A K-12 librarian on the urgent need for a national library endowment

Update, May 2018: Read School Librarians, Where Art Thou? in School Library Journal and Schools See Steep Drop in Librarians, New Analysis Finds in Education Week. The decline in the past two decades has been around 20 percent, with minority children among the main victims. 

By Paula Wyatt
K-12 Library Relations Director, LibraryEndowment.org

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The creation of a national library endowment is essential for strong libraries.

I am on the front lines as a school librarian in a large Midwestern city, and I can tell you we are losing battles—from funding to public sentiments about libraries and librarians.

To preserve democracy as we know it, we must protect our school, public, and academic libraries. Freedom of information is a right for everyone, not just an elite few. My own parents were not library patrons, so I had never been to a library until I started school. I could not get over my ability to choose books myself and take as many home as I could carry. It was the first time I can remember feeling empowered, and I was certain I could solve any problem with the right information. For me it was better than being in the proverbial candy shop.

When I began my teaching career in 1992, however, the librarian at my school infuriated me. The children did not have access to quality materials, and the librarian often pushed his own agendas on the students. My second graders complained how much they hated “library.” I mustered the courage to air my concerns with my principal, and he gave me one year to get my credentials and take the position and put my ideas into action. Until then, becoming a librarian had never crossed my mind.

In the late 90s, when I took on my first position as a school librarian, we had a librarian in every school, with their own budget line, and my district had a department of libraries teeming with people to support the schools with tons of resources. My advocacy was limited to my students. I immediately changed the curriculum to enlighten them on the importance of libraries—for all—as community cornerstones. A place to go to when you need answers, when you need rest, when you need help. I started applying for grants to create a good, welcoming atmosphere in line with my vision.

Fast forward 20 years. A former colleague, now a principal, needed a librarian with a vision for her school and reached out to me. It was like a time warp back two decades. The space was decrepit and the collection ancient. No technology was available for the students. I reached out to the department of libraries to reintroduce myself and found it decimated. I learned that five out of six librarians in local public schools had been cut over the years and all those library doors had been shuttered and their collections were no longer available to students. Parents of former students were angry I took the library job. “No one needs librarians anymore—we have the Internet,” explained one parent, and another told me, “Well, you are a dying breed!”

Most shocking was when I showed students, including eighth graders, how to use our Chromebooks to find books on the shelf. We looked up titles, and I showed them how the numbers online corresponded to the labels on the spines. They looked at me in awe, clapped, and asked me to do it again. That’s how out of touch they were with the benefits of modern K-12 libraries and knowledgeable librarians.

For my students, the first place I went for help was to my local public library branch. The librarian was excited to partner with me and showed me unbelievable resources available to students not only at the physical branch but online. Live homework help, databases, thousands of ebooks, editors, movies, music, and more. The resources are endless. I began to think of my library as a “learning library”—with training wheels, so to speak, to prepare students to navigate and use public resources.

One stumbling block, however, is that many of my students lack access to a device at home that can be used to access many of these applications that are available. Some own phones, but most have limited data or the phones are too small to be productive for the entire scope of services. I am working on finding grants to expand an exciting project. My goal here is to increase students usage of the public library by allowing them to check out Amazon Fire tablets from me and use them at school to download books, movies, and music that they could then access at home even if they lack WiFi. If after hours they need services, they could connect to family WiFi, or could access the school’s WiFi from outside the building. I have collected some initial data and enough Fires and iPads to launch the instruction with my most reluctant readers, seventh and eighth grade students. I am keeping my fingers crossed that I find donors willing to donate enough money to offer these students the devices for check out.

How wonderful if the library endowment could help fund innovative programs like the one here at my elementary school! Keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of school libraries lack the resources to replicate what I’m doing here. I still don’t have enough. And the resources I have I really had to scramble to find. Not every school librarian has the skills and time to draw small grants as I did through the DonorsChoose.org site. The endowment could help augment scarce tax money. Among other things, it could help pay for badly needed renovations of the kind that my school was lucky enough to be able to enjoy with a grant from the Donner Foundation. See this video to understand what a difference more funds can make in the lives of children. It is amazing to watch how suddenly their library had become so much more inviting as a place to read and learn!

For school librarians, I have become active on many fronts but truthfully don’t have a clear plan on how to best call attention to our plight. Recently I read a study by a famous think tank regarding the changes in the form and function of public libraries. What I found most stunning is that a key component was never mentioned—how will the public learn to navigate these services? As Web applications become more complicated and wider in range, how can we ensure that the public knows what is available and that they have the skills and confidence to use it? Our children need librarians in their schools. They need to learn how to find, use, and evaluate resources. If they don’t, they may never know that feeling of empowerment, or the important role libraries play in our community in fostering lifelong learning and providing free information to all citizens regardless of their status or ability. A national library endowment could help address those issues.

Libraries are changing to meet modern demands, but the need will always exist for well-staffed school libraries, on site and well integrated with the rest of the schools. The benefits are already well known in areas ranging from reading abilities to test scores and general scholastic achievement. If enough public money won’t be available, we must come up with other ways to preserve and protect our K-12 and public libraries. LibraryEndowment.org’s efforts to find new paths for funding are exciting. Philanthropists and others in a position to make a difference need to understand the harm that underfunding of libraries will do to us as a society in the long run.

Paula L. Wyatt volunteers as K-12 Library Relations Director of Library Endowment.org. You can reach her at Plwyatt4@gmail.com.

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