Maybe the Play’s the Thing

April 14, 2010

For millions of American schoolchildren, National Library Week isn't quite the celebration that librarians want it to be. That's because the viability of properly staffed school libraries, whose direct impact on increased academic success has been documented ad nauseum for decades, is under attack like never before.

In a particularly poignant NLW celebration, students at the Monroe County (Ind.) Community Schools' Templeton Elementary School are presenting a student play tomorrow night, entitled The Case of the Missing Librarian, a fairy tale mashup without much of a happy ending. The play was inspired by the news that Templeton's real-life school librarian, Mrs. Hall, will be laid off at the end of this school year due to budget cuts. On stage, the kids lose their voices until they decide to march on Indianapolis to protest.

I hope the stage director has provided a megaphone because there seem to be a number of tone-deaf decision makers. That's not to say that lawmakers and school-district officials nationwide don't have fiscal crises to avert as the economy struggles to regain its footing; understandably, administrators and legislators are looking to cut corners wherever they can. However, as the powers that be turn repeatedly to the budget lines for school librarians in their search for expendable noninstructional services, I can't help but wonder whether they benefited from the mentoring of credentialed school librarians in their own childhoods. How else to explain why the reams of data about the enormously positive impact of school libraries on student achievement have failed to impress enough of them? It certainly couldn't be obstinacy, could it?

If written documentation doesn't work, perhaps a picture would. Thanks to the digital prowess of Shonda Brisco, curriculum materials librarian at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, everyone can see for themselves on a customized Google map how close to decimation school library programs are throughout the U.S., and by default, the education of a generation of Americans.

Note the cluster of endangered programs in California, Indiana, and throughout the Northeast—so concentrated in the latter case that it's impossible to see the names of several states. Contributing to that debacle is an FY2011 proposal by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to gut (PDF file) state aid to schools (to say nothing of state aid to public libraries, the state library, and shared electronic resources); library boosters are fighting back online and off.

Despite a reprieve for school library workers in the Los Angeles Unified School District, who were able to discard the pink slips they received in March, thousands of California school librarians elsewhere remain on the potential chopping block. As part of its ongoing save California school libraries campaign, the California School Librarians Association plans to storm the state capitol Friday for a Day in the District. Fiscal support (PDF file), as well as promoting supportive school library standards (PDF file), are on the agenda; strengthening standards was also on the radar at the national level with the reintroduction in the 110th Congress last fall of the SKILLs Act, which called for every public school–library to employ at least one credentialed librarian.

But even codification may not be sufficient insurance: Lawmakers in Oklahoma and Iowa introduced bills this year that would take the teeth out of regulations mandating that school districts employ school librarians—at least for the time being. The ever-observant Shonda Brisco observed today that the Gore Public Schools, which serves 550 students, have already decided to dismiss the elementary-school librarian.

When the California school librarians descend on Sacramento Friday, Darla Brown will be among them in spirit if not in person. Having just received her layoff notice from the private Catholic high school whose library she runs, Brown told American Libraries how she posted on her media-center door a copy of a recent heartfelt "Dear the Government" letter from an Indiana 1st-grader to the Bloomington Herald Times that read, in part, "I don't like that you're firing our school librarians. . . . Ms. Williams is a great librarian. She reads wonderful stories, and her voice goes up when it is supposed to and down when it is supposed to." Brown said the administration asked her to remove the letter because displaying it "showed disrespect" to her superiors.

Who's up for taking The Case of the Missing Librarian on tour?


Great Reads: The Pura Belpre Award Winners

Members of the Pura Belpre Award Committee talk about the winning books: Return to Sender, Book Fiesta!, Diego: Bigger Than Life, Gracias: Thanks, Federico Garcia Lorca, and My Abuelita. Check them out at your local library

An Evening with Neil Gaiman, Part 1

Author Neil Gaiman speaks to the Jessamine County (Ky.) Public Library via online vidoeconference as a National Library Week event. In part 1, Gaiman discusses the role of libraries in his life, intellectual freedom, the importance of graphic novels in library collections, Alan Moore, and more.