Era of Neglect in Evidence At Libraries

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Even the best books in the library at T.M. Peirce Elementary School are dated, tattered, and discolored. The worst—many in a latter 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.

The library here is a far cry from the kind of warm, inviting, fully stocked resource center experts say can help build literacy and research skills, raise student achievement, and foster a love of reading. But more troubling than the outward appearance of the Peirce library, many educators here say, is what's between the worn covers of the books.

For More Information

Read the School Library Journal's annual survey, "How Do You Measure Up?"; read the American Association of School Librarians' "Information Literacy Standards for Student Learning."

Outdated facts and theories and offensive stereotypes leap from the authoritative pages of encyclopedias and biographies, fiction and nonfiction tomes. Among the volumes on these shelves, a student would find it all but impossible to locate accurate information on AIDS or other contemporary diseases, explorations of the moon and Mars, or the past five U.S. presidents.

Across the country, school library funding has been inching upward, according to a recent survey. But the situation is far less hopeful in many urban and rural schools, where libraries have suffered years of neglect as a lower priority among competing academic programs and budgetary constraints.

The neglected library at Philadelphia's Peirce Elementary is as unappealing as the blighted urban neighborhood outside, and perhaps just as dangerous, according to Principal Shively D. Willingham.

"I would rather have nothing, or close the library, than have children exposed to these kinds of books," said Mr. Willingham, who made the controversial decision three years ago to lock the doors and block the school's 640 students from using the library.

Teachers and administrators at Peirce describe the collection as contemptible, but not all that unusual for this city.

"A lot of the school libraries I've seen are a fire hazard, and their collections are pathetic," said Debra Lyman Gniewek, the activity manager for library programs and services for the 215,000-student Philadelphia public schools.

Mr. Willingham agrees, but says he cannot afford to restock and staff the library at Peirce. Instead, the no-nonsense administrator has used some of his stretched budget to build up classroom book collections, a plan he describes as less costly, but inadequate.

Boxed sets of paperback readers sit on desktops and floors in each classroom in this 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, Mr. 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-grounded education.

Paucity of Librarians

The problem persists in other cities as well. The latest survey by the School LibraryJournal found that the average annual expenditure on library-materials budgets per school increased by about $1,000, to $12,185, last school year, regaining ground lost to spending cuts over the past decade or so.

The statistics, some experts say, gloss over what has become the stark reality in too many schools where libraries are dismal and out of date, if they exist at all.

Philadelphia spent an average $5.50 per student on library materials last year, more than $6 below the state average. Per-student spending in Los Angeles, New York, and other cities also was in the single digits. All the while, the cost of books has been climbing: It now averages about $16 for a single title.

Compounding the problem is a lack of 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 that can enhance student learning. While some states mandate that schools have libraries, they generally require certified library staff members only at the secondary level.

The School Library Journal survey found that only half the K-12 respondents were library-media specialists. In some parts of the country, elementary school libraries are staffed by part-time aides, volunteers, or teachers with no background in library science.

Other Priorities

A variety of economic and administrative factors have contributed to the problem over the past three decades. After federal categorical funding for school libraries was removed from Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and placed into more generic block grants in 1974, districts no longer had a pot of targeted money. The libraries, seen as a lower priority than some other academic programs, soon fell victim to budget cuts.

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 of the latest research that shows how strong library-media programs can raise student achievement.

"Where you have decision-makers who understand the importance of collections and information-literacy support, then you get the funding and the resources," said M. Ellen Jay, the president of the American Association of School Librarians, an affiliate of the Chicago-based American Library Association. "But [most principals] are coming out of training without an understanding of the role of the library."

Ms. Jay added that a common misperception among administrators is that the Internet provides access to all literary and informational materials that schools need, and that they no longer need to purchase print resources.

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. In Cincinnati this year, more than a dozen elementary school principals chose to wield the powers afforded them under the district's 2-year-old site-based-management initiative to eliminate library-media centers in favor of other programs.

Pockets of Progress

But as the information age zooms forward, library advocates are beginning to make their case. The information-literacy standards drafted by the American Association of School Librarians two years ago—which call for students to acquire skills in finding and evaluating information from a variety of print and 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, which are integrated throughout the state's own subject-area guidelines.

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 has awarded more than $3 million in matching grants for libraries over the past two years to 287 of 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 have opened, or will, this school year.

Federal lawmakers in Washington are also taking up the cause. Legislation sponsored by Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Thad Cochran, R-Miss., among other senators, would provide $275 million to improve library resources in the neediest schools and districts. A version was also proposed in the House by Rep. Major R. Owens, D-N.Y.

"What happens at the local level is that the library is usually the first item to get cut. Federal emphasis and support can be a critical catalyst for the improvement of school libraries," Sen. Reed said in an interview.

Despite such sources of optimism, some observers lament the daunting barriers to turning the situation around. Mr. Reed helped get similar legislation passed in 1994, but the $200 million Library Media Act was later repealed by what had become a Republican-controlled Congress.

Overwhelming Task

In California, some library-media specialists are happily weeding through shelves of old and obsolete volumes to make way for thousands of dollars worth of new books. But the unprecedented funding has barely made a dent in other schools.

"In some places, the semi backs up [to the school], pallets of books get unloaded, and no one is there to check them in. Or worse yet, the money isn't being spent at all," said Barbara H. Jeffus, the school library consultant for the California education department. Seven out of eight schools in the state do not have a professional library staff for at least half the school day, and there is one library-media specialist for every 5,800 students statewide, according to state statistics.

Boxes of new books purchased with the state aid sit unopened in a back room at Muirlands Middle School in LaJolla, Calif. The librarian, Susan Sheldon, has put sorting through the new books on hold rather than take the time away from assisting students and creating an electronic catalog of the collection.

"I feel overwhelmed with the sheer volume of what has to get done, but the frustration is compounded with not having the tools of the trade to do what I am trained to do," Ms. Sheldon said in an interview by electronic mail. "It directly affects learning and instruction in the classroom and in the library. If I'm not efficient, valuable instructional time is compromised."

In Philadelphia, meanwhile, Ms. Gniewek, who has tirelessly, and so far unsuccessfully, pushed for a districtwide mandate for elementary school libraries, is about to give up hope. She has failed to convince district officials that without a requirement, most school principals will continue to redirect funding that could go to library books and staff into other programs they deem more important.

A recent survey by the Association of Philadelphia School Librarians found that 110 of the district's 180 elementary schools had no school librarian; library collections are, on average, 25 to 30 years old; and, part-time or full-time library personnel are often called on to cover classes for other teachers, thereby limiting the time they can spend helping children use library resources.

Hopes Dashed

At a Philadelphia City Council hearing in November, Superintendent David W. Hornbeck said he could not order more spending on libraries because "such an increase would come at the expense of directing principals to shift resources away from other programs that, based on strong data, we know to be 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 Ms. 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," Ms. Gniewek said. "Now, it just seems like it's hopeless."

Vol. 19, Issue 14, Pages 1, 12-13

Published in Print: December 1, 1999, as Era of Neglect in Evidence At Libraries
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