"Quality school libraries remain a crucial tool for literacy" 
by Stephen Hume, Vancouver Sun, Wednesday, October 13, 2004

My argument that eliminating elementary school libraries and 25 per cent of librarians provincewide is wrong-headed policy for a literacy campaign drew a response from Education Minister Tom Christensen to "set the record straight."

His letter confirms my doubts. The provincial government talks the talk but doesn't grasp the dangerous implications for literacy from reduced ratios of teacher-librarians to students and diminished library access. Among front-line service providers, there's a sense of crisis. From the minister's spin, everything is peachy.

The minister says school boards are most appropriate to determine funding priorities. Fine, but that doesn't eliminate his responsibility to set service standards.

School boards do need flexibility. That doesn't mean they can drop mathematics because they'd rather buy a new scoreboard. Yet they can close libraries and shuttle harried librarians from school to school like office temps?

The initiatives outlined by Christensen may indeed be desirable but they do not address the main problem -- declining support for school libraries.

Major research by the U.S. government confirms that investment in school libraries has a profound impact on overall educational achievement.

Schools spending more money on libraries and staffing them with full-time professionals achieve higher than average test scores for all students regardless of whether their communities are rich or poor and regardless of whether the parents are well or poorly educated. Size of library staff and variety of book collections prove extremely significant factors in achievement outcomes.

Classroom-based and extracurricular strategies to improve reading skills are welcome but they can't replace a well-staffed library that is accessible to all students -- when they need it, rather than when it's convenient for school administrators.

The idea of "literacy mentors" is worthy, but it is not the same thing as having unfettered access to diverse books under the guidance of teacher-librarians trained to instruct children in how to use a library as an information retrieval tool; how to critically evaluate the information found there; how to employ that information scholastically; how to discover the pleasure in reading widely.

This raises the most important reason for having full-time teacher-librarians on duty.

They are also professional readers who know the needs of individual children over time and know the materials most appropriate for them. They are best positioned to help build reading skills incrementally while developing a child's appreciation for the recreational pleasures of literature -- the best possible incentive for continuing to read.

Teacher-librarians provide a kind of continuity that is not possible when children are exposed each year to a new teacher -- however skilled -- who must learn each child's skill sets and interests anew. Because librarians interact with the same children as they move from grade to grade, they can assess developmental needs over time, fostering reading skills by connecting kids with the right books for their ages and interests.

Ideally, this kind of incremental development would happen in every home. But we know many parents don't read much -- an international survey of adult literacy found that 22 per cent of Canadians have great difficulty reading while another 26 per cent have limited skills. Children who are not immersed in a reading culture at home and who then have their access to guided reading at school limited are unfairly disadvantaged.

If that U.S. study found that students in a school where the librarian plays an instructional role in the library tend to achieve higher than average test scores, it also found that success is amplified when school librarians and classroom teachers collaborate to include the library and its resources in the curriculum.

Libraries remain at the core of all our modern information technologies -- and that includes the Internet and those computers some politicians think are a substitute for books.

Nope, quality school libraries remain the crucial tool for advancing literacy.

Oct. 25 is National School Libraries Day. The education minister would serve himself and the rest of us better if he began listening carefully to what the teacher-librarians say about the real threat to literacy in B.C. Because they've got it right.


© The Vancouver Sun 2004




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