Boston, Balto. Weigh Idea of Merging City, School Libraries

By Debra Viadero — September 16, 1992 6 min read
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Looking to economize and to improve library services for children, officials in Baltimore and Boston are weighing proposals to merge school libraries in whole or in part with public library systems.

Such mergers have rarely been tried in the United States, according to experts. The proposals in the two cities, although not yet fully formed, are already running into opposition from those who question whether they can work and whether they are in the best interest of children.

“There’s no question that in times of recession, people are really going to be looking for forms of consolidation that could really save money,’' said Arthur Curley, the director of the Boston Public Library.

The board of the city library last week asked Mr. Curley to explore with Boston’s superintendent of schools the idea of a new relationship between public and school libraries.

In Baltimore, Mayor Kurt Schmoke, who has been promoting the concept of library consolidation for more than two years, gave it a boost this summer when he proposed transferring about 30 school librarians to the Enoch Pratt Free Library system.

A spokesman for the Baltimore school system said the city has already provided two-thirds of the school system’s librarians with introductory training at Enoch Pratt.

This month, school officials began mailing letters to high school librarians asking them to volunteer to work in the main public library or its branches. Under the plan, library assistants would take their places in the schools.

“Many of the students who use libraries don’t use them at schools, and there’s a severe shortage of qualified librarians in the public libraries,’' said Clinton Coleman, a spokesman for Mr. Schmoke. “So we have one system that was underutilized and another that is understaffed.’'

Some officials and observers also said the transfer plan would allow Baltimore--which under Mr. Schmoke has proclaimed itself “the city that reads’'--to avoid having to close public-library branches or curtail public-library hours due to lean budget times.

Questions Raised

Organizations representing school librarians, state education officials, and teachers question whether the idea will work.

“The goals of school-library-media programs are different from the goals of public libraries,’' said Thea Jones, the chairman of the legislative committee of the Maryland Educational Media Organization. “Our goal is to teach children to become information-literate.’'

For example, school librarians said, if a child enters a public library with a homework question, the job of the librarian is to find an answer to that question. The task of the school librarian, in contrast, is to help teach the child how to find the information on his own.

For that reason, said Maurice Travillian, the assistant state superintendent for libraries in the Maryland education department, certification requirements for school librarians and public librarians differ markedly.

He said education officials have also voiced concern that state education dollars would be spent for noninstructional purposes if school librarians worked in public libraries.

Mr. Travillian also noted that public libraries, despite having larger collections than school libraries, do not buy materials to support a school curriculum. They buy instead to accommodate public tastes.

Relying on public libraries for student needs, he said, “would be like eating dessert all the time but never having any meat and potatoes.’'

The Maryland teachers’ union has said that school librarians working in public libraries must work the same kinds of hours they would work in school libraries. Some observers said such a rule could cause morale problems among public-library workers.

A ‘Takeover’ in Boston?

Many of the same questions have been raised, to a lesser degree, in Boston.

In that city, the idea was raised by Robert W. Consalvo, the executive secretary of the Boston School Committee and a trustee of the Boston Public Library.

Mr. Consalvo, who is also a top aide to Mayor Raymond Flynn, raised the idea during a Sept. 9 meeting of the public library’s board of trustees.

“The Boston Public Library is one of the leading libraries in the nation,’' Mr. Consalvo said. “To that end, our public schools could take advantage of the expertise.’'

“I think it will probably save money and provide better services,’' he added.

With a budget of $28 million, the Boston library has been largely protected from the kinds of budget cuts that are forcing libraries in other large cities to close branches.

But the library has, over the last three years, experienced a decrease of 4.9 percent in state funding, Mr. Consalvo said.

Moreover, six of the 25 library branches do not have children’s librarians, largely because of recruitment problems. And the number of young-adult librarians in the system has remained low since budget cuts in the 1970’s, said Mr. Curley, the public-library director.

Despite such gaps in services, Mr. Curley said he was skeptical about the idea of consolidation.

‘We have our hands full simply trying to be a public library,’' he said.

Mr. Consalvo’s proposal specifically calls for the public library to “take over’’ school libraries. The proposal is similar to a plan opposed by the local teachers’ union to establish health clinics in public schools. The clinics would be run by the city’s department of health and hospitals.

Short of a full-fledged merger, Mr. Consalvo has suggested that school libraries and public libraries work more closely together in general--possibly by sharing technology or setting up computer linkages.

Although the library board asked Mr. Curley to explore the idea, it took no formal vote on the matter last week.

In Baltimore, a spokesman said a decision would be made soon “from very high up’’ on whether to transfer school librarians.

History of Collaboration

According to national experts, school libraries have been looking to form linkages to public libraries for years. Such collaboration often enables students to access the larger databases and collections of the public systems. The advent of more expensive information technologies has also made collaboration more advantageous for both systems.

The Fairfax County, Va., public schools, for example, won praise from federal education officials last week for the district’s collaborative efforts with local public libraries. The schools and libraries there have combined to offer a summer reading program, homework support, and programs for teachers and child-care providers. The county and school libraries also are preparing to link up electronically.

Few jurisdictions have completely consolidated services, however. Flint, Mich., operated public libraries in schools for about 40 years, but abandoned the concept in the 1980’s.

“It’s generally not been tried successfully,’' said Donald Adcock, the coordinator of program support for the American Association of School Librarians.

Mr. Adcock said such proposals may continue to arise as both public libraries and school libraries face several years of tight budgets. The venerable New York Public Library, for example, was forced last year to shut down some branches for two or three days a week, and the number of school libraries in California, according to the A.A.S.L., has been reduced by half over the past decade.

A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 1992 edition of Education Week as Boston, Balto. Weigh Idea of Merging City, School Libraries


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