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Guest Post: Wrestling with School Library Closures by J. F. Fox

There will come a time when this pandemic ends and we can get back to business as usual. Which is to say, the business of fighting to protect our school libraries and school librarians from the chopping block. Written before the arrival of COVID-19, author J.F. Fox’s piece here today is no less timely for what it has to say.


Wrestling with School Library Closures

by J.F. Fox 

Last year the library at my sons’ school had to cease circulation almost two months before the end of the school year. Funding for our librarian’s (part-time, three-day-a-week) salary fell short. As a mom of two boys who love to read and a chairperson of our school PTA’s Book Committee I was devastated. So were many students. Some cried when they were told they couldn’t check out books for the rest of the year. A few marched down to the principal’s office with signs they’d made about saving the library. Without a librarian there to oversee things class visits were cancelled, lessons were lost, and books went missing.

Still, we are among the lucky ones, lucky to have any sort of school library at all. Because our public school’s budget—like so many others—is stretched to the limit, our librarian’s salary is currently paid for by the PTA, parent dollars that must be fund-raised each year. In addition, the money must be paid through the Department of Education, a complicated and fee-filled process operating on tight deadlines, making the accounting costly and challenging. Some people don’t feel it’s worth all the trouble. Even with a high percentage of parents who see the value of a librarian and who are willing to contribute, it’s still a struggle to raise these funds each year when you add up all of the areas where families are now expected to fill financial gaps and cover items, experiences, and necessities in our schools, because our government does not.

The fact is, nation-wide, school librarians are being laid off and school libraries are closing at alarming rates. According to Forbes, since 2000 nearly 20% of schools across the country have lost their librarians. The National Center for Education Statistics cites the loss of “nearly 9,200 full-time equivalent school library positions—roughly 15% of such —were eliminated between 2009 and 2016.” Certain states are suffering worse than others. In Michigan for example, estimates of school-librarian loss are as high as 73% between 2000 and 2016. Unsurprisingly, their reading scores are plummeting as well. (Chalkbeat, 2019)

The trend toward considering libraries and qualified librarians as “non-essential” and viewing them as easy budget cuts is beyond disturbing. It’s destructive—undermining our children’s progress in reading, writing, and researching, skills critical throughout life in any field. These are losses we can’t afford. Overall, the U.S. is “ranked 16th out of 23 countries in literacy proficiency.” (saveschoollibrarians.org) The benefits of school libraries are proven. According to educational journal Phi Delta Kappan, studies “show that strong school libraries are also linked to other important indicators of student success, including graduation rates and mastery of academic standards.” Furthermore “[b]enefits associated with good library programs are strongest for the most vulnerable and at-risk learners, including students of color, low-income students, and students with disabilities.”

Our book committee has often heard: Do we need a librarian? Can’t parent volunteers just run the school library? The answer is a simple—No.

A librarian does more than check out books. 

Librarians are highly-trained specialists and educators. They teach our children lessons on how to select and interact with books, how to conduct research and safely explore the Internet. (I repeat, safely explore the Internet.) They facilitate class research projects and independent studies. Like many school librarians, at my sons’ school, our librarian reaches almost every single student in the school—something few other staff members can do. She can tell you which class is studying the Great Wall of China, which child is always looking for a new Wings of Fire, and who wants to learn more about manatees. She is an integral, engaged part of the school community who makes each child feel seen and special.

School libraries foster equity, community, and social-emotional growth.

The library is a space for everyone. It’s a retreat for any child who just needs a safe, quiet space. Some kids go from loud, chaotic homes to bustling classrooms, and cacophonous cafeterias. It’s truly overwhelming. Many kids are dropped off at school early, before school is even ready to receive them. Programs like “open library hours” give them a safe place to go. Some check out books, some just want a warm, well-lit space to hang out on a dark winter morning. The library is a retreat, a communal heart of a school. Our librarian mentioned a boy whose mother had passed away who often came just to sit in the library. Most times, he didn’t want to talk or even look at the books, only to sit somewhere calm and chaos-free.

The library is different than the classroom.

It’s a place where kids can explore what interests them and choose books for themselves. The ability to choose helps kids to fall in love with books and fosters a lifelong love of reading. Unlike their interactions with classroom libraries, in the school library kids aren’t pigeonholed by reading levels or bins. Their classmates aren’t pointing out, “You’re a level F and I’m an M.” At the school library kids also experience the independence and responsibility that comes with choosing and checking out a book, taking care of it, and returning it. Many of our most at-risk, high-need children are not taken to public libraries or bookstores after school or on the weekends, a school library is their best chance to access a ready supply of quality free books. 

School Libraries Matter

Why should you care? Why do I? I’m not just a mom and a book lover—I’m also an author. I wrote a picture book called Friday Night Wrestlefest exploring one of my boys’ other favorite activities. (Or maybe it was a subconscious release valve for those life battles we all wrestle with each day. We may never know!) But at the end of the day—in all of my roles—I feel passionately about the value of books in our children’s lives. As a mom, I want our kids to grow up with books in their hands, and their heads, and their hearts. As an author, I can think of no prouder moment than a child selecting my book—of their own free will—from a library shelf. We tell our kids, reading is a superpower. We expect our children to thrive and compete in ever-changing schools and an ever-changing world, to become solid members of their communities. Yet, we are taking away one of the cornerstones of their success. The loss of school libraries across our country is something we will all—sooner or later—have to wrestle with, and it’s one match we can’t afford to lose.

Let your administrators and elected officials know:

School libraries matter.

Every school deserves a library with a qualified librarian. 


J.F. (Jenny) Fox is a mother, author, PTA book committee chairperson, and library advocate. She lives in Brooklyn, New York where her sons attend public school. Find out more about Jenny or her picture book Friday Night Wrestlefest (Roaring Brook/Macmillan) at jffox.com.

Read more about the fight for school libraries:

http://everylibrary.org

https://www.forbes.com/sites/adamrowe1/2018/05/21/u-s-public-schools-have-lost-20-of-their-librarians-since-2000/ – 43c80b155ce5

http://www.nea.org/archive/43952.htm

https://www.saveschoollibrarians.org/

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. Bernadette Cooke says:

    Thank you, Ms. Fox! I am one of the few school librarians (8) in the school district of Philadelphia working at a middle/high school. Our students come from all different elementary schools around the city, and for most of them, I am the first school librarian they meet. My fear is that no one knows what they are missing because they will never experience a fully functioning school library with a certified school librarian. I especially liked your comments about the library being different from the classroom–although it is another type of classroom. Having a school librarian in every school needs to be instituted as a basic right for all students.

    • Thanks so much, Ms. Cook! For all you and other librarians do, now more than ever. Books are saving many kids at this moment and hearing teachers and librarians and authors read has been critical. Trying to juggle our own circus of new normal at home and looking forward to getting in on the read aloud game. I’m hoping when all of this is over people will have a new-found appreciation of the power of books, reading, and researching to be transformative to our kids. All of our kids.