Years ago, my school library closed. The administration declared that no one was using the library and that it had become “obsolete” with the age of the Internet. The room that was once a library is now a computer lab. And the administration probably still feels proud that they are being “innovative” and keeping up with modern technology. The irony, however, is that the school library was only ever as obsolete as the administration and faculty made it. And, if they had wanted to, they could have saved the school library within a few months.
My school library closed because no students ever used it. No students used the library because it was primarily open during school hours and briefly after–and no teacher ever seemed to think about bringing their classes to the library. Students were not allowed out of class for essentially any reason (except, of course, sports), so could not go to the library by themselves. In short, the school itself prevented students from using the library because they blocked access to it.
Keeping the library open for a half hour or so after school may have seemed like a generous initiative to the administration. But this was not enough to help because many students have to go directly to extracurricular activities or to catch a bus. Even if a student had managed to squeeze in a rushed visit, they may have been afraid to check anything out, in case they were unable to go back to return the materials. The administration ignored the realities of the students when selecting library hours, again effectively preventing the average student from being able to access the library at all.
If students did manage to get to the library, however, they would have been sadly disappointed by the limited and out-dated selection. The books were decades old and were almost all academic titles–there was no indication that anyone expected students to read for fun. One visit to the library was enough to convince me that I had no reason to return. It was clear that the school had neglected the library for years. And then the administration wondered why students were not utilizing its “resources.”
The school caused the death of the library by restricting student access to it and by choosing not to purchase new or relevant titles for the shelves. The administration then chose to “solve” this problem by closing the library down completely–and thus showed that its true priorities never included instilling a love of reading in the students. However, saving the library would have been ridiculously easy. All the school needed to do was to get teachers to bring classes to the library and to provide them with more opportunities to access the library on their own–before, during, and after school. Students would have used the library if the faculty had taken the time to convince them it was worth it.
Updating the library collection would have taken more work, but would have also been an attainable goal. To start, the school could have done a fundraiser, sought out grants, and solicited donations. The school regularly finds money and does fundraisers to pay for their sports teams. It would only be fair for the school to find money for a project that would benefit all the students, and not only a select few.
It seems silly that so many school libraries are closing when getting students into the library can be as simple as scheduling a few classroom visits. And one has to wonder why. Is it the pressure to teach to the test? Is there no administrative support? Or is it something more fundamental? Denver librarian Julia Torres was recently featured in School Library Journal for asking her teachers if they were not bringing students to the library because they themselves were not reading. Her direct approach worked. Asked to reflect on their own reading lives, the teachers were soon bringing their classes back to the library.
Teacher support for the library becomes crucial when we remember that not every child has access to books at home. Some do not own books. They may not have transportation to the public library. They may live in book deserts, where print materials are not readily available to sale. The school library may be one of the only places some children have access to books at all. So, when students are not given opportunities to check out books at school, they may have nothing to read at all. Teachers and school administrations need to remember this, and not assume that students will be able to read on their own.
It seems like schools are always firing their librarians and closing their libraries. But doing so sends a clear message to the students: reading is not important. Certainly not important enough for schools to bother funding libraries and not important enough for schools to ensure that their libraries stay open to guarantee their students access to books. But if schools believe they must close their libraries because they have become “obsolete,” they must first ask themselves how they may have been complicit in the library’s demise.