Even in information-rich age, school libraries struggle

Students face growing demands to navigate seas of information, but stocking the stacks remains low on the list of many schools' priorities.

In honor of the Chinese New Year, school librarian Carrie Schadle is reading aloud from "Cat and Rat" by Ed Yang. A cluster of first-graders at her feet hangs on every word.

A few minutes later, the children are scattered throughout the shelves, eagerly scooping up books and trying to decide which they would like to take home for the week. Jason Bragg enthusiastically pages through books on dinosaurs, while Natalia Bikowski is intent on finding a good animal story.

"The kids totally love this," their teacher Alli Keil says of the weekly class sessions in the school library.

A few years ago, the library at the Beginning with Children School in New York's low-income Williamsburg neighborhood consisted of a few hundred books in a makeshift room. Today, with aid from the Beginning with Children Foundation, which helps to fund the public school, and the New York-based Robin Hood Foundation, students enjoy a colorful, well-stocked facility.

But not every child is as fortunate. Throughout the United States, and particularly in large urban schools, many school libraries are in a state of neglect. Funding cuts have decreased the numbers of trained librarians in some places, while the purchase of up-to-date reading material has become a very low priority in others.

The need to strengthen school libraries is so urgent that some say only funding on the federal level will be sufficient to make up for time lost. At stake, say many advocates, is not only children's literacy, but their ability to negotiate a society dependent on good information skills.

Hopes rise with a librarian in the White House

Research skills "are probably the most essential skill [today's students] can have," says Julie Walker, executive director of the American Association of School Librarians in Chicago. In a world where information overload is the status quo and facts become obsolete almost as fast as they are generated, "the knowledge [students] acquire in school is not going to serve them throughout their lifetimes," Ms. Walker says. "Many of them will have four to five careers in a lifetime. It will be their ability to navigate information that will matter."

It is not certain that any of the federal money President Bush and others want to pour into public schools - and specifically into literacy programs - will make it through the doors of libraries. But with a former librarian as first lady, some advocates are already hoping for increased support. (Some are focused as well on new Secretary of Education Rod Paige, whose mother and a sister reportedly worked as librarians.)

"We have real hopes for [Laura Bush]," says Ann Weeks, professor at the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland at College Park.

The emergence of the computer age has been a major challenge for libraries. A focus on high technology has caused some schools to downgrade the importance of the library experience, assuming that Internet access cancels out the need for open stacks of books.

But, advocates argue, all students, particularly young ones, need to learn the thrill of paging through books and browsing shelves. And even if a CD-ROM can replace an encyclopedia at low cost, kids still need to learn to shape a research question and use information.

Schools across the country today fail to understand "the potential of the school library to really be the engine for better teaching and stronger learning," says Anne Wheelock, who helped evaluate Library Power, a privately funded program aimed at revitalizing school libraries in 19 US cities.

"A good library program puts the library and research-based instruction at the center of classrooms, helping kids use original source material to research and get a variety of perspectives on a subject," Ms. Wheelock says. "A librarian in that setting is a real instructional leader, a teacher of kids and teachers, a cheerleader for reading in the school."

Many advocates trace the decline of school libraries to 1974, when the Nixon administration moved to offer federal dollars to schools in block grants. From the 1960s to 1974, school libraries received fairly generous, specific streams of funds.

But when states were given freedom to spend the money as they chose, few opted to help libraries. "Money went to lawnmowers and everywhere else," says James Baughman, director of the school-library program at Simmons College in Boston. That's the reason the bulk of the materials in today's school libraries date from the 1960s and 1970s, Professor Baughman adds.

State and local funding of libraries in many areas has not come even close to keeping pace with growing expenses. For instance, while the average cost of today's youth book is about $18, Philadelphia schools are allotted only $5 per student for new book purchases.

Keeping libraries staffed with professionals has been a problem as well, not only because some districts are reluctant to spend the money required to hire full-time professionals, but also because trained librarians are a scarce commodity. The number of students in library-science programs is shrinking, even as the number of corporations willing to spend good money to hire "information specialists" is increasing.

One librarian for every 3,500 kids

Baughman recently did a study in Massachusetts which showed that in schools with strong libraries, students scored higher on standardized tests. Even in low-income areas, says Baughman, students from a school with a good library program score higher than students from a comparable school with a weak program. Studies were also conducted in Colorado, Alaska, and Pennsylvania, with similar results.

Not every district's facilities have declined. "There are school libraries that are functioning as the absolute nerve center of the whole school, and then there are rooms little bigger than a closet," Walker says.

Library quality also varies widely from state to state. While Arkansas employs one school librarian for every 439 students, in California the ratio is 3,548 students per librarian.

For some library advocates, the most distressing aspect of library neglect is the degree to which it limits the exposure of children in poorer neighborhoods to the pleasures of reading. Jonathan Kozol, author and longtime advocate for disadvantaged children, wrote in a recent issue of School Library Journal that school libraries "remain the clearest window to a world of noncommercial satisfactions and enticements that most children in poor neighborhoods will ever know."

He adds, "To shut those windows is to close down one more opening to democratic amplitude and one more opportunity for a fully realized cultural experience."

E-mail comments to marjorie@csmonitor.com

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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