Is the school library dead? Yesterday I was reading in quite a large elementary school in quite a large city, and the school had no library. Most of the time when I go into a school to read, there is at least a room designated as a library. There isn’t usually any sort of librarian to go with it, and often it is crowded with other things, but at least it’s there with a sign on the door. Often a secretary (administrative assistant?) or teacher’s assistant or someone of that sort is vaguely responsible for the library, in spare moments from their real job. The library is often a shared space, used for the music room, storage, the lunch room, the place to send the kids to run around during indoor recess, the place to send kids who are acting up in the classroom, and so on. What is this demonstrating to the children about the value of reading? It’s a luxury we tack on if we can afford it? It’s a sort of clutter that we can’t quite throw out, so we want to at least shove it out of the way, like that china rabbit with an umbrella that was Granny’s delight?
In my elementary school, which had fewer than 200 students, we had a library; we had a librarian, and she was a full-time librarian. She had more office and work-space in the back corner of the library than many public libraries I’ve seen. It had bright red carpets (even one wall was covered with bright red carpet), and a nail-yarn sculpture of owls. It was quiet. It was soothing. (Okay, I find bright red soothing. Maybe it’s due to that library.) Although I loved the public library in Collin’s Bay to which my family went every three weeks or so and at which I discovered many of my enduringly favourite authors, that little school library was where I first found Enid Blyton and Marguerite Henry and Walter Farley, fondly remembered but now outgrown, as well as authors whom I still reread, Arthur Ransome, Anthony Buckeridge, Lloyd Alexander, and John Buchan. It’s where one sister devoured Beverly Cleary and another Judy Blume. It was where we all trundled down from our classrooms, year after year, to find little books in which to research our projects on Laura Secord and Frederic Banting and Billy Bishop and E. Cora Hind, on pileated woodpeckers and acid rain and the solar system.
We were always taken to the public library as well, and had a house full of books, but lots of children aren’t, and lots of children don’t. If they have a school library, though, a good school library with lots of well-chosen books, not just recent oddments selected from the book-order catalogue by someone, however well meaning, who isn’t a wide and thoughtful reader themselves, and if they have regular times to go and explore that library, they’re going to read more. They’ll have a much greater likelihood of discovering something that they want to read and will like to read; wanting to read and reading regularly is half the battle, in the early years. As a society, we’re drifting more and more to a state of aliteracy; where people, educated people, are functionally literate. And that’s all. They lack any complexity in vocabulary — just listen to the misuse of language on the CBC, of all things — and have no ear for syntax — ditto. Grammar eludes even many with a bachelor’s degree, at least, going by various communications I’ve had to read and again, what one hears on-air. If we can’t speak and write clearly, we can’t communicate. We’re also cut off from the knowledge of the past. History, culture, science — all knowledge is communicated through words, and primarily through the written word. As language becomes more a hit and miss affair with comprehension a matter of skimming and stabbing in the dark, we’re losing our ability to understand what we read, to think complexly and to comprehend complexity in ideas.
That’s a lot of weight to put on the foundation of the humble school library, but without that simple foundation — words, words, words — there’s nothing to build on.
P.s. And no, looking things up online is not “why we don’t need school libraries”. I’ve seen a project on myself — a teacher proudly showed it to me. It was the bio off my website, printed out and glued to a piece of cardboard. The student got an “A”.