A child doesn't need many instructions to take part in the 1990s multimedia extravaganza.
With a few clicks - remote control clicks, mouse clicks, joystick clicks - children can access through television, VCRs, and computers almost anything our culture has to offer, the raw as well as the cooked.
That's why parents and educators are learning to act as cultural crossing guards. Increasingly, their task is to usher this generation of clickers and readers through the bewildering and occasionally threatening cultural static and lead them to a set of valuable beliefs.
And no group performs this task as effectively, as self-consciously, and with as little ceremony, as school librarians. Their direct contact with children and their influence in the publishing industry combine to make school librarians the primary cultural crossing guards.
Since most children don't buy books for themselves, and many parents only occasionally buy books for their children, school librarians are usually responsible for teaching children the value of ideas and the habit of reading.
And since they are the single most important market in the children's book industry, school librarians determine not only what books will be available on library shelves but, to a surprising extent, what books will also be published.
Librarian. The word usually evokes images of old-fashioned women who speak in scolding whispers and derive strange pleasure from the Dewey Decimal System.
But today's school librarians are shedding their schoolmarm images. They're adopting an additional job title - media specialist - that more accurately describes their new role in the multimedia environment of the modern library. And they've become a powerful, if uncelebrated, force in publishing circles.
"Public and school libraries together buy 10 percent of all books published in the United States," says Fred Ciporen, vice president and group publisher of Publisher's Weekly, Library Journal, and School Library Journal, the leading publishing trade magazines. "They make up a $1.8 billion market." But since public librarians order most of their books through wholesale companies like Baker & Taylor, and not directly from publishing companies, publishers of popular trade books are never quite sure how many books they're selling to librarians.
"I would call libraries an invisible market, because most publishers don't really know how much economic power librarians have," Mr. Ciporen says.
Children's book publishers, on the other hand, know exactly how important the library market is. School librarians absorb close to 65 percent of all books published for children and young adults, and they often buy directly from children's publishing houses.
Some children's publishers devote entire imprints to the needs of the school market, such as Marshall Cavendish's Benchmark Books. Like other children's book editors, Judith Whipple, editorial director for Benchmark, maintains a close relationship with the library market.
"We have a very large sales force that communicates directly with librarians," Ms. Whipple says. "Through our sales reps, we find out what librarians need in their libraries and try to fill the gaps in their collections."
In addition to the dialogue between the sales reps and the librarians, editors meet with librarians face to face twice a year, in June and January, at the American Library Association (ALA) conventions.
"I frequently make suggestions to publishing representatives about what I'd like to see, particularly at the conventions," says Sharon Coatney, president of the American Association of School Librarians and a librarian at Oak Hill Elementary School in Overland Park, Kan. "If there are 50 great books on mealworms for the fifth-grade level, but none for a second-grade level, I'll let the publishers know."
This extensive contact between publishers and librarians is mutually beneficial; publishers produce books they know will appeal to the market, and librarians purchase books tailored to their needs.
Since they often operate on public funds and beleaguered budgets, school librarians are more circumspect than the average book buyer. They are not impulse shoppers, and they demand that children's publishers produce quality editorial content.
"Librarians consider a number of factors when they buy books, from what the kids are going to think is cool, to what the parents are going to think about books that cover complicated topics like sexuality," says Stephen Mooser, president of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. "And since children's publishers are in this business to make money, they have to listen to the librarians. They're not going to publish books they can't sell."
In a market flooded with new titles every season, review publications like Library Journal, School Library Journal, Booklist, and Hornbook become crucial quality-control tools for librarians. A positive review in one of the journals often translates into big sales. Knowing this, publishers compete intensely to have their books included in the seasonal reviews.
"To make librarians aware of what we have to offer, we have to get our books to the review journals for possible inclusion," says Adrienne Johnston, promotions and advertising manager for the children's division of Little, Brown.
Some school librarians won't even consider purchasing a book that hasn't received a positive review in the journals.
"My school district has an acquisitions policy that we're required to follow," says Ms. Coatney. "We only buy books that fit into the curriculum and have been positively reviewed in one or more of the reputable journals."
The best endorsement any children's book can receive comes from the librarians themselves. Each year, a committee of librarians within the ALA chooses the winners of the most prestigious awards in the children's market: the Newbery Award for distinguished writing and the Caldecott Award for the best picture book.
In the relatively unglamorous world of children's book publishing, the authors and artists who win these awards are instant celebrities, and their books become instant bestsellers.
"Most librarians feel that they have to have copies of the annual winners in their collections," says Mr. Mooser. "Which means that companies with winners sell an extra 40,000 to 50,000 copies. That's a lot of books, since the first printing for a children's book can be anywhere from 3,500 to 10,000 books."
But even as school librarians exercise their considerable power in the children's book industry, cuts in education budgets and the growing demand for multimedia services threaten to spread their resources thin and diminish their influence.
"Even where budgets may have risen or at least returned to where they had been earlier in the decade, there are more resources for librarians to invest in," says Lillian Gerhardt, editor in chief of School Library Journal.
"So when a book budget is bearing the weight of purchasing other formats besides books, like CD-ROMs and Internet services, and your school budget is remaining stagnant, your education economy is in trouble."