story hour this summer 🙂 When my kids were little we always had a library day each week and our branch was wonderful.

    • Laurie says

      A lot of school problems are closely related to school funding and government intervention–more and more is required and less and less is provided. I’m scornful of the library closure … but if it’s library OR something else like a math interventionist or a science teacher, how do we decide?

  3. sandiedocker@gmail.com' says

    This is so sad. My daughter is in primary school (elementary) here in Australia and we have a wonderful library and librarian. I can’t imagine our school without it/her.

    What Julie said – how can you fix this?!?!?!?!?

    • Laurie says

      I’d be curious to find out how different countries fund schools. In my state, our cuts are directly related to government regulation and cuts in funding. Do you have a national school system? (Our in the US is run by the individual states and districts.)

  4. Jayne.Denker@gmail.com' says

    Laurie, this brings tears to my eyes. No exaggeration. It’s unconscionable! Count me in on wanting to fix this. Schoolchildren are being robbed of education, experience, and enjoyment without libraries. Kids who aren’t turned on to reading early in life face a sad future.

    • Laurie says

      Thank goodness for public libraries, but I know all families don’t have the time, transportation, etc. to use them. For us in Michigan it’s a matter of school funding, increased (and non-funded) regulations, etc. I think there should be a law that says schools won’t get funding unless there’s a librarian & library for every X number of kids!

  5. author.shellyhickman@gmail.com' says

    This is so sad. Being a teacher too, I know what a challenge it is to get young people excited about reading, and when libraries are no longer a priority, what message does it send? I’m very fortunate to work at a school where we still have a full-time librarian, and we also have a book club of sorts called “Cranium Crunch” that meets once a month with students who choose to participate. I participated for my first time this month and I loved it. Can’t wait to read the next one and talk about it with students and fellow teachers. 🙂

    • Laurie says

      I would love to do a book club with kids–and do I understand that teachers and students read/discuss together? 🙂 Your school is SO fortunate to have a librarian.

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