The Importance of School Libraries

“… dozens of library impact studies since the mid-1990s have shown that effective school libraries increase student achievement in a variety of ways, such as in reading and on standardized tests …”

~ Advocacy and the 21st Century Librarian: Challenges and Best Practices, American Library Association (ALA)

Before moving to a small city in Eastern Ontario over a year ago, my students and my own kids always had access to a school library professional, whether it was a teacher-librarian or a library technician. We had lived in 3 different municipalities in 2 different provinces, and there was always someone with appropriate training responsible for the school library space, resources and programming.

I honestly thought it was a given that public schools, whose goal is LITERACY for everyone regardless of socioeconomic status, would always staff school libraries. 

Apparently I was naive.

I was HORRIFIED to discover the local public school board did away with all library professionals a few years ago to save money. Apparently other Ontario boards, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, are now taking similar measures.

Even more SICKENING to me is the fact that some local schools renamed their libraries to MAKERSPACES to try and make the decision seem more palatable, progressive and STEM-focused. A little vein in my forehead still throbs every time I think about the short-sighted education leaders who thought superficial semantic ploys could actually cover up such a devastating blow to our children’s educational experience. You just can’t put a bow on a pile of garbage and call it a present.

When I spoke up, I was met with amused condescension, and it was explained to me, rather patronizingly I thought, that in light of the ongoing provincial cuts to education, and in order to to keep class sizes reasonable, tough choices had to be made, completely ignoring the fact that:

  1. Other boards and school divisions across the country and around the world, facing similar cuts, had made different choices;
  2. The elimination of what is often only a 0.5 position in most schools would make little difference, if any, to overall class sizes.

Besides, I was told, UNPAID VOLUNTEERS CAN RUN A LIBRARY, RIGHT?!

No, they can’t. Volunteers are wonderful, and they are a valued asset in school libraries. They can assist with shelving materials, repairing books, creating displays and running book fairs and other fundraising initiatives, but they don’t have training in:

  • Collection development and curating appropriate physical and electronic resources for students;
  • Circulation and resource management;
  • Cataloguing and inventory;
  • Reader’s advisory;
  • Literacy programming.

Others argued that school libraries are often a duplication of services anyways, and that public libraries can meet the needs of children and families in most communities. Again, no they can’t. Public libraries play a vital role in our communities, but they cannot replace school libraries for a number of reasons.

First, many communities do not have a public library branch within a reasonable distance for many families, particularly in rural and remote areas. The urban-rural divide is a huge problem in Canada that comes up often in both the education and library fields. Geographic distance, lack of transportation and lack of WiFi connectivity severely impede many people’s access to public library resources — both physical and digital — across this country, especially in our Northern regions.

Second, accessing public library services and resources requires a parent/guardian to sign children up and take them regularly. As much as we don’t want to think about it, many children do not have a reliable adult in their life to take them to the public library, whether due to economic, mental health, substance abuse or other issues.

Third, public library programming has to consider all age groups from 0 – 65+; there may only be a handful of school-aged programs at any given time. Likely those programs only reach a few dozen kids, at most. Having libraries in schools ensures that all youth have weekly or bi-weekly access to a library and its staff, resources and programs.

Quite simply, it’s an equity issue. All children, regardless of where they live or their family’s socioeconomic status deserve reliable, free access to a library and its resources.

YOUR CHILDREN DESERVE SCHOOL LIBRARIES PROPERLY FUNDED AND STAFFED BY LIBRARY PROFESSIONALS.

If you agree, I encourage you to share my article widely. I also encourage you to send an email to your local school trustee and your Board’s Director of Education. ASK THESE QUESTIONS  FROM THE ONTARIO SCHOOL LIBRARY ASSOCIATION (OSLA):

1. Does my child have access to school library resources and to a qualified school library professional? How?

2. Is a qualified school library professional responsible for selecting the books in my child’s school library?

3. What is the plan for the school library next year?

We can’t rob our children, our future, of a fundamental and invaluable literacy experience.

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