"School libraries suffer in a society that says it values reading"
by Stephen Hume, Vancouver Sun, October 6, 2004

Back in the days when Don Hamilton worked as a school librarian in a tough mill town, he made a point of wearing a jacket and tie every day, the only teacher other than the principal to present quite so formal a presence. "If we want children to read, we have to give them the sense that reading is important," he says. "So I let the kids know the library was important -- that it was the intellectual heart of the school." He told me that little story about modelling when I asked him about the B.C. Coalition for School Libraries, a new public advocacy group of which he's executive director.

Comprising concerned citizens, businesses and community organizations, it seeks to improve school library programs as a way of advancing literacy, culture and student achievement. Not a minute too soon in this befuddled province, I say.  Research affirms that providing schools with libraries run by well-trained teacher-librarians is the most cost-effective way to raise students' test scores by 15 to 20 per cent. Yet here in Cloud-Cuckoo Land, where we so noisily wring our hands over literacy, we've been enthusiastically gutting the very school library services that improve it.

According to a briefing document prepared for the government, one in every four teacher-librarian positions across B.C. has been eliminated in the past two years. And we're making the remaining libraries less effective as a teaching tool. They are chronically under-staffed and under-resourced. Under the governments of Bill Bennett, no slouch as a budget-cutter, the ratio of school librarians and clerical library support staff was guaranteed at one for every 400 students. Then the ratio was reduced to one for every 700 students. Under the present clowns, there's no guaranteed ratio at all, so some school districts have dispensed with teacher-librarians entirely. Now there's a vote for literacy.

The folks who brought you the dot-com meltdown argue that we don't need books because we've got the Internet. Hey, I use it every day for research. I also know there's no quality control, it's cluttered with distracting junk and wiser scholars than I have shown that despite all their techno-savvy-hacker-geek bravado, kids have a surprisingly low level of success using it for research. Meanwhile, those demoralized librarians who still have jobs complain that their facilities are often closed during the hours when they should be most accessible to kids and librarians are frequently pulled out of the library to cover for other teachers. In some schools the annual library budget is now less than $5 per pupil -- in other words, about the value of one large latte at Starbucks. Vancouver's budget for library materials has declined from funding for one-and-a-half books per pupil in 1990 to one-third of a book per pupil in 2004.

In one school district on Vancouver Island, two librarians were expected to provide service for 17 elementary schools. As I write, my own daughter, a 14-year-old who reads, is going through her personal library -- accumulated with her allowance (and a generous line of credit from mom and dad) -- so that she can donate books she's moved beyond to the library of a local elementary school. The school is brand new. It's got a brand new library. It even -- unlike many schools -- has a librarian. It just doesn't have any books. This seems completely insane to me, but typical of a political culture in which the minister of education makes a big deal about giving away books to encourage pre-schoolers to read while on his watch the schools they will eventually attend are being stripped of their most essential tools for teaching literacy. Pardon the language but, as public policy, this is just pig-ignorant. Unfortunately, the kids aren't stupid -- and when the grown-ups treat the school library as some kind of disposable frill, the kids get the message that reading really isn't valued.

If you want to put your two-bits worth into this critically important discussion, you can contact the B.C. Coalition for School Libraries at its website (www.bccsl.ca) or by writing to #150 - 900 Howe Street, Vancouver, B.C. V6Z 2M4. shume@islandnet.com © The Vancouver Sun 2004




...because student achievment is the bottom line...