Unavoidable Disasters and Unfathomable Disconnects

September 7, 2011

The only recourse after disaster strikes is to recover and learn from it.

The library community is well aware of the horror visited upon the Eastern seaboard by Hurricane Irene, and, hearteningly, how communities are strategizing about how they’ll restore library services even as they struggle to repair and rebuild other essential town infrastructure. Transplanted New Englanders and bibliophiles from around the world have rolled up their sleeves to help, including some girls in Colorado who are sending $55 to the flood-ravaged Wells Memorial Library in Upper Jay, New York—the proceeds of a lemonade stand they set up to help restock the library’s decimated children’s collection.

It goes without saying (although I’m saying it anyway) that the libraries still standing after Irene proudly withstood a different kind of flood: the influx of people who flocked there to recharge their electronic devices and their souls, as evidenced by the survey results posted by New Jersey State Library.

Among the takeaways from these acts of generosity and affirmation is that libraries clearly matter—a lot.

What, then, to make of the administrative disconnect between library boosters and local officials in Mansfield, Connecticut, as reported in the August 12 Mansfield-Storrs Patch? Anticipating the September retirement of library Director Louise Bailey, Town Manager Matthew Hart and Mansfield Public Schools Superintendent Frederick Baruzzi have proposed that Bailey’s successor also oversee the school library program.

First, in a time of cutbacks to school libraries nationwide, it’s good to know that Mansfield Public Schools still have school libraries, as its website attests. That’s a good start when California continues to rank 50th in the nation for school library services in terms of both student to teacher-librarian ratio (6,000 to 1) and funding. In a nation where Secretary of Education Arne Duncan can say without creating a ripple, “Our role in the federal government is to support the use of research, libraries, and media specialists, but not to mandate how schools accomplish this goal” in response to a pointed question in the July 1 eSchool News about the importance of having at least one credentialed school librarian in every school library (the thrust of the SKILLs Act, first introduced in 2007 and reintroduced this year).

Still, the notion that one human being can successfully direct two disparate library programs (given that a day still has 24 hours in it) speaks volumes about the mindset—or the desperation—of those proposing the arrangement. “I don’t see how anyone in their right mind could do both jobs and survive,” area resident Joan Neuwirth observed at an August 10 town meeting on the subject, according to the newspaper.

It’s the disparity between the esteem in which library services are held by some and the unawareness of others, too often those holding the purse strings, about libraries’ value to their communities that still stuns.

What’s the takeaway? It’s a good thing that librarians are educators because there’s still an awful lot of enlightening to do.