"Quality school libraries remain a crucial tool
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
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
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