My mother spent nearly her entire teaching career as a librarian at a public elementary school.
That cinder-block-walled room was her world — and one she dragged me and almost every student she ever taught into and insisted we appreciate. Because of her, I became a voracious reader. She used to bribe me to wash the dishes by bringing home huge stacks of books. It was a sad day when she told me I had read all of the books in her school’s library. At the time, I didn’t even know that was possible.
My mom’s long gone, but I found myself thinking about her last week after reading a colleague’s story about the sorry state of Philadelphia school libraries. She would have been outraged, and we should be as well.
It’s estimated that only seven of the 215 schools in the entire district have certified librarians on staff, according to the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association. Seven! That’s a travesty and also an example of institutionalized inequity. One school that has a certified librarian on staff is Masterman, the high-performing magnet school on Spring Garden Street. Every school in the Philadelphia School District deserves access to the same.
“This is a social injustice that certain students have more opportunities than others,” said Deb Kachel, cochair of the advocacy committee of the Pennsylvania Library Association.
Libraries have evolved considerably from the days many of us were in school. But even in the age of the internet, schools still need libraries and specially trained professionals to staff them. If people want their children to read and comprehend more than blogs of dubious origins and their friends’ social media posts, they need to help them. Studies show that students in low-income areas fare far better if they have access to adequately stocked and staffed school libraries.
“How do they know if the information they are finding is credible and authoritative?” Kachel asked me. “There’s a lot of crazy stuff on the internet. Who is teaching them how to be safe on the internet? The internet is a tool, and to use any tool efficiently and safely and correctly, somebody has to teach you how to do it.”
Library advocates note that there is a state-funded database called the Power Library, an online site that links users to information available in libraries across the state. Many don’t even know it exists.
“If kids are using Chromebooks and iPads in their schools, what the librarian is doing is making sure that those devices are rich with information‚” said Joyce Valenza, a former school librarian who teaches library science at Rutgers University. “We are putting in those databases. We’re also putting in the best tools for outlining and documenting sources and writing and content mapping. We’re putting that all together."
They also can zero in on a child’s special interests and can help youngsters discover other worlds through reading.
“If I were a parent of a Philadelphia schoolchild, I would be absolutely nuts that my child is not getting the resources that they need,” Valenza said. “If you go half a mile outside of Philadelphia, there are suburbs where those kids are college-ready. Those kids have access to a panoply of books. Those kids are getting this culture of information literacy.… I can tell you stories about schools I’ve visited in Philadelphia where kids just didn’t know how to do the things that they would need to know to be successful in college.
“The parents in Philadelphia and the students in Philadelphia do not know what they do not have. They are suffering from information poverty,” she added. “The students in the suburbs have information privilege.”
Although I can’t picture her holding a sign herself, my mother would have cheered on the pro-library protesters who converged on the district last week demanding better for Philly students.