Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Bit of a Rant

Last weekend I spoke at the 2009 California School Library Association Conference, with its theme of Embrace the Serendipity of Learning. I love librarians. One of them, speaking to a group of writers, said that we are their heroes. Well, the feeling is mutual. Especially these days.

The conference exhibit hall was about as densely populated as our Mojave Desert, with vast walls of curtains trying to disguise the fact. Folks strolling the floor were likewise of a desert town density. Presentations were scheduled simultaneously and I held my breath to see if I would attract more than the one person who introduced me. I spoke on – what else for an INK blogger? – The Serendipity of Reading and Writing Nonfiction, and when I got a crowd of about twelve, I felt grateful indeed. The session I attended after mine had only four in the audience, but the speaker was just as enthusiastic and engaging as if he were addressing four hundred.

Seriously though, the state of school libraries in California is abysmal and getting worse. As you probably know, the Golden State is no more. Now there’s only budget deficits and criminal cuts in services in them thar hills. So what does that mean for school libraries? California, once an innovative leader in public education, now stands 51st in the nation for school librarian ratios. That’s quite an achievement in a country with 50 states. Two years ago our ratio was 1 school librarian for 5,124 students. Yes, that’s 1:5174. Today it’s much much worse.

At the conference I, of course, only met those librarians who still have jobs and the wherewithal to attend a conference. One librarian I met works at ten different elementary schools – half a day per week in each one. Three hours per school per week. Another works only three days a week and covers six schools. Her district won’t pay her mileage, so she spends a whole day at each school – twice a month. Acquisitions budgets have evaporated. Yet all were eeager to see my flyer on the INK Think Tank database.

Some downsized librarians are classroom teachers now. One described her Catch-22. If she, as a teacher, provides the enrichment that she offered as a librarian, it will justify her district’s argument that they don’t need a school librarian after all. The San Diego Unified School District, one of the largest in the country, is considering closing all school libraries and using them as storage rooms.

As we authors and librarians met in southern California, students at the ten campuses of the University of California around the state were out in force protesting a 32% increase in tuition next year. As a veteran of the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, I say “Right on!”

I also say, “HOW DARE WE?!”

How dare we shortchange our children and their education like this -- impoverishing the programs at the elementary and secondary levels and ensuring that cash-strapped college students are left out of the top tier of our state university system? All in the service of no new taxes.

Back at the conference it was heartening, as always, to surround oneself with people who love books, and understand that children’s authors do important work. And what is more fun than standing in front of the friendliest of audiences and talking about yourself and your books for an hour? But still, I couldn’t help but sense a ghostly presence in the nearly-empty exhibit hall and meeting rooms – the ghosts of all those librarians that should have been there.

Camila Alire, President of the American Library Association, addressed us one evening and implored us to lobby for change. Not just by emailing our lawmakers, but by talking to our friends, our relatives, our neighbors, parents in the schools – to tell them what’s wrong and try to get them to care.

In the end, we all know the nature of life is impermanence, that nothing stays the same, that things get worse and then they get better and then they get worse and then…. We’ve all enjoyed the kiss of serendipity. (I turned to writing children’s books when I was laid off from my dream job.)

Just let that kiss come soon.


Linda Zajac said...

You are painting a very bleak picture. That tuition hike is alarming. If schools don't have the cash to keep their librarians employed, they certainly don't have the cash to keep their "closets" stocked with exciting reads.

liznwyrk said...

Thank you for this post.

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

President Obama's Race for the Top provides well over 4 Billion dollars to improve education in the United States because our students have slid so far down the list in worldwide educational rankings. Surely there's some way that California and other states that are currently eliminating their school libraries and librarians can tap into this money to keep great books and great librarians in their schools! The substituted material online that schools are using is rarely vetted and the online textbooks, while better than they used to be, cannot even come close to providing the excitement, variety, and accuracy of real books. And the best of the nonfiction books that fit into the school curriculum (such as the award winning books from INK)are simply phenomenal. What a criminal waste to eliminate one of the best sources of learning for kids. I'd strongly urge anyone whose school system is trying to eliminate libraries to try to tap into the stimulus money.

Xerox 8400 ink said...

I fear for Obama's educational plans, and as of recently, I am worried even more. He has stressed the factors of Science and Math, without really pointing out the problems that are currently arising with reading. Obama is much smarter than Bush, and that may even be a reason to be cautious when listening to him speak. He has a lot to make up for from Mr. Bush, and the steps he has taken, have not shown anything but support of the Bush Agenda. I think it is going to be a responsibility of the parents to get involved and for teachers to become more educated; outside of their obsolete books.

Sandie Lee said...

Great Blog :)

Media Diva said...

Great post, particularly the line about the Catch-22 school librarians face when trying to do the right thing for their students in understaffed, underfunded programs. If they "make things work" by working outside the school day, providing volunteer services, and trying to cover budget shortfalls with donations, fundraisers, and grants, it makes it appear that the district was right in cutting services.
What is your source for the stats on librarian / student ratios by state?

Gretchen Woelfle said...

I found the data at the CA Dept of Education:

Here's an elaboration from the same website.
Approximately 24 percent of California schools have a credentialed teacher librarian on campus part time or longer; the majority of professional staffing is found at the high school level. A teacher librarian has both a California teaching credential and a California teacher librarian services credential. Although the average national ratio of teacher librarians to students in the fall of 2004 was 1:916, California ranks fifty-first in the nation with a current ratio of 1:5,124 (2006-07 CBEDS Report and Digest of Education Statistics Tables and Figures 2006, National Center for Education Statistics (Outside Source).