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.