November 18, 2017

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Author Nora Baskin Rallies To Save School Librarian’s Job

Baskin (center, with scarf) speaks to Mt. Kisco fourth-graders. Polos is to her right.

Baskin (center, with scarf) speaks to Mt. Kisco fourth-graders. 

 

A few short weeks ago, the Bedford (NY) Central School District Board of Education was planning to bridge a budget gap by eliminating elementary school librarian positions. While such moves are common, it still didn’t fly with Nora Raleigh Baskin, author of Anything but Typical, Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story , and Ruby on the Outside (S&S, 2010, June, 2016; 2015). The main character of the latter, Ruby, attends Mt. Kisco Elementary School, a real school in that district with librarian Susan Polos on staff.

Baskin visited fourth and fifth graders at the school about 40 miles north of midtown Manhattan, who were, needless to say, among her biggest fans. It was there she forged a friendship with Polos—and began to see what it really meant to be a librarian. “For me, it was an incredible learning experience,” says Baskin, who also spoke with Linda Williams of the Connecticut State Library to gain deeper understanding of what the role involved.

What she found out prompted her inspiration to pen an essay, below, which she sent to the Bedford board of ed. “It was all for Susan, who has a librarian’s heart of gold,” adds Baskin.

Last night, the Bedford Central School District Board of Education adopted a budget for 2016–17 that includes an elementary library program staffed with certified elementary librarians. Now it has to be voted on by the community on May 17.

“I am so grateful to Nora,” shared Polos. “I am certain that if she, along with members of the school community, had not rallied….the cut to the elementary library program would have stuck. Nora’s essay is especially appreciated; her perspective is different from others.”

We couldn’t agree more.

My childhood was filled with bikes rides to my town library in the summer, loading up on books, stuffing them into my backpack, and bringing them home to read, usually with a big bowl of ice cream propped up on my knees. During the school year, free time in the library meant choosing books to keep me company and allowing me the only place where I could pursue an interest I had acquired on my own.

But when I got to college, my work-study assignment was at the library, and suddenly I was privy to a whole world behind the stacks, where many people worked; not standing at a circulation desk telling everyone to hush, but doing research, documenting, and categorizing. I had had no idea they were there. I had no idea there was such a thing as a Masters of Library Sciences, which involved much more than putting books back on the shelves. As a matter of fact, that was my job. And I was not, as I was greatly disappointed to discover, a librarian.

And yet, most ironically, since I grew to be an author of young adult novels, I still had no real understanding of the importance of librarians until recently. Sure, I loved libraries and I interacted with librarians all the time when visiting schools on author visits, but it wasn’t until one amazing librarian, Susan Polos (and there really are SUPER librarians), who had become a friend, was facing a library crisis. The school district of Bedford, New York, like many other towns, was having a budget short-fall, and the solution seemed to be reducing the number of librarians in the elementary schools.

Okay, so what’s the big deal? A few librarians are let go?  The rest rotate around? I mean, it’s an extremely wealthy community overall. Those kids will have access to books, no question.

What’s the worst that can happen?

But since it was a friend, and she was so deeply upset (although she herself would not lose a job, she would lose the meaningful position of elementary librarian), I starting asking questions and the answers came fast and furious, ending with an understanding of something I had not taken the time to consider before.

What will happen when we stop valuing our libraries and librarians?

First, one has to agree with the supposition that reading makes you smart.  Smart-er.  I don’t know of one highly intelligent person that doesn’t read. Then let’s imagine a world without libraries as we know them, meaning you might have a space filled with books, magazines, computers, and videos, and maybe, even someone to check out books and tell people to be quiet, but no librarian.

How will students learn to find information about interests that are not covered by their classroom teacher?

If students have only their classroom teacher to help them discover the world of well, the world, that exposure will be, by definition, limited.  While many teachers now have their own classroom libraries, it is important to realize that those book choices were made by one person for his or her individual classroom, not someone considering the entire school population or community, as librarians are specifically trained to do. But sure, why not?  Drop another task on classroom teachers, to study library review journals, keep up with trends in publishing, both educational and trade, and, hey, while you’re at it, let them spring for the cost of dozens of new books each year which may or may not be appropriate when they are tapped to teach a new grade level. And no biggie if your kid’s classroom teacher has less money or access to new books than the classroom next door, right?

Simply put, and without using dramatic language, our children will be less intelligent.

Who will aid the classroom teacher in finding appropriate resources for their curriculum? 

Librarians spend a great deal of their time in graduate school learning how to research, how to find the information which teachers then teach.  Librarians contribute to student achievement by collaborating with classroom teachers and providing them with resources to help plan and deliver instruction.  As well, students themselves need to learn how to use a library properly. Presently libraries are this country’s only free public education after high school, while the education gap between rich and poor is growing larger every year.

But let’s say you’re not interested in all this teach-a-man-to-fish-stuff, because you have enough fish to feed your family, then you might be interested to know that studies have shown, again and again, that in schools with full-time certified librarians, well-funded library programs, strong collections, and more time allotted to visit the library have students who do better on standardized tests.

Who needs librarians these days because kids can read and look up anything they want on the Internet?

You don’t need to look any further than Microsoft’s failed experiment, Tay, a tweeter Chat Bot that was programmed to mimic speech patterns of teenagers and “got smarter” the more people interacted with her. Tay was almost immediately tweeting back vile, racist and misogynist comments she had garnered from her followers. Just at a time when young people, more than ever, need help steering through the overwhelming access to an unlimited amount of information, librarians are being sourced out to that very same technology.

Librarians spend their careers picking and choosing the right books for their communities, a population that is never stagnant, but grows and changes. They don’t buy just any book that comes across their desk, or is hawked to them by sales reps. They carefully read reviews. They attend conferences on education like they are going to rock concerts. Librarians pay careful attention to things like diversity, demographics, and the personal, individualized needs of the community they serve.

And yes, there are less than enthusiastic librarians and far from stellar library collections, but to defund your school library because it isn’t as vibrant as it should be is akin to doing away with third grade because your kid had a “bad third grade teacher” this year.

So why is it, so often, the librarian is the first to be cut?

The first reason is often because they can. In New York, for example, it is state-mandated that all public secondary schools have a certified librarian, but not so for elementary schools. It is as simple as that.

The second reason is a bit more abstract. Librarians are invisible. Parents don’t really hear about their child’s time in the library. They hear about gym, and the overload of math homework, the cafeteria food, and baseball try-outs. But the work the librarian has done to support all of those activities is virtually unseen. As well, there is usually one, maybe two librarians, as opposed to sixty, eighty, perhaps hundreds of teachers and staff in a school. Who can blame someone for not noticing the librarian?

But, if all this isn’t enough for you to reconsider the value of your librarian, let’s just bring it right home.

Are you sitting down?

When there are no librarians left, book collections will be either quickly diminished, or filled with the books that corporate America wants your kids to be reading.

Don’t fool yourself. Money runs this country. Money determines which books are promoted on Amazon and displayed in Barnes & Noble, not a hankering to enrich your child’s brain.  It won’t take long for publishers to see that their higher quality literary fiction is not being purchased by schools and libraries. And they will stop acquiring them.  I am not saying there isn’t room, or a need, for the commercial books that kids enjoy. Fun books, stupid books, silly books. Gateway books, if you will. Romance vampire novels and Goosebumps.

And I am not saying that bestsellers are not, sometimes, high quality literature, but this is certainly not the case all the time. There are hundreds and hundreds of important, meaningful titles; books that might make your child feel less lonely. Give them hope. Show them a new world.

These are the books that appear in B&N for a week after publication and only have a life after that because of the school/ library market. These are the books that are not bought because they are bestsellers, or promoted to death by some salesman, or made into a movie last year, but rather, because a librarian, somewhere, thought of that one reluctant reader who needed just the right book that would open her up to a lifetime of reading. Or that awkward boy, who sits alone every day, who could use that one perfect book that his librarian just read about in a professional journal. Or the new book she just heard everyone talking about at an ALA conference, the one she thinks will help her school’s community become more empathetic.

More aware.

More, well, smart.

In all fairness, I have to disclose that I am an author of that kind of literature. The kind you won’t find on the bestseller list or the shelves of B&N. The kind that makes children think, and ask questions, but maybe only speaks to a certain kind of reader. But maybe changes their life in some small, but powerful, way.

When I finally got around to learning the truth about libraries because of my friend, Susan Polos, I realized that much more than the job of elementary librarians was on the line. Indeed, my own career was on the line.  Maybe the sad reality is that things really need to get personal before we pay any attention to them.

So pay attention people, because this is personal, for all of us.

Thank you for taking the time to read this.

Warmly,

Nora Raleigh Baskin

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Christina Vercelletto About Christina Vercelletto

Christina Vercelletto is School Library Journal’s former news editor. An award-winning writer and editor, Vercelletto has held staff positions at Babytalk, Parenting, Scholastic Parent & Child, and NYMetroParents.com.

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