Friday, July 25, 2014

The Loss of Libraries and Librarians

The subject of libraries is near and dear to my heart. In a second life I may come back as a librarian – if there are any libraries left.  My elementary school had a tiny little library; it was lovely.  I looked forward to checking out books every week – sometimes I checked out books that were big and fat - books I couldn’t read yet, but books that gave me great pleasure to carry around while I periodically turned the pages. At our public library I would check out books by the dozen. I would check out books that were meant for adults, books on topics I had never heard of and I would stack them in my bedroom to look at - without any pressure or requirement to reach a certain reading level or to write a paragraph when I finished reading them.  I also read books meant for children my age – I read Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, E.B. White, and more. As I got older I found myself enamored with various mystery series, then on to studies of various religions, anthropology, a spattering of science fiction, and poetry. I read what I wanted when I wanted. As I grew my tastes changed, but I knew that at the library I could pretty much find anything, and if I couldn’t find it the librarian would be there to help me sift through the card catalog (yes I am that old). I must confess that my parents rarely read to me, but I was continually surrounded by mounds of books as they were both avid readers.  I knew that books were important – sacred – and could answer my questions and solve my problems. I knew that books could help me dream big. There was something about the library and the librarian that made me feel at home – I felt I belonged.

As a child, I knew that the librarian was always close by to assist in my exploration of the world – and ultimately, myself. I could share my interests with a librarian and suddenly – voila – I was surrounded by books that spoke to me - books that made me feel whole - books that gave me a better sense of my identity, who I was and what I might become.  Just as a child plays dress up, I found that I played dress up through books. One day I was an anthropologist surrounded by books that an anthropologist might have. The next week I was a poet carrying Emily Dickinson with me everywhere I went. For a bit I was an artist and I became quite good at water color painting with the assistance of some lovely library books. I can only imagine what it must be like to observe children come and go from a library, while helping them find resources, and watching as they grow and their interests grow with them. Those stories can only be told by the librarians of the world. I am not a librarian so I cannot speak for them – but it seems like it would be such a joyful job to help people find resources that fill their souls or lead them down their life’s path. I have never taken libraries for granted - to be allowed to take home all of these resources for free still amazes me.  And truly, it has always felt like a bit of a celebration for me when I visit a library.  I cannot anticipate what will happen – what I will find – and what lovely gifts will come home with me and somehow, alter my world. 

I watch libraries closely now, in this world that feels much harder and colder. Libraries seem to shut down by the day  - hitting hard in areas where access to information - for free - is desperately needed. There are also many libraries with no librarian to steer the ship. My own son has no librarian at his public high school. The elementary school where I teach has no librarian yet we have a phenomenal library – but without a librarian, truly, the library has no heart – or perhaps, it’s like it has been lulled to sleep via some cruel curse - and only a librarian can bring it back to life. It’s a strange phenomenon. If you have ever spent time in a library where no librarian exists, perhaps you understand. The feeling of community and belonging does not exist. The feeling of excitement and the possibility of discovering the unknown is flat – I can’t sense it and I can’t see it.  I watch the children check out books, but many of the children who have questions, many of the children who are unfamiliar with authors and particular series, many of the children who don’t know that the library is a world that can and will open new doors for them, often end up randomly picking a book and sitting in line until check out time is over. Meanwhile, the teacher is busy doing the check out – there is no time to talk to the children and find out what makes them tick – there is no time to walk them to the bin of books that will light up their faces and change their thinking or their view of the world. 

I think about my own knowledge of books and how I can navigate a library fairly well due to the fact that I grew up around books and I am surrounded by books in my own home.  Many of the students I work with do not have any books at home – when one doesn’t have books at home – how does that affect their experience in a library with no librarian to help them along the way? I think about my first time eating sushi – small town girl from Missouri no less – and I remember being incredibly thankful that I was with experienced sushi eaters who could assist me in knowing what to get, how to eat it and how to enjoy it and feel at ease in the restaurant. I know it’s a weak comparison – but I am trying to think of how I might feel in an environment that is new to me – and how do I react? And how would I react in a sushi restaurant if I had to pick and choose without the help of experienced restaurant staff or friends? Might I simply walk out? 

Now imagine being a young child. 

I just wonder, what is it like for the children who have not grown up in a literacy rich environment as they attempt to navigate a library on their own – without a librarian? What literacy experiences have been denied to them because they are unsure of how to navigate a room full of books, other informational resources, and technology? What solutions to problems have been denied to them because they didn’t know the answers to their questions were sitting on the shelf  to the right? Which authors – who might have spoken to their souls – were denied to them because they had no idea – for example – that Gary Paulsen’s love for dogs was as great as theirs? And at what point – did the child simply stop asking questions?

Do you remember that moment when you read a book and you said to yourself – this author speaks to me – and you were certain that you and that author would be good friends if only you had a chance to meet over coffee. I remember that moment. I remember it again and again. I am certain that Emily Dickinson and I would have been fast friends. Also Anne Frank - I devoured every single book I could find about her. I also connected with characters in books. Without question I would have been Ayla’s closest friend and ally - if only I could have leaped into the Jean Auel Earth’s Children series. These experiences – these books – these authors – these characters - these librarians who have assisted me in pursuing my interests - have helped shape who I am today.

I want to dig even deeper – I want to dig into the concept of a library as the cornerstone of democracy in each public school – and/or community.  Simply put – knowledge is power. Access to knowledge is expanded through the experienced librarian who is ready to help – the experienced librarian who listens to the young child as he or she shares his/her life stories. Don’t think for one second that Google can match a librarian – Google is only letting you discover what Google thinks you ought to discover. Google manages us, maneuvers us, and gathers data every step of the way as we search for information.

Let's also consider Red Box. If you can’t afford to buy DVDs these days, and you can’t afford Netflix, Direct TV, whatever it may be – you might find yourself headed to Red Box. Red Box will give you limited options. You can pick from a few things and that’s it – Red Box controls what you can view – therefore, ultimately, it could shape your view of reality – your view of what is out there in the world. Can you imagine the "Red Box" of libraries?

The library, as the cornerstone of democracy in each school, is the hub for problem solving, the hub for exploration, action, talk, debate, research and more - this is where ideas are formed.

If the library lacks a librarian – who do you go to in order to get the resource you need - or perhaps find out if such a resource exists – whether it be a website, a book or any other form of media? Who chooses the resources for a library if there is no librarian to purchase them? The librarian is the person who has a keen sense of what each individual in the library community wishes to discover – and the librarian has the knowledge and expertise to find these books and resources.  I can attest to the challenges in ordering for a library – I have had to do this for two years now at my school and I cringe to think about how I could have done it better – I am not a librarian and I do not possess the knowledge needed in order to purchase thousands of books for a library. If there is no librarian – and you more or less are stuck with the “Red Box” of libraries – who is deciding what you view – what information you have access too?  If you think even more deeply about this – a librarian  has no financial profit  to be gained from you – the librarian is truly there to help you pursue your interests and ultimately your life’s dreams. What does Red Box want from you?  What does Red Box have to gain? Think about that when you see or hear about the new libraries that are strictly online. The librarian is not gathering data points on you like Google or Red Box– the librarian is developing a relationship with you and simply wishes to help you as you think, question and dream.

The librarian opens the door to democracy.

Let’s take a look into what we know about research on libraries and librarians. We know that librarians and excellent libraries improve student reading achievement. I could go on about this for pages and pages. It’s been stated again and again. Just view this link And this link. And this. Or how about this or this or this. Krashen states, "In recent years two studies have confirmed that investing in the school library can not only make a difference, it can actually offset the impact of poverty on reading achievement." 

Yet libraries and librarians do not create the profit that come from online testing, online common core curriculum and chrome books galore. 

Libraries and librarians increase the opportunity to think – they increase questioning – they increase problem solving and the ability to discover truths. Discovering truths and solving problems is a dangerous thing in a country that is determined to keep things standardized  -  in order to keep data flowing quickly to the corporations  - in order to manage us while profiting and privatizing. Democracy and thinking is messy and cannot be standardized – that makes profit and privatization via standardized data collection rather difficult.

I have been told on occasion that there is no need for libraries and librarians!  We have technology!!!! Technology will not notice the small shy child who enters the library with questions in his head that crave an answer. Technology will not notice the young girl wandering aimlessly amidst the books – the young girl who is unsure of what books interest her because she has never checked out a book and has no books at home. Technology will not hold a child’s hand and smile while headed to the "books on CD" section.  Technology will not share books with the child, after building a relationship with a child over the past month and now knowing clearly that this child loves castle books and anything related to natural disasters. Technology will not continually try to tap into a child’s interest by reading aloud stories again and again while listening to the child’s cues as the child laughs, or her eyes light up, or she leans closer as the story builds – or she simply grabs the book and says to the librarian – can I take this home? Technology will not hand the young five year old a library card and say, “Welcome, you are now a member of our library.” Technology will not offer a warm chair to the elderly homeless man who comes in daily to read the newspaper, while also checking to see if he has eaten that day. Technology will not develop a relationship with the young mother who is trying to find a job (and comes to the library daily), while simultaneously learning English, and is unsure of what resources - books, media and/or individuals - might best help her in her community.  Need I go on? 

I watch the disappearance of librarians and libraries across our country and with each disappearance I see another stone removed from the foundation of our democracy.  I see another obstacle placed in our way as we attempt to organize as communities and come together to support one another in reclaiming our democracy. Racine, Wisconsin just purged 8,000 books from their public school libraries. What does that mean? What is the reasoning? Who is controlling access to information in Racine and how did they make the decision that the children of Racine no longer need these 8,000 books? What information will now be denied to the community of Racine – and why?

We are at war with those who wish to tear down our democracy by denying us access to information that is developed and maintained by librarians who can advocate for the needs of their communities. We know that libraries and librarians increase reading achievement. We know they build and support community. We most certainly know that their existence is vital if we are to reclaim our democracy and develop problem solving citizens. It is not enough to simply have a library. We must remember that libraries create community – and community is created by building relationships – and relationships and free access to information in our libraries are fostered by human beings, by librarians who care about the individuals in their communities and will speak up for them. We must remember that at this crucial time in our country – it will be the grassroots efforts of communities that will reclaim our public schools and our democracy. Denying communities and children access to libraries and librarians, who are advocates for our communities,  is an excellent way to stop us - isn’t it?


  1. Not sure my comment was saved. I just wanted to thank you for this beautiful piece about libraries. In my district we were the first to go, to be attacked as not qualified to teach, and much more. This was all part of their privatization plan -- the same year my job was cut as a district librarian, they approved 50 new charters and proposed laying off 5800 more teachers. Arts and library teachers, nurses and social workers and counselors are always the first to go.
    Thank you for UOO - you give us all hope in these bleak times.

  2. Are you sure you weren't a librarian in a past life?

  3. Thank you for your passion, your voice, your wisdom, and your willingness to #leadoutloud. I'm a middle school librarian in a district that considers librarians nonnegotiable and will share your post widely. Keep writing. Kids deserve it! Thanks. Sue Kowalski. East Syracuse minoa school district.

  4. Thank you for an excellent post. I am very concerned about the libraries in my school district. The high school librarian, who was moved to the Art department several years ago, retired this year and was not replaced. The middle school librarian who retires at the end of this year, has been assigned to teach social studies 3 of the 4 block periods this year. At the elementary school, I see 9 classes per day with very little aide time so I need to monitor the checkout process and am unable to help students find the "gems" you mentioned. I will retire by June 2016 and have no idea what next year will bring for me and the library. It is very depressing! With your permission, I would like to copy your post and send it to the board of education members and hope that they would read it and consider making some positive changes.

  5. Thank you for all the kind words everyone. And yes, Donna, you most definitely may send to your board members! I hope it will help! Best, Peg

  6. Thank you so much for this wonderful essay. I am a parent and author in Beaverton, Oregon. WE lost our school librarians three years ago. We now have 3 district-level librarians serving 39,000+ students in 51 schools. Obviously, the relationships and personalized collection development of which you speak are not possible with this ratio of students to librarian. A group of community members is advocating for the return librarians to our schools, so that the children entering school today will have the benefits of strong school libraries that you describe. You can follow our advocacy effort here: