K-12 libraries: How the national library endowment will help

Kerri Smith became a school librarian after seeing how the right books could bring a Columbine survivor out of his shell.

Photo: Kerri Smith became a school librarian after seeing how the right books and talk could bring a survivor of the Columbine massacre out of his shell.

Our best school librarians won’t just instill in students a love of books and learning. They will also strive to cultivate a work ethic, curiosity, persistence,  empathy, and an appreciation of harmony at home and on the job. The librarians won’t always succeed. But it is only right that we give them the resources to try.

With that in mind, the endowment will help develop a whole generation of digitally savvy school librarians—as many as possible from poor and working-class families—who can truly connect with their students in rural areas, factory towns, and depressed urban neighborhoods. The librarians’ tech prowess will itself serve as one form of connection. “Develop” can mean anything from the availability of work-study scholarships to courses in areas ranging from psychology and bibliotherapy to digital-era outreach. The same programs could also help present and future public librarians working with young people. But gung-ho school libraries are key, since they are in the same buildings as the students and, in fact, make up four-fifths of all U.S. libraries.

Just how can school librarians connect with students, especially at-risk ones, to improve them as both young scholars and people? Here is an example involving paper books, although, as you’ll see in time, ebooks and other tech could have helped as well:

The Columbine massacre had traumatized one of Kerri Smith’s high school students. He wore a black trench coat, he apparently did not bathe,  his grades were slipping, and he seldom spoke. “I couldn’t get anything out of this kid…I was desperate,” she recalled 26 minutes into the video below. But everyday Ms. Smith saw him read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, and, as a lover of fantasy, she decided to do the same and talk about the books with the boy. The result? His marks shot up, and the next year he became her classroom aide and helped teach a class. Along with similar cases, that was why Ms. Smith decided to become not just a teacher, which she already was, but also a school librarian. The old cliche holds true: books can transform children’s lives. By themselves, however, as Ms. Smith’s experience shows, books and other collection items are not always enough. We also need librarians, especially well-prepared school librarians for low-income areas where student may not benefit from the encouragement and role models that already bolster middle- and upper-class children.

Not every child lives through a Columbine nightmare. But millions of K-12 students suffer less dramatic forms of trauma in their own homes—impeding their academic performance, jeopardizing their health, and increasing the chances of their getting into fights. Properly prepared school librarians with both teaching and library credentials can befriend students like the Columbine survivor and stand a better chance of turning their lives around. And what better way than for books and other library  items and services to serve as tools to make the connections?

Books can also launch K-12 students and others on journeys of self-discovery. Near the end of Hillbilly Elegy, author J. D. Vance tells how he felt “weird” talking to a counselor about childhood traumas. But then “I did go to the library, and I learned that behavior I considered commonplace was the subject of pretty intense academic study.” He found that “four in every ten” blue-collar people “had faced multiple instances of childhood trauma” ranging from parental violence to alcoholism or drug abuse. Via printed books, ebooks and other online resources, school librarians can introduce at-risk students to a larger world so the children acquire a better sense of true normalcy. The operative word is “can,” since not all students will respond.

But within the realm of school libraries, here is what can often help at-risk students and others—in terms of connecting with them and in other ways:

–Realization that schools alone cannot with work miracles at a time when millions of parents must juggle multiple jobs (assuming they can find work in the first place) and when other issue exist such as the drug epidemic. Even the stress of poverty may itself impair students’ ability to learn.

–Using early childhood education, related outreach, family literacy programs, and other strategies to reach students at an early age and following though. The Columbine survivor, despite personal problems, had a head start on millions of others—he at least cared about books in the first place. Endowment-financed activities will promote books and reading among both students and parents.

–Awareness that existing resources will not suffice. Consider the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESEA). It can help in areas ranging from technological resources to professional development opportunities for school librarians. But it is not a substitute for the additional funding and other assistance that the endowment would make available. Furthermore, we must look ahead for the future when policymakers may roll back existing legislation even though ESEA is alive for now. Losses from past cutbacks still plague us. See statistics on employment of librarians, including school librarians. The number of full- and part-time school librarians fell from 80,000 in 2004 to a little fewer than 66,000 in 2014. The beauty of books and multimedia is that students can teach themselves to a great extent, but we will still need librarians to help them find and absorb the most relevant and authoritative materials, as well as mentor and inspire students, especially at-risk ones. It is folly to see technology as a full substitute. Beware of shortcuts. Creating successful school libraries is not like writing computer programs, where a few brilliant people may achieve better results than hundreds of good ones.

–Acknowledgement that conventional text is not always the optimal way to reach all students. Many students, especially boys, will respond better to ebooks than to paper books. Others may benefit from text to speech. Cell phones are a good way to reach receptive young people, but they are not a panacea as a platform for ebooks or audiobooks. Screens may be too small for some readers; they will prefer tablets or E Ink devices. The endowment will make more resources available for different platforms and foster ebook literacy. Encouragingly, brand-name tablets now sell for as little as $50 from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and while screen resolution could be better for ebooks, the tablets will be at least usable for many. Resolutions of even basic models will improve eventually.

–More electronic books and multimedia items and other content, via national collections, and in some cases more money for buying paper books. The new technology will facilitate sharing of digital content and at least help narrow the funding gaps between rich and poor schools. The average school library contained only around 13,500 books as of 2012, a fraction of the collection at a typical public library, which itself could be larger. Students will be more inclined to read if they can be led to, and then read, books matching their exact interests. More current books, which the new technology makes possible, will also help. In the ever-changing area of health and medicine, Dewey range 610-619, the average copyright date as of 2012 was 1996. Needless to say, more endowment-funded availability of content from dynamic databases could likewise help students stay current; not all authoritative information is free on the Internet.

As for physical books, there will still be a place for them. Kerri Smith was able to see the trench-coated student reading Wheel of Time day after day. What’s more, physical books can be discovered on the shelves without need for any electronic device.

That said, paper books should be viewed as gateways to electronic books. The chances of finding exactly the right book for the right child—in line with the Five Laws of Library Science—will be so much greater if the student can choose from a national collection. The Open eBook initiative for schools with children from low-income families is a good start but not sufficient. It depends on donated books from publishers and has started out with a collection of only 10,000 titles.

–Information literacy not only in a Web context but also a book context.

–Recruitment and retainment of the right people as school librarians—people who care about other people, not just technology and content. Beware of laying off dedicated, fully trained librarians to make way for replacements without the same qualifications. There is a place for gung-ho volunteers or, in support and training jobs, nonlibrarian techies. But that is not the same as forcing trained school librarians out of school libraries and closing the libraries or turning them into soulless “media centers” or book warehouses. In one school librarian’s words, she and peers teach students “how to learn to learn.” That should be the goal of every teacher, in every class, but school librarians are the true specialists in learning through research. Furthermore,  they can help faculty members in different areas coordinate lesson plans and know early on what content exists for teachers and students.

–More socioeconomic diversity among school librarians. We need more “hillbilly” librarians and more from blue-collar homes, including households without books. No, we should not compromise standards. Rather, school librarians and others should strive to identify promising students early on and encourage them them to join the profession. Work-study scholarships from the endowment could make this possible. The successful graduates of these programs would be duly rewarded with salaries paid for entirely or partly by the endowment, just so they worked in low-income or depressed areas—ideally their hometowns.

–More racial, ethnic, and gender diversity if we want school librarians to be the very most effective role models. In 2010, just 6,160 of the 118,666 credentialed librarians (not the total number) were black and a mere 3,661 were Latinos; this includes  all kinds of librarians, not just school ones. Only 572 African-American male librarians were found among the credentialed. Does this mean that white female librarians cannot connect with male members of minorities? Of course not. But just as newspapers have learned that the presence of minority reporters improves news coverage, so it is that serious affirmative action could go a long way in the library world. Most Americans by mid century will be members of minorities. While more recent figures encompassing credentialed and noncredentialed librarians show an improvement in racial and ethnic diversity, we still have a long way to go. This isn’t to say that we should forget socioeconomic and gender diversity—it should count as at least as much as race and ethnicity in affirmative action programs. Eight-four percent of librarians are female. The endowment will work to increase the number of both female and male school librarians but especially keep in mind the need to raise the percentage of the former. At the same time, we need to be realistic. Cultural norms are a barrier to the recruitment of more males, even though we should try. The inclusion of makerspaces in libraries, as well as more emphasis than now on books of special interest to boys, including those from blue-collar families, will help.

–More diversity in books and other content, which endowment grants to writers and perhaps publishers will encourage. In 2013, when  U.S. publishers released some 5,000 books for young children and teens, just 63 were by black authors and a mere 93 were about African-Americans.

–Long enough hours at school and public libraries, so children can use them as safe havens if home environments are too chaotic. Ideally transportation arrangements can be worked out.

Details: Parents want more cooperation between schools and public libraries, and not just in in regard to summer reading programs. When K-12 classes require certain books or other items, the material should be available from public libraries even if school libraries can’t oblige. Of course, with electronic resources and sufficient funding, the material can be everywhere. In a related vein, see a Pew report on parents, children, libraries and reading. “94% of parents say libraries are important for their children and 79% describe libraries as “very important.”

Credit: The Sioux Falls school system produced the oh-so-persuasive video featuring Kerri Smith and other librarians. Also see the video below, from Capstone Publishers, on the changing role of school librarians in the 21st century.

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