I've been thinking about libraries a lot this week, partly because many of my friends in the children's book industry are in New Orleans right now for the ALA conference, and partly because I keep reading news stories like this one about school districts getting rid of their school librarians.
Karen Westerberg is the school librarian at Wells Elementary School, where my daughter just finished first grade. Mrs. Westerberg is an excellent school librarian, and an intergral part of the school. Last year, she almost lost her job due to budget cuts. Fortunately enough parents spoke up in her defense, and school district administrators found a way to make the budget work without firing her.
Across the country, more and more public schools faced with shrinking budgets and risings costs are making the decision to fire their full-time certified school librarians and replace them with parent volunteers or lower-salaried assistants. For Mrs. Westerberg's sake, and for my daughter's sake, I am extremely grateful that our school district did not make this same mistake. Her job is safe, for now.
Wells Elementary School is a great school. I could go on for hours about how amazing Ava's first grade teacher was, how the students there are treated with respect and kindness by teachers and administrators, or how much she loves going to school every day. But I decided to write this post about Karen Westerberg because I fear that her job won't be safe for long. I hope that if enough people speak in defense of school librarians, school administrators will find other ways to make their budgets work.
The main problem here, I think, is that to a lot of people, school librarians seem expendable. I mean, couldn't anyone sit at that desk and check out books? Wouldn't it make more sense to have parent volunteers shelve books for free? All you need are basic organizational skills and a rudimentary knowledge of the alphabet, right?
A full-time certified school librarian is not expendable. School librarians do so much more than shelve books and check them out to students. But somehow, much of what they do seems to go unnoticed, at least by the people who are making the misguided decision to fire them as a cost-cutting measure. There are plenty of studies out there that show a clear positive correlation between a strong school library program and student performance (this article links to some of them). But instead of repeating what's already all over the internet, I want to share just a few of the ways that one school librarian, Karen Westerberg, had a positive impact on my daughter's education this year:
-She always knew what my daughter's class was working on, and developed library-based projects and lessons to further enhance their classroom experience. She was directly involved with every major classroom project, including a research project on the Alamo, and an extended interdisciplinary study of the Oregon Trail which also included the classroom teacher, the music teacher, and the gym teacher.
-When my daughter chose the Aye-Aye (a rare funny-looking primate who lives in the rainforests of Madagascar) as the focus for her big end-of-the-year research project, Mrs. Westerberg helped her find resources in the library for her project. Every kid in the class chose a different subject, yet when I ran into Mrs. Westerberg in the hall on the last day of school, she knew exactly what my daughter had worked on and how she did with her research.
-She helped my daughter learn how to use the library, how to access information.
-She knows children's books. She knows where my daughter is in terms of reading level, and she knows just the right books to place into her hands that might grab her interest and help her not only to further develop her reading skills, but also help her learn to love reading.
-She made my daughter see the library as a fun, warm, welcoming place, filled with information and imagination.
These are just a few examples of how one school librarian impacted the education of one student. And my daughter wasn't getting any sort of special treatment here. This is what Mrs. Westerberg did for every single kid in the school. So to get a sense of her importance to the school community, multiply this about five hundred times.
Yes, she keeps track of what books come in and what books go out. She decides what books to put on display and she keeps her library looking nice. Parent volunteers could do most of that. But that's not what she went to library school for. She didn't get her MLS for being a good alphabetizer. She is a great librarian for all the other things she does.
The other day, author Patrick Ness received the Carnegie Medal for his book, Monsters of Men (published in the US by Candlewick). In his acceptance speech, he spoke of the importance of libraries. Here's a great quote from his speech:
"Knowledge and information – and by which I do very much include the internet – is a forest. And true, sometimes it's fun getting lost, sometimes that's how you learn some surprising things. But how much more can you discover when someone can point you in the right direction, when someone can maybe give you a map. When someone can maybe even give you a treasure map, to places you may not have even thought you were allowed to go. This is what librarians do."
This is exactly what Karen Westerberg did for my daughter. She gave her a treasure map, which has already led her to all sorts of amazing places. There are too many kids out there whose treasure maps have been taken away. Every great school needs a great librarian, and I am extremely thankful that my daughter's school has one. I wish every school did.