A couple of years ago, I was invited to speak at an Illinois school, and was excited to attend…until I entered their library.
The walls were bare. The shelves were mostly empty, and what titles existed were relics with dust on them. I tried not to show my frustration to the librarian who had so kindly greeted us. But it confused me. How could she be so welcoming in such an unwelcoming space?
I did the presentation for an awesome group of students, though they clearly had no familiarity with my book, or for that matter, no familiarity with most of the titles I had discussed. Of course they didn’t, I thought to myself. This library was depressing and offered almost no reason for students to enter.
Then I learned how wrong I had been.
The librarian wasn’t a librarian. In fact, there was no librarian at this school.
Bureaucrats had closed the library a few years earlier, claiming funds and resources could be used better elsewhere, such as in student testing. Besides, they argued, if students really wanted books, they had a city library.
The result? Book clubs disappeared, author visits, once a regularity, went extinct. Most importantly, literacy test scores plummeted, as did student writing, both fiction and non-fiction. And the funding that went into student testing did nothing to improve grades.
Finally, the parents had enough. They were bypassing the bureaucrats and using their own resources to bring the library back. The woman I had mistaken for the librarian was one of several parent volunteers who had seen the massive mistake of removing the library and were trying to fix it for their school.
I have traveled all over the country, and by now, stepped into a great many libraries, staffed with amazing librarians, librarian assistants, and parent volunteers.
Here’s what I’ve learned: a well run school library is the heart of the school, and the center of education. It’s a gathering place for researchers, readers, and sometimes, for students who don’t fit as easily into other places. Even for students who never step a foot into the library, there is value in walking past it each day, in knowing they are part of a school that values books. A great school library will bind students together in academic clubs, serve as a showcase place for school projects, develop tomorrow’s writers, unleash imaginations, open researchers to possibilities beyond Wikipedia, and focus a school on literacy.
So why am I writing this now?
Because in Park City, Utah, not far from my home, the decision has been made to get rid of their books and give the library’s space to a vocational education program (let me pause here while you gasp. I know, I did too). Books will still be available, but only in ebook form, located…well, somewhere in the school.
A group of incoming sophomores have proposed using the space concurrently, but still to no avail. They acknowledge the value of vocational training, but wonder why it must come at the expense of a school’s library. They are circulating a petition here, which I’d love for you to sign, even if you are outside the school boundaries. Even Neil Gaiman got in on it!
To bureaucrats who are looking for more space or more budget, ask your teachers where they can find it.
I bet I know what they’ll say.
Enough already with the testing.