“Most people don't realize how important librarians are. I ran across a book recently which suggested that the peace and prosperity of a culture was solely related to how many librarians it contained. Possibly a slight overstatement. But a culture that doesn't value its librarians doesn't value ideas and without ideas, well, where are we?”
Neil Gaiman

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Future of Libraries

The big question among librarians these days is “will there be libraries for much longer or will the powers that be just eliminate our jobs and decide that libraries and librarians can be replaced by the Internet and computers?” According to a posting by Helen Gym in the Young Philly Politics.com blog, out of “281 public schools, there are 77 full-time librarians, 31 of which are in the high schools. At the elementary level, when literacy skills are most likely to increase the fastest, more than three-quarters and possibly as high as 80% lack a full-time librarian.” These statistics are reliable and have been reported multiple times. Charter schools, Philadelphia’s favorite solution to the education crisis it faces, rarely have the money or space for a library, let alone a librarian. That means that most of the district depends upon the Philadelphia Free Library network, which has 11 branches, and is under tremendous pressure of being downsized with several branches slated for shutdown each fiscal year – and miraculously surviving year-to-date. The cuts are not just being made in Philly. Suburban districts like Radnor and Upper Merion made major cuts to their library programs at the end of this past school year, there is rumor about other suburban Philly school library programs making cuts in 2011, and nationwide states like California have devastated their programs. Some schools have eliminated the library altogether and “gone digital.” What does it all mean?

There are the doomsayers; librarians who have been in the profession for decades who feel that libraries ultimately are not going to be a part of the future. They say that we get no respect and no one understands what we do. With the economy going down the tubes and no money, there is a strong belief that we will continue to be cut until we essentially no longer exist. We will be replaced by computers and Google because the support is strong to replace all libraries with automation, the theory being that it is cheaper. There is also a belief that everyone can teach themselves how to use that technology – or at least that it is not the job of a librarian. There is a lack of appreciation and understanding for multiple literacies, nor is there recognition of the work of librarians as skilled. Supposedly "anyone can be a librarian." (Au contraire for librarians are, in fact, among the most intelligent group of professionals I know as whole.) Teaching skills in reference, organization, literacy, and more recently, technology are measurable and quantifiable and yet many administrators and teachers may not understand them as skills.

Despite the doomsayers, there are those among us who see a bright future for libraries. It will take some advocacy, but the reality is that we live in a society driven by information. We cannot escape that reality. Without good solid information skills, our children are at a huge disadvantage. The #1 skill that all students must have a solid grasp of when they graduate from high school is information literacy. What does that mean? That means that they are able to access the right information for what they need when they need it. That doesn’t mean that they know how to Google. Google is not the end all answer. Most people do not know how to Google effectively or efficiently. Paid subscription databases often offer better, higher quality resources than what is freely available via Google over the Internet. It means that they know how to really do a good search to find good information. If they’ve grown up with great school librarians, chances are, they can do a pretty good job of finding information by the time we send them off to college.

Right now, this isn’t happening. Our kids are heading off to college and they aren’t prepared. We’ve been cutting library programs and focusing on tests for a decade. It shows when they walk through the doors at the Universities. They don’t know how to find information. We think that because they can Google or use a phone, they know Information Technology. Think Again. We need to start training our kids properly. We need to invest in Information Literacy within our schools. Parents and communities need to become advocates. ALA has been talking to members of Congress, but it takes more. If you want your children and grandchildren to benefit and be a literate generation, help turn things around. Learn what the purpose of libraries in our schools is all about. Support it. Help to make the much-needed change. Some good starting points are:

  • Understanding that librarians are collaborative, certified teachers – with graduate degrees.

  • Acknowledging reference work is a skill – one all can learn, but many may need expert assistance from a professional librarian in order to find difficult information.

  • Recognizing that a good school librarian has solid knowledge of all new and older resources (including everything from fiction through non-fiction on through reference, audio, and visual) appropriate for the level they are teaching and can integrate resources throughout the curriculum by collaborating with other teachers.

  • Viewing librarians as professionals. Librarians, like other professionals, have a national professional organization: the American Library Association (ALA). It is important because it keeps our country’s archives, literature, and literacy rates safe and intact. I am a member. I believe in ALA and I believe we will be able to save libraries as a whole in this country – for all Americans.

  • Advocating for libraries. Speak up for school library programs that include fully certified teacher librarians on staff an information literacy taught within the library and integrated within the school curriculum. Advocate for public libraries that support the needs of your community with programming and resources. Advocate for paid public access through the library system to digital resources and databases. Ask librarians what they can get for you if they have more resources and advocate to get them.

Why did I become a librarian? I REALLY wanted to teach, I love kids – all kids, all ages, I love technology, I learn things quickly, I love to teach collaboratively and I believe collaborative work and teaching is the future – it’s how we work in the business world, I am an eclectic learner with eclectic interests (I love science, literature, art, history, philosophy…I was originally a Biology major but graduated with an English degree and minor in fine arts and I’ve travelled all over the world – England, Ireland, Austria, Germany, Holland, France, Belgium, Italy, Greece, Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Myanmar, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Canada, Grand Cayman, Bonaire…), I have a background in high tech communications, I love YA literature – and children’s picture books, I love to read dramatically out loud, I’ve raised children myself, I am patient… What better place to roll all of my talents into one place?

I hope that more creative, forward-thinking, collaborative people are drawn toward teaching in the school library and rethinking its future. Information is not going away and literacy will always be a critical skill. We must ensure that our young are prepared for a future where they will have to deal with the onslaught of information in its evolving formats, effectively, efficiently, and appropriately. As librarians, we will need to be the flexible, life-long learners that help people deal with the increasing deluge of information and the evolving formats in which it is delivered to us. We will need to be the change agents who ensure that multiple literacies prevail in the information age as the sea of information swells and that society has the skills to keep from capsizing in its wake.


Anonymous said...

Nicely said Melissa. Your comments aobut the role of libraries and Teacher-librarians in student's lives holds true across the world. I am in Australia, and trying to do the same job you are. Showing others how it can be done well is our best from of advocacy. Writing a blog and sharing our ideas with others helps push the message further. I hope Philadelphia schools don't make any more cuts and value the important role a good Teacher-librarian can play on a school.

Anonymous said...

Here at York College, we are having a push (initiated by the Director of the Library and the Academic Dean) to eliminate one of the common core courses, Information Literacy. IFL is a course required by all majors across campus, taken primarily by freshmen, and is primarily taught by the Library staff who are members of the general faculty.

Why the push to basically begin to eliminate job security? It's actually come about due to the recognition that Information Literacy as a topic must be integrated across the curriculum. It gets back to your comment about the collaborative nature of the library and librarians, and the need to work these skills into all aspects of study, whether it is in Science, English and Humanities, Fine Arts, or Business. I think though that it's going to mean that our definition of library services is going to change.