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Fund School Libraries: Role Has Changed, Holdings Have Not

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The school library media center of the 1990's is a very different place than it was nearly 30 years ago, when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 provided the funds to purchase core book collections for school libraries. During the Ford and Reagan administrations, the categorical aid to libraries was cut and redistributed as block grants, resulting in dilution of funds and diversion of dwindling resources to other programs. While struggling to maintain library services and collections, schools have undergone significant changes in the philosophies and delivery of education.

The new view of education is to provide students with the skills and materials to become lifelong learners, independent problem-solvers, and information-seekers. Rather than being a place to get nonessential, supplementary materials, the school library is now at the hub of virtually all teaching and learning. Library materials have replaced textbooks, workbooks, and basal readers in many schools. The new goals of education can be reached only if students have access to up-to-date, high-quality resources. Yet, most school-library collections still resemble those of the 1960's, in quantity and currency. In fact, many still contain an overabundance of materials from the 1960's.

Libraries, then, have a twofold task: (1) to perform large-scale remediation on collections which have fallen behind, and (2) to keep up with current information needs, especially in areas such as science and global studies. Locally funded school operating budgets cannot adequately support the library collections necessary to meet the needs of students in the 90's.

As educators, we need to bring to the attention of the public the need for federal legislation that would provide badly needed funds to upgrade school-library programs. The "elementary and secondary school library media act" was introduced last summer by Sens. Paul Simon of Illinois and Paul Sarbanes of Maryland and Rep. Jack Reed of Rhode Island. It was designed to re-establish categorical aid to school libraries and create an elementary and secondary school library media services division in the U.S. Education Department, offering grant programs and other support for school-library services. This measure, which, with modifications is now moving through both houses of Congress, specifically targets the areas of technology and curriculum integration.

This type of legislation does not have the attention-getting immediacy of gun control or health reform, but its impact on the future should be made clear to the public.

To bring the dilemma down to specifics, let me share some statistics from my own school library at Hills Elementary School in the Iowa City (Iowa) Community School District. We in Iowa have a good track record in education, and have better-than-average support for school-library programs. Yet even here our deficiencies abound.

In 1991, I analyzed my collection according to copyright date. After this analysis, I did what every good librarian does: I weeded about one-third of the collection out. I weeded out books that hadn't circulated in 20 years, books that speculated whether man would ever go to the moon, books that presented insulting stereotypes such as "Indians'' with feathers and "waa-waa" language. Then our school district got some special one-time funds, and we did some fund-raising.

After three years of weeding and the addition of new books, the collection is still inadequate and out of date, however--even with the addition of extra funds.

What might my students be able to learn about space travel, for example, when the average age of books in the "technology'' section is 1977? (It had been 1972.) How can they learn about currently endangered species, when the average book in the 590's section--animals--is dated 1979? What might children read about other countries and cultures, when the books were written from the perspectives of the 1970's or earlier? How many of today's countries did not even have the same names in the 1970's?

How might a student understand the cultural or human-rights issues of South Africans, or aboriginal peoples of Australia, when these people rarely had a chance to even appear in the literature of the 1970's? How can our young emerging readers be inspired to love reading, and get lots of practice reading piles of picture books, when most books are shabby, falling apart, and 20 years old? And when, distributed over kindergarten through 4th grade, there are only 12 picture books per student?

People often suggest applying for grants. While I have invested large amounts of time investigating these opportunities, the realities of grant writing are that the vast majority of grants do not fund materials of any kind. Grants are for funding innovative programs, salaries, and studies. Grant committees expect that the books or other materials will be there, provided by the institutions, as their good-faith commitment to the project. Books are not "innovative''; they are basic. They should be a given.

Ironically, grants can further compound the school library's inadequacies. In my school, we have a large state grant for our large at-risk population. This grant provides additional teachers, so that class sizes can be smaller. The result is that we now have additional classes, so our inadequate collection must be shared across even more classrooms than before.

Fund-raising for our library has made me very uncomfortable. In a school where 42 percent of the students qualify for the free-lunch program, where 16 percent of families are unemployed, where 63 percent of the students are identified as at-risk, should we be conducting fund-raising activities to extract money from these families to provide us with the funds for their children's books? I think not.

Just last year, the Iowa Department of Education published its newly revised standards for school libraries. They recommend a minimum yearly replacement cycle for elementary materials of 5 percent, which translates to a 20-year replacement cycle. The standards also recommend minimum total holdings of 8,000 volumes, and a desirable goal of 10,000 volumes. Factor in the rising cost of books. The State Library of Iowa has reported that the price of elementary-library hardbound books rose by 82.5 percent from 1980 to 1990, and the price of paperbacks increased by 115.5 percent.

To apply the standards to my own library, I have chosen the average price of $14 per book, a modest figure. We have 7,125 library books at my school--short of the 8,000-volume minimum and 10,000-volume desirable recommendations, and without factoring in the 5 percent to 10 percent replacement cycle. In order to comply with our reasonable state standards, I would need between $5,600 and $14,000 a year to keep current in books alone. Coincidentally, the entire yearly operating budget for my school is $14,000; and that figure must cover the costs of all supplies, copy-machine bills and paper, teaching materials, art supplies, computer software and supplies, literally everything the building needs for the year.

What about the money I do have to spend? I analyzed how expenditures were distributed for the 1992-93 school year. Because of the requirements of the whole-language reading program, three-fourths of the entire year's budget was spent on these materials for the classroom reading classes. That left one-fourth of the money to cover all of science, social studies, and materials for general student selection.

A thousand dollars' worth of new library-bound books fits into one box. I am fortunate to receive three boxes of books a year, but three boxes a year does not in any way support the instructional goals of a K-6 building.

We cannot forget the fast-paced development of technology. The costs for these exciting developments must also come out of lean school budgets. So in order to struggle to keep up with technology, we must further erode the funds for the most fundamental of resources: the books.

Hills Elementary School is not unique. The October 1993 issue of School Library Journal contained statistics on school-library collections and expenditures nationwide that showed no "average'' school in the elementary, junior high/middle school, or high school categories would be able to meet our Iowa state standards. The median book budget for elementary schools was $3,253, for high schools, $4,337. For each of the three school levels, the median book money spent per pupil was around $6 for the year.

Research supports increased spending on school-library collections. Two recent studies conclude that the strongest predictor of student success is expenditures on the school-library media center. One, a study by Keith Curry Lance, Lynda Welborn, and Christine Hamilton-Pennell titled "The Impact of School Library Media Centers on Academic Achievement'' (Castle Rock, Colo., Hi Willow Research and Publication, 1993), has become known simply as the "Colorado Study.'' The other was conducted by the New American Schools Development Corporation.

As reported in the Fall 1993 issue of School Library Media Quarterly, these studies show that "the size of a school-library media center's staff and collection is the best school predictor of academic achievement'' and that "students who score higher on standardized tests tend to come from schools with more media-center staff and more books, periodicals, and videos--regardless of other factors, including economic ones.''

The journal goes on to summarize research reviewed by Stephen Krashen in his 1993 book, The Power of Reading. Mr. Krashen reports that "voluntary reading is the best predictor of reading comprehension ... having a school-library media specialist makes a difference in the amount of voluntary reading done, [and] larger school-library collections increase the amount read.''

We need to keep in mind the students that are coming to us in greater and greater numbers. They come to school lacking most of the foundation work that used to be taken for granted: They lack language development and basic conversational skills. They have not been read to at home. "Home'' for many is not the safe haven it ought to be; school is the only place they can count on any consistency. One clinician, in a reading workshop I attended, described this basic foundation work as "bricks.'' The children lacking it she called "brickless wonders.'' They are kids doing remarkably well despite their lack of the proper building blocks.

Schools have to cement these foundational bricks in place via teaching skills and the materials such students need and deserve. It is up to the educational community to bring higher visibility and greater support to legislation that would help put more books into our children's hands. Join me in urging support for school-library media centers, a target of funding in which everyone wins.

Anne Marie Kraus is a school library media specialist in Iowa City, Iowa. This essay is adapted from comments she made in December as a panelist at a forum of the National Commission on Library and Information Science.

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