Dear Board of Education members,
It is budget season across the country. Now is the time when school districts need to make hard choices. Why are those choices so hard? Because of our country’s serial underfunding of public schools, which has been worsening for years. In my home state of New Jersey, public schools have been short-changed by over $6 billion since 2010, according to Save Our Schools New Jersey. Underfunded budgets require boards to make cuts to essential programs, and this sad reality is being played out everywhere, including in my home district. I feel for school board members who are being forced to weigh options which should never have been on the table in the first place.
But with that said, there is one decision you should never consider making, and that is to get rid of your school librarian or library. School libraries and the certified school librarians who run them are essential, never a luxury. They are vital parts of the school community and, with little fanfare, actively support that community’s growth. The presence of computers and maker spaces can not replace a certified school librarian installed in a library filled with books. Don’t be fooled by the latest edujargon or by some article that you read.
Don’t get me wrong. Maker spaces are amazing. They foster creativity, expression, exploration, design thinking, and so much more. The library is the perfect place for one. As Diana Rendina stated in her article “Advocating for Makerspaces in Libraries,” “While it might vary from one person to the next, most would agree that one of the main missions of the library has always been to make resources and materials accessible to all, regardless of socioeconomic status, intelligence, status (gifted, special education), gender, etc. Traditionally, these resources were print materials like books, periodicals, and reference materials. In the past 20 years or so, this has expanded to include access to digital resources and tools, like internet-connected computers, ebooks, databases, web tools, etc. I feel that this is now evolving again to include tools for creation. Maker spaces are resources and materials that our students need access to, both for class research and for exploration. It makes perfect sense for these tools and materials to be made accessible to students in and through the library.”
I could not agree more. But they should never be added if it means the sacrifice of a certified school librarian. They are not substitutes for all a fully-staffed library offers.
Joyce Valenza stated it best when she said, “Teacher librarians are often the only professionals in the building who address the development of proud digital citizens and leaders. We teach them to be kind bloggers, tweeters, and networkers, to understand their digital footprints, to build academic digital footprints, and to respect the intellectual property of others when they remix and engage in new forms of communication and storytelling. We move learners from digital citizenship to digital leadership, to participation, ethics and agency.”
That’s something that a computer can never do.
A good school librarian is the technology leader in the building. She or he is the one who is teaching students how to use technology in a way that supports the growth of their abilities. They’re the ones introducing them to the latest, most helpful tools, such as the EasyBib Add On in Google Docs, or Canva to make professional quality posters, magazines, and graphics. The school librarian is the one working closely with teachers, directing them on how to infuse technology into the curriculum. They are the ones showing students the websites and databases they’ve carefully curated so that they go along with their units of study. I can’t even begin to count up all of the Symbaloos and LiveBinders that I have made for students. I would bet that some Board of Ed members don’t even know what those are, but their kids most likely do—if their school still has a school librarian, that is.
School libraries are, for many students, the first place where there is exposure to books and the joys of reading. Valenza summed up this idea nicely as well. “An antidote to the often narrowed curricula we see in modern school culture, school librarians introduce young people to a rich world of books and literature, options they can select themselves. We lead in building a school’s reading culture, acknowledging whatever containers stories may take.”
I am writing this open letter today because I do not want you to make the same mistake the South Orange Maplewood School District did. The board discussed cutting librarians in an attempt to balance the budget. Even after a petition signed by over 750 residents, countless letters, a statement by the American Librarian Association, the American Association of School Librarians, the New Jersey Library Association, along with other highly distinguished leaders in the library field, and the President of the New Jersey Association of School Librarians speaking to the Board of Education twice, the board still cut two school librarian positions as well as funding for all the libraries in the district. This means that both middle schools are forced to share one librarian, and the high school, with nearly 2,000 students, will have only one librarian. They actually plan on putting maker spaces in those libraries, even though there will not be a full-time certified librarian there to work with the students. Avoid the same shortsighted error!
A school library without a librarian should not even be called a library, in my opinion. My friend and principal at the Panther Academy of Earth and Space Science in the Paterson (NJ) Public Schools, Gregg Festa, agrees. “A library is not a library without a librarian, as [librarians] will always be the necessary bond between the space, the tools and resources and the students and teachers accessing them.”
School Library Journal’s 2015 School Librarian of the Year, Kristina Holzweiss, recently commented to me that, “The library is a classroom just like others in the school. You need certified subject area and special area teachers….why is the library any different?”
I agree. As the only South Orange Maplewood School Board member to speak out against the library cuts, Johanna Wright, often says, “When you know better, you do better.”
You now know better. So please do better.
Everylibrary.org has launched a petition platform to tell local education agencies and local decision makers to take a stand for their school libraries.
Elissa Malespina is the professional development co-chair for the International Society for Technology in Education’s Librarian Network and the school librarian at Somerville Middle School in New Jersey as well as a 2014 BAMMY award winner.
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