Sunday, February 8, 2009

Why our libraries must be a priority

PressDemocratic, CA: 2009 February 8
Cathy Collins

While shuffling through family papers the other night, I came across the notebook my grandfather kept while attending night-school for immigrants new to America.

It is dated 1927 and details some of the facts he had to learn, such as proper behavior for a gentleman, facts about our country's history and also a sample "help wanted" ad he had to construct in which he highlighted his skills as a machinist.

Though my grandfather's dream to be a teacher never came to fruition, his daughter, her husband and their children carried the seeds of that dream forward, through a work ethic and belief in lifelong learning that was instilled in us.

After his death, my grandmother often walked my sister and I to the public library, a few blocks away from her house.

That library opened up a new world, as we were suddenly exposed to the full range of this world's wisdom and imagination. Not only was this wealth of information unlimited, it was also free, convenient and accessible.

That's what Benjamin Franklin had in mind when he and his fellow printers discussed ways to help the community. Through his suggestion, they began a lending library that was open to everyone. They pooled their money to buy books which everyone could borrow.

In 1731, the first lending library in America opened. Soon, other towns began to imitate that first library, until reading became fashionable across all social and economic classes. This generous, wise and practical idea of sharing resources to provide more for all has, sadly, not always been supported by our national and local politicians.

A recent foreign movie, "Nuovomondo," captures a beautiful image of a group of immigrants swimming in California's "river of milk and honey." In the movie, a poor Italian immigrant widower and his family make the journey to America in the last part of the 19th century. The film debunks many myths about arrival in this country, showing how families were often separated when they arrived.

Some of those "lucky" enough got to stay and to work in factories without unions. Their hope often rested in the hearts and minds of their children.

A local student, describing her mother in a biographical essay, recently wrote:

"A couple of years ago, she moved to California because in her country there were not enough jobs. This wonderful person, my mom, is working really hard to give us all the opportunities she did not have when she was young. She wants us to finish school, to be better people every day and to achieve our goals."

This student, like so many others in our diverse sea of learners, composed, typed and edited her essay in our library, with the assistance along the way of teachers, librarians, library clerks and instructional aides: equal partners in a journey toward student achievement.

Should we not be placing the highest priority on ensuring equity of access for all learners by fully funding the heart of our schools, our libraries?

I'll conclude with two quotes and some statistics:

"For too many years, California has ranked last in the number of library books per pupil, a factor that has repeatedly been shown to affect student achievement. In the latest federal statistics on school libraries, the number of school library books in other states averages 22 books per student, while in California the average is 13." (This is from California School Library Association: Standards and Guidelines for Strong School Libraries, 2004 edition)

"In 2004 the federal government reported that only 23.7 percent of California schools with a library media center have a paid, state-certified library media specialist, compared to an average of 75.2 percent for all other states. California is the only state in the nation in which less than 50 percent of its schools have paid, state-certified library media specialists." (This is from "Status of Public and Private School Library Media Centers in the U.S: National Center for Education Statistics," 2004)

Has California's river of milk and honey really gone so dry that we can no longer afford to invest in our state's greatest resource: our children?