Kids check out refurbished library

Other viewers may not have ranked it as the day's most gripping news story, but when CNN aired a piece about the recent White House Conference on School Libraries, Elisa Burke was glued to her seat.

"It made me feel encouraged and proud, that I had made the right career choice," says the school librarian, who works at PS 42 elementary school in Queens. "I thought, 'Finally, we're getting noticed.' "

The presence of Laura Bush – a former school librarian – in the White House has meant a big boost in morale for school librarians. They see the conference and the creation of the Laura Bush Foundation, which has raised $5 million for school libraries, as evidence of strong commitment to their work. And they see potential in Mrs. Bush's outreach to high-level government officials and philanthropic leaders.

"For once we weren't just preaching to the choir," says Julie Walker, executive director of the Chicago-based American Association of School Librarians, referring to the White House conference. "I feel like a lot of positive things are going to come from this."

Yet despite such positive steps, many librarians are feeling grim about the future of their field. School districts across the country are suddenly finding themselves cash-strapped, and there are already signs that budget cuts will hit librarians hard this fall.

In Philadelphia, for example, 14 public schools – including six high schools – will replace their trained librarians with paraprofessionals who work at about half the cost. In the New Bedford, Mass., public schools, eight librarians will be replaced by unpaid volunteers. Quincy, Mass., is dropping two librarians, leaving staff so thin that high school libraries will close during lunch period.

Many more such cuts are expected as schools continue to wrestle with the budgeting process over the summer months.

For librarians, such moves are depressing indications that they are still viewed as "extras," rather than as essential members of the school team.

Many also find it frustrating that such cuts are coming at a time when studies conducted in a number of states – including Alaska, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts – have demonstrated a link between strong school libraries and superior academic performance.

Some library advocates say that school libraries have never fully recovered from the Nixon administration's decision to move to block grants in funding schools. From 1960 to 1974, federal funds were specifically earmarked for school libraries; after 1974, schools were free to spend those same dollars in other areas, and many did.

As a result, some school collections have not been updated since the 1970s.

But a handful of libraries have benefited from increased private interest in the field. In recent years a number of large philanthropic organizations – including the William Penn Foundation in Philadelphia and the Wallace-Reader's Digest Funds and the Robin Hood Foundation, both in New York – have been spurred to take a fresh interest in school libraries.

PS 42 has been one of the early beneficiaries of a project of the Robin Hood Foundation and the New York City Board of Education, aimed at refurbishing all 656 of the city's elementary school libraries. About 10 have so far been completed.

The old library at PS 42 was a cramped room on the third floor. The books were so old, says Mrs. Burke, "that some hadn't been checked out since before I was born."

The renovated library, which opened in April on the first floor where a gym used to be, has 7,000 brand-new books, warm orange carpeting, and child-pleasing touches such as window seats, vinyl perches that rock, and a curtained reading nook. Stuffed animals are scattered throughout the shelves, and eight new computers are available to students, not only in the library, but also through classroom and home connections.

"It's really a dream come true," says Burke, who holds a master's degree in library science and is also receiving further professional training on a Robin Hood grant. It's the kind of step forward she hopes will become more common if the White House continues to throw its weight behind school libraries.

The number of library visits by students has soared, with more than 1,000 books checked out just since April. The students proclaim themselves thrilled with the bright and clean new facility.

"It's cool," says David Howell III, first-grader and enthusiastic patron of the new library, as he and classmate Cliffon Sturdivant pore over books about eagles and humpback whales. "I like the way you can just look out the window and read a book."

"And all the books," says Cliffon, with a proud gesture toward the gleaming new stacks, "are in exactly the right places."

• E-mail comments to marjorie@csmonitor.com

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