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Without libraries, how will schools create avid readers?

By Eileen DiFranco on Feb 14, 2014 01:13 PM

The books at Roxborough High's library sit untouched and unread by students. Renovated at considerable expense in 2007, the library was closed three years ago when, due to budget cuts, it became too expensive to keep open. It’s used for meetings, presentations, and small assemblies now.

When I mentioned over the dinner table the fact that in Philadelphia, almost all public school libraries were closed, my 5-year-old granddaughter, who attends a suburban elementary school, almost fell off her chair. “What, no libraries? Library is fun!” Her father, a graduate of Central, was equally upset. He spent the bulk of his lunch periods in the library, either studying, reading magazines, or shooting the breeze with friends.

In some of the city's elementary schools, libraries were closed a decade ago. It’s sad to think that some high schoolers have never attended a school with a library. Closing libraries might save the School District money, but what happens when districts cease to fund libraries?

There’s something special about going to the library and choosing a book that suits your mood that day. Little children, like my granddaughter, who are just beginning their school careers, will have a tough time falling in love with books without a library. Generations of children grew up reading The Snowy Day and Corduroy and Madeline. I still remember someone reading The Little House to me as a kindergartner at Richmond Public School. I could not wait to read it myself.

Children who are expected to learn at high levels require books to reach those levels. If there are no books in the home and families do not use the neighborhood library, the school must provide access to books. Without accessible books, children cannot develop a facility with reading.

As with sports, the more a child reads, the better reader he or she will become. Reading is far more than developing skills and the ability to answer questions on tests. Ask any teacher.

The lack of access to books is a cruel blow to the city's high school students, who don’t have access to libraries for research. I have mentored students writing their senior papers; sadly, most of their sources come from non-academic articles found on the Internet. Even the best English teacher can’t provide the books that college-bound students need if they are to write a high-quality paper. What can replace sitting in a library with a stack of books?

Libraries also provide safe or quiet haven for large numbers of children who can't function in the cafeteria during lunch or who need a private place not available at home. Best of all, a library is a place where those of us who cannot live without books can sit quietly and do what we love best: read. From hours of reading come all sorts of ideas and inventions and movements.

This is why anonymous donors paid to keep the libraries at Central High and Masterman open. The donors knew what libraries meant to them and how the availability of books led to their own success.

Eileen M. DiFranco, R.N., is a certified school nurse who has proudly served the schoolchildren of Philadelphia for 23 years. She is a lifelong resident of Philadelphia.


The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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Comments (18)

Submitted by Stewart (not verified) on February 14, 2014 1:04 pm
Well said, Eileen. This is the kind of impact these radical budget cuts have had on our students; not only the day-to-day problems of the classroom (no supplies, crowded classrooms, etc., etc.) but in all those other essentials that support student learning and achievement, like school libraries. So vital are libraries to a school that the students themselves are starting to take action to fix this problem. At our school (an academic magnet) the students themselves started a drive to reopen the library space we have (tiny though it is in comparison to those of Masterman of Central) and restock it with good, contemporary books obtained through donations and funds raised on their own. Our principal is in full support of this initiative and has done what is possible to support them materially (by making sure the space had computer equipment and printers, for instance.) I and several other teachers volunteer after-school time (so as not to take away budget for other after-school activities) to supervise the students when they open up in the afternoons. We haven't been able to let them open during the school day because there's no one available to do that supervision with us all stretched to the limit on our classes. We'd love to make it happen, but the resources just aren't there. These are amazing kids who know and value the resource that a library represents, as do their peers, who are flocking to the library during its brief hours. They borrow books, do research, consult with both the student librarians and teachers about sources and other library-related issues. It's both a beautiful and a sad sight to behold: students taking an active part in doing what our district should do for them, but won't.
Submitted by Wendy Harris on March 11, 2014 11:54 am

Hi Stewart:

The Notebook would like to reprint your comment to this blog post in the "From our readers" section of our next print edition. From our readers is a section of the paper much like letters to the editor, where we list comments and opinions to our content. Please let us know if we have permission to reprint this comment in our next edition, which will be the April-May 2014 edition.  We do edit the entries for space and grammar, and would need to list a tagline at the end of the comment that lists your first and last name and anything that you'd like to include to indentify your line of work. For example, it would read Stewart Last Name is a teacher at Masterman High School or whatever profession you would like us to list.

Please let me know if we have permission to reprint your comment. We would need to know by Thursday as we intend to send this section of the paper to our designer by the end of the week. You can email at me at wendyh@thenotebook.org letting us know if we have permission to reprint.

Thanks very much and hope to hear from you soon.

Wendy Harris, Managing Editor

Submitted by Wendy Harris on March 12, 2014 9:36 am

Hi Stewart:

The Notebook would like to reprint your comment to this blog post in the "From our readers" section of our next print edition. From our readers is a section of the paper much like letters to the editor, where we list comments and opinions to our content. Please let us know if we have permission to reprint this comment in our next edition, which will be the April-May 2014 edition.  We do edit the entries for space and grammar, and would need to list a tagline at the end of the comment that lists your first and last name and anything that you'd like to include to indentify your line of work. For example, it would read Stewart Last Name is a teacher at Masterman High School or whatever profession you would like us to list.

Please let me know if we have permission to reprint your comment. We would need to know by Thursday as we intend to send this section of the paper to our designer by the end of the week. You can email at me at wendyh@thenotebook.org letting us know if we have permission to reprint.

Thanks very much and hope to hear from you soon.

Wendy Harris, Managing Editor

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on February 14, 2014 1:08 pm
Thanks again Eileen for your sage insights. Perhaps the dreary winter is getting to me, but at some level I am beginning to believe that a corporate controlled society (that we embolden in not fighting back) is content with fewer Eileen DiFranco's whose minds are opened to freely challenge both religious and secular institutions. "From hours of reading come all sorts of ideas and inventions and movements." There is a scary idea. Let's keep those libraries closed and measure learning via standardized testing. The elite schools can have the books. Everybody OK with that? I am not.
Submitted by Adam (not verified) on February 14, 2014 2:26 pm
I'm a librarian who has worked in college and public libraries across Philadelphia. And I've presented to district schools, and have collaborated with district teachers. To me it's very important to emphasize that these libraries are shuttered because the distrinct won't fund librarians. The folks who set educational policy and priorities are either ignorant of what we do, or don't care about it. Our invisibility in the larger conversations about the dismantling of education in Philadelphia is a big problem not only for our own livelihood, but ceratinly for students and their teachers. While teachers focus on classroom management and discipline specific curricula, our profession focuses on the intersections of all fields of knowlede. We are the premiere interdisciplinarians in any learning community, but rarely get on the stump to announce the fact. We bring this wider expertise to a markedly less authoritarian space than the classroom. In our libraries, we cultivate an open self-directing "un-classroom" for independent discovery. This vital complement to schooling seems destined to whither away as it is almost untestable and resistant to quantification. But it's power is obvious even to the author's 5 year old granddaughter. And is apparent in the acknowledgement section of nearly every book of scholarly writing. However, it's not just students/learners who benefit from the library spaces we cultivate. Our classroom-teaching colleagues benefit from having us as collaborators to broaden and deepen their work. From K to PhD, I've seen teachers design terrible projects for their students because they obviously didn't consult a librarian. We can make your work better! A tiny sampling of what I've seen: At the elementary level, teachers are telling students to go to the library to print out biographical articles or photos to glue to poster board for simple presentations, rather than check out an age apropriate biography to read and share with their classmates. At the high school level, summer reading assignments are often narrow and so prescriptive that they're guaranteed to kill the desire to read. Instead the assignment could be to seek recommendations from the neighborhood librarian, experts on finding the right book for the right reader. Finally by college, students who have had zero in-school library instruction, are completely ill equiped to attempt even the most basic research paper. Information literacy is not a priority because no one has prioritized it. Scholarly databases, indexes at the back of a book, browsing professionally arranged book shelves, peer review versus reportage, using a library catalog, even moderately sophisticated Google/Wikipedia usage are a complete mysteries to students (and often their teachers). Even college professors don't well understand where information comes from and how to access it beyond the habits of their own discipline or inquiries. I'll admit that librarians are often too meek in advocating for our role. But our fellow educators need us for the project of education to be anything more than a factory of credentials to qualify for jobs that don't exist. To my fellow educators I'd say: invite us to your table, to your faculty meetings. We have much to offer.
Submitted by PennKnoxCitizen (not verified) on February 14, 2014 3:08 pm
Unfortunately, the hired consultants who advise the SDP how to create savings, recommend the cutting of positions like nurses, librarians and school counselors. The crazy thing is these consultants' children attend schools with nurses, librarians and school counselors. Makes you wonder.....
Submitted by Eileen Duffey (not verified) on February 14, 2014 4:46 pm
Thanks Adam, Stewart's comment above shows the double bind educators are in as they create piecemeal solutions to the resource starved schools. With all they have done at Stewart's school the library space offers only a fraction of what a library staffed by a certified librarian would offer. You mention that "this vital complement to schooling seems destined to whither away as it is almost untestable and resistant to quantification". Much of what we school nurses do is difficult to quantify (although much IS quantified-and that hasn't altered funding anyway). We nurses have been telling our story nonetheless and have furthered the understanding of the importance of certified school nurses across the nation. So I suggest librarians and all who love school libraries keep fighting for this indispensable position. As our friend on this blog Joe K would say, "The corporate elites know all this, they just don't care." And anyone who has been on this blog before will know what Joe K would say next.
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on February 14, 2014 4:05 pm
What would Joe K. say next??? Actually, he would likely say, "And when you don't care, you have nothing to lose." Actually, Custer dismissed the value of Indian life by saying that before he ordered an attack on an unarmed Indian Village about 2 weeks prior to The Little Big Horn. His famous Indian Scout, Mitch Boyer, told Custer not to attack a bunch of children, women and old people and for once, Custer listened. You are right, of course. They simply don't care. Their goal is business as in making money. It's not personal. It's money. And don't call me your friend !!!!!!!!!!!!
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on February 14, 2014 5:31 pm
Only kidding, Eileen. I can't afford to lose any friends since I have only 2 or 3 at the most and I'm not real sure about 2 or 3 of them either.
Submitted by Stewart (not verified) on February 14, 2014 6:58 pm
No argument there Eileen; it's the stop-gap we have not the solution we want. We'd all much prefer a properly certified school librarian with an MLS, but we can't have the position no matter how much we'd like it to be otherwise. Having teachers and student volunteers is a still better than no library at all, but it's no substitute for a professional librarian. I should add that my wife is a librarian and the Head of Access Services for Penn's libraries. One of the librarians she manages is the public outreach librarian who works with public schools in West Philly to help them keep some library services going for students as part of Penn's community outreach efforts. It's another example of fine work (he's a wonderful man and great with the kids) that's being done by others rather than being done by the school district as it should be.
Submitted by Eileen Duffey (not verified) on February 15, 2014 12:06 pm
Stewart, I have a question for you. Would you mind emailing me? eduffeybernt@gmail.com
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 14, 2014 2:25 pm
Yet another cut that gets passed in to teachers and ends up coming out of our wallets. When the schools we teach in don't have libraries, it falls to us to acquire - usually by spending our own money - rich and varied classroom libraries. As a first grade teacher I want my students to have access to the texts that Ms. DiFranco mentioned and many more. However, taking steps to purchase books does not replace the expertise that librarians bring to a school.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 14, 2014 5:17 pm
Web sites confirming the role of certified school librarians and well resourced digital and print school library resources in support of students' academic achievement and ability to read, write and think critically and creatively: http://paschoollibraryproject.org/content.php?pid=289948&sid=2382866 http://www.lrs.org/data-tools/school-libraries/impact-studies/
Submitted by Lisa Haver on February 14, 2014 6:24 pm
Eileen, I don't know if you will ever be able to top "District's Lowest Performing Seats" piece on the SRC, but you bring another crucial issue to the forefront here. How can a school district in a major city have only 16 full-time certified librarians? It is a disgrace and it is tragic. You said in your last article on comprehensive high schools that the students know that they are being cheated, and the dearth of libraries and librarians is just one more example. I agree that the fight must remain on bringing back real librarians, not allowing the idea that volunteers or partnerships could replace them to take hold. Students need trained and experienced teachers, nurses, librarians, and counselors. When every school has them, every school will be a good school.
Submitted by john (not verified) on February 14, 2014 6:51 pm
Students often don't realize that the books in their school libraries were usually chosen with specific individuals in mind based on what students are experiencing in their families and neighborhoods and what teachers at that school are getting the students interested in in their classrooms. Much investment of expertise and materials in the better school libraries will be lost if there is too long a gap before services are restored. The state is not providing equal education if Philadelphia schools are not providing what is standard in the suburbs. Even with the anonymous donations Central and Masterman do not have the funds to match what suburban schools provide in their libraries. Computerisation made possible a vast increase in what is available through interlibrary loan and online services, but all this is wasted if students do not learn how to use these services.
Submitted by Anonymousjsw (not verified) on February 15, 2014 4:16 pm
This is a beautifully expressed commentary on the importance of school libraries. However, nowhere is the importance of certified school librarians to staff them mentioned. The school library with books and computers is just that. But a library with books, computers, and a certified school librarian is a place with a heart and soul, a haven for lovers of reading and a repository for research. Students do better in school and their test scores increase when there is a certified librarian in the school. I am tired of reading about the lack of school libraries but the fact that there are no librarians to staff them is never brought up.
Submitted by Gloria Endres (not verified) on February 15, 2014 7:41 pm
I recall when the SRC began its notorious mission to "reform" the SDP, there was a ton of money spent on school renovations, including renovating and stocking state of the art libraries. But of course those fabulous plants came without staffing. Any teacher from my generation remembers that our librarians were always multi-tasking. They did much more than manage books and materials. They helped teachers plan units using the available technology and books. I remember a particularly rich unit for African American History Month. As science teacher, I teamed with the second grade teacher and the librarian to plan a unit on G.W. Carver, The children planted peanuts in the lab. The librarian let them keep the plants on her windowsill where they were allowed to track their growth. Their teacher took them to library to take out books on Carver and other related subjects. They made charts and graphs, wrote reports and journals. The unit included literacy, math, social studies and science goals. Of course none of this was assessed on a multiple choice test. Pity that.
Submitted by Morrie Peters (not verified) on February 18, 2014 3:28 am
Who needs books? The U.S. has been touched by God. WE don't need no stinkin' books...we drop a bomb on yo ass...this is the Teabagger, John Birch, Eli Broad, Bill Gates, Ayn Rand, Robert Archie, Leon Gamble selfish view of the world...get a clue....

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