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2010-07-01 10:20 am

The Hidden Value of School Libraries

There was a disturbing article in Teleread a couple of days ago that said schools are increasingly likely to eliminate library budgets or treat them as luxuries. We all know what happens to luxuries during economic recessions.

Even in our low-budget elementary and primary schools, our teachers made sure to emphasize the use of libraries, and I usually read several books a week. In high school, our library was a godsend. The librarians knew I was eating lunch in there when I wasn’t supposed to, but I didn’t leave a mess, so then turned a blind eye while i munched away in the nonfiction sections. That was when I was a sophomore and couldn’t drive home for lunch. The librarian taught me how to use WorldCat to find articles from Time Magazine covers I had seen as a kid and wanted to read years later.

We often had free periods in the middle of the day when I wanted to study All of our classrooms were usually offices for the teachers as well, so I couldn’t work in those, and 47 minutes is not enough time to make driving home for work worth it, even if I could. I used the desks in the library to prepare for memorization exams for Latin, Theater, English, Chemistry, and who knows what else. I owe several As and A+s to that school library.

The town library was small, underfunded, and swamped. This surprised me, as we were one of the two wealthiest towns in the greater school district comparatively speaking. The town next door over where I was born and grew up was more blue-collar and middle class, but it owned a larger building that it shared with the police and fire departments at one time and thus had leftover space when those moved out for expansion. Sometimes I suspect that the “town” town residents - those who lived in the oldest buildings directly in the heart of our new town — were either wealthy enough to afford to buy books they couldn’t find in the library or wanted to keep the library in its current space because they liked things “the way they were.” In any case, our branch was rarely useful for anything but checking out CDs and audiobooks or the occasional hardcover from the 1970s. When I went on my Arthurian binges, they usually involved going downtown to the largest branch or to the local university or hopping from one regional branch to another for a book here, a book there.

I can only imagine what it would have been like in high school if we had no alternative to working in the cafeteria, the hub of all social activity in high school, where halls run undivided down both sides and you have to cross it to go to shop class, gym, the auditorium, or the parking lots. Don’t get me wrong, once I went to college, the dining hall was my favorite place to be, but  studied there because I have a sleeping disorder and the noise and constant activity would keep me awake. Also, I was still a perfectionist in high school and had trouble blocking out the constant stream of people walking by the tables. A socially conscious girl who wanted to please her friends, not look too antisocial, and pay attention to her crush who just walked over to the soda machine would have had issues with willpower and focus.

I didn’t think that much about the library in school because I expected it to always be there. From childhood, I knew that schools had libraries and books for me to read or reference. It was an extension of my computer room and study desk at home, an empty classroom with infinite knowledge available, an alternative to slackerdom and smoking several things on the hill just beyond school property, a refuge from social isolation when I has just moved to town and had no friends. The library was an extension of me. I used it almost every day.

Lest someone say that everyone has internet and a computer at home, this NPR story talks about a girl in high school who has to type all of her written work ON A CELL PHONE:

[Rosemarie Bernier, president of the California School Library Association and librarian at Hamilton High School in Los Angeles,] spoke of a student with a first period English class who came to her in tears because she didn’t have enough time to transfer and reformat the essay she had written on her cell phone. Since she doesn’t have a computer at home, the student’s cell phone is her only hope of completing assignments that need to be typed.

I can sympathize. I convinced my parents to buy me a laptop when I went back to university to finish college after a several year lapse. That was in 2009. I soon discovered that virtually NO ONE used desktops in college anymore except in the libraries. One of the classes I took had in-class online exams. The professors just ASSUMED we all had laptops. They assumed. Had I been less successful in convincing them, had the previous Christmas season not been in the midst of the financial crisis when electronics companies halved their prices, I would have flunked that course.

I am sure that there were a few students who had to live in the 24-hour library because they had no laptops. They couldn’t take most technology courses.

This is the problem with assuming everyone has what you have: often, you are the privileged one. Others are not always as fortunate, and those are the people you forget about when you cut funding, shutter programs, and just assume that bureaucracy will magically redistribute and reallocate resources and give everyone a happy ending.

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Originally published at Folklore Fanatic. You can comment here or there.