Published Online: May 7, 1997


Logged On and Literate

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An erosion of support for school libraries threatens our children's future.

My elementary school librarian, Miss Gresham, had an impact on my life in the 1940s in a quiet but dramatic way, giving me the self-esteem and lifelong belief in the power of books and libraries to transform lives.

"Mary," she said one day, "you're capable of reading far more advanced material." It didn't matter that the book she gave me, Kim by Rudyard Kipling, wasn't exactly my cup of tea. What mattered was that an important adult, a school librarian, had singled me out.

From that day to this, school librarians have gifted children with reading guidance and curriculum support. With a knowledge of books, stories, and, more recently, technology, school media specialists have widened the horizons and opened doors for children. ("Libraries Seeking Updated Role As Learning Center," April 23, 1997.)

Alas, too many of these doors are now slamming shut. Cost-cutting administrators are replacing librarians with clerks or turning librarians into baby sitters. The latest figures, from a 1991 survey, show that 26 percent of public schools lack a fully qualified library media specialist. In some districts, library media specialists are stretched among two, three, or more schools. Collections are often much out of date, with most available funding allocated for the purchase of technology.

A 1993-94 survey of subscribers to School Library Journal indicates that more than 77 percent have CD-ROMS and encyclopedias and a little more than half--56 percent--have both an automated catalog and circulation system. The same study found the median amount spent by all schools for library books came to $6.80 per pupil--less than the average cost of one hardcover book.

Kids need libraries that are wired, well stocked, staffed, and open when they need them.

The world is quickly moving into an information age driven by computer technology. Being able to read is a basic survival skill, but it is no longer enough. Our children must be able to navigate the information highway for their studies, their jobs, and their lives. Kids who aren't logged on and literate will be lost in the next century.

What will happen to the kids deprived of Miss Greshams? What can be done to reverse the erosion of support for school libraries?On the federal level, we must promote policies that recognize the vital role of school libraries in connecting children to the information highway. We must expand funding available to school libraries in areas such as crime prevention, literacy, and education.

This year, when everyone from the White House to the statehouse is spotlighting education, it is time to shout from the rooftops: Kids need school media specialists.

Today's school libraries must have the support they need to provide a full range of resources--print and electronic. Computers and hardware alone are not enough, however.

We must have discounts on telecommunications services that will help even the smallest and most remote school libraries connect children to the Internet. The Federal Communications Commission will be deciding soon on the size and scope of those discounts. With less than 20 percent of U.S. households connected to the Internet, school libraries are a critical access point for children whose families can't afford computers and on-line charges.

On the state level, we must develop a strategic plan for serving the learning needs of schoolchildren and recognize the vital role of school librarians in areas such as reading, literacy, and technology.

On the local level, we must seek increased funding for school libraries, supporting the recruitment and hiring of professional media specialists. Nationally, a quarter of all schools do not have a school librarian. A quarter of all schools are shortchanging children.

Students visit school library media centers some 2.2 billion times during the school year--more than twice the number of field trips to state and national parks. Yet, only about 11 percent of elementary schools and 21 percent of high school libraries are connected to the Internet.

Americans spend six times as much on home video games ($5.5 billion) as they do on school library materials for their children. Most school library media centers spend less than $7 a year per child on books. Yet research has shown that the highest-achieving students come from schools with good library media centers, regardless of whether their districts are rich or poor or whether adults in those communities are well or poorly educated.

What does it really matter, the school library? One student put it to me this way: "I love the library at my high school. I don't feel I could have gotten such good grades without it. I never used to read. The library had so many different books that I read whatever interested me."

Another student told me: "Growing up poor, Puerto Rican, and without a family, I knew that drugs and gangs offered nothing to rescue my self-esteem. Librarians taught me, in parent-like fashion, to read books, rather than dwell on destructive anger. I chose to believe in myself. I chose libraries."

Thanks to Miss Gresham, so did I. Then as now, kids can't wait for school librarians to care, nurture, and feed them great books, new technology, and real encouragement. This year, when everyone from the White House to the statehouse is spotlighting education, it is time to shout it from the rooftops: Kids need school media specialists. Kids today need their very own Miss Greshams, as never before.

Mary Somerville is the president of the American Library Association. A former children's librarian, she is the director of the Miami-Dade County (Fla.) Public Library System.

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