Libraries On Life Support

February 01, 2000 6 min read

Even the best books in the library at T.M. Peirce Elementary School in Philadelphia are dated, tattered, and discolored. The worst—many in a late stage of disintegration—are dirty and fetid and leave a moldy residue on hands and clothing. Chairs and tables are old, mismatched, or broken. There isn’t a computer in sight.

There isn’t a student in sight, either. Three years ago, principal Shively Willingham made the controversial decision to lock the doors and block his school’s 640 students from the facility. The neglected library is as unappealing as the blighted urban neighborhood outside Peirce, Willingham argues, and perhaps just as dangerous. Outdated facts and theories and offensive stereotypes leap from the supposedly authoritative pages of the library’s encyclopedias and biographies. Most of the volumes on the shelves are silent on topics relating to AIDS or other contemporary diseases, explorations of the moon and Mars, or the past five U.S. presidents. “I would rather have nothing, or close the library, than have children exposed to these kinds of books,” says Willingham.

Welcome to the new millennium. The latest national survey by the School Library Journal finds that the average annual expenditure on library materials per school increased by about $1,000—to $12,185—last year, regaining ground lost to spending cuts over the past decade or so. But the statistics, some experts say, gloss over the reality that a disturbing number of rural and urban school libraries—like the one at Peirce—fail to be the kind of warm, inviting, fully stocked resource centers that can help build literacy and research skills, raise student achievement, and foster a love of reading. In Philadelphia, certainly, Peirce’s tawdry collection of books is not unusual. “A lot of the school libraries I’ve seen are fire hazards, and their collections are pathetic,” says Debra Lyman Gniewek, activity manager for library programs and services for the 215,000-student Philadelphia public schools. A recent survey by the Association of Philadelphia School Librarians found that the city’s school library collections are, on average, 25 to 30 years old.

And it’s not just that the books are outdated; critics say the wrong people are minding the store. Only half the K-12 schools surveyed by the School Library Journal employed library-media specialists—teachers certified in library and information science who can help classroom teachers integrate information skills throughout the curriculum and select books and software to enhance student learning. Though some states mandate that schools have libraries, they generally require certified library staff members only at the secondary level. In parts of the country, elementary school libraries are staffed by part-time aides, volunteers, or teachers with no background in library science.

A variety of economic and administrative factors have contributed to the demise of the public school library over the past three decades. In 1974, changes in federal funding guidelines merged money earmarked for libraries into more generic block grants. With their pot of targeted funding gone, libraries soon fell victim to budget cuts, particularly in districts where they were not seen as a critical academic program. Now, as school-based management has taken hold in many districts, more budget decisions are left up to principals, many of whom, according to library specialists, are unaware—or dismissive—of research that shows how strong library-media programs can raise student achievement.

“Where you have decisionmakers who understand the importance of collections and information-literacy support, then you get the funding and the resources,” says M. Ellen Jay, president of the Chicago-based American Association of School Librarians. “But [most principals] are coming out of training without an understanding of the role of the library.” Jay adds that a common misperception among administrators is that the Internet’s wealth of information is all that libraries need. In Philadelphia, some administrators say they refuse to “cannibalize” critical needs, such as kindergarten programs or full-time nurses, to pay for more print materials for the library. In Cincinnati last year, more than a dozen elementary school principals wielding new powers afforded them under a site-based-management initiative chose to eliminate library-media centers in favor of other programs.

But as the information age zooms forward, library advocates are beginning to make their case. Information-literacy standards drafted by the AASL two years ago—which call for students to acquire skills in finding and evaluating information from print as well as technology-based sources—are being used in some places to shape curriculum and state policy. A commission created by the New York state board of regents, for example, is asking lawmakers to increase aid for library materials and staffing to help students meet those national standards.

California, which has been ranked last among states in per-pupil spending for library books for more than a decade, has already anted up for books, allocating more than $300 million over the past two years to restock library shelves. The money is part of the state’s aggressive push to improve dismal reading scores, which plummeted during an era of limited spending on library and instructional materials. Chicago, meanwhile, has awarded more than $3 million in matching grants for libraries over the past two years to more than half the district’s 591 elementary and secondary schools. As a result, and with the help of the district’s capital-improvement program, more than 25 new school libraries are scheduled to open this year.

At Peirce, Willingham says he cannot afford to restock and staff the library. Instead, the no-nonsense administrator has stretched his already-thin budget to build up classroom book collections—a plan he describes as less costly, but still inadequate. Boxed sets of paperback readers sit on desktops and floors in each classroom in the K-5 school. The new books—which cost $2,300 per classroom—are a major improvement over those that fill up the library shelves. They are new and crisp and reflect a more modern, and somewhat more multicultural, view of the world. But the solution, Willingham acknowledges, is like offering a bread crumb to a starving child: It provides limited intellectual nourishment for students whose futures depend on a well-rounded education.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia’s Gniewek is about to admit defeat in her tireless push for a districtwide mandate for elementary school libraries. At a Philadelphia City Council hearing last November, Superintendent David Hornbeck said he could not order more spending on libraries. Such a directive, he argued, would lead principals to shift resources away from other programs that strong data suggest are “at least as crucial as good libraries to the development of high achievement and lifelong-learning skills by our children.” The council voted to create a panel to study the issue, a decision that came as a blow to Gniewek. Along with other library advocates, she had pleaded with council members to devote some of the city’s budget surplus to restocking school bookshelves. “This was our big move to get some kind of districtwide initiative and to get City Council to intervene on this issue,” Gniewek says. “Now, it just seems like it’s hopeless.”

—Kathleen Kennedy Manzo