Sunday, February 19, 2012

Mrs. Gick's Library

(Originally posted at The League of Extraordinary Writers)

Last week in this space I wrote about two uncomfortable experiences I had while visiting libraries. But I’ve presented in dozens of school and public libraries over the last six months, and the vast majority of those visits have been wonderful. So this week I’d like to talk about the value of libraries. I’ll illustrate my point with a story about a typical library visit.

On December 9th I spent the day with Sherry Gick at Rossville Middle/High School. The library wasn’t the biggest one I’d seen, or the newest, or the fanciest. If anything, it looked a little tired. Until the students came in, that is. I’ve never seen a group of teens more excited about reading, their library, or their librarian.

The book discussions over lunch were non-stop and so varied as to be dizzying. We didn’t just talk about my book, ASHFALL—we covered Cashore, Collins, Shusterman and a host of paranormal romance authors I haven’t read. I finally wolfed my cold slice of pizza during the passing period after lunch.

This is what a great library does: It develops passionate readers. How does Mrs. Gick achieve this? Even in my brief time there, I noticed a few things. First, the library is laid out like a bookstore. Fiction is separated by genre—science fiction, paranormal romance, realistic fiction, etc. Big, inviting signs hang over each section. The books all have their original covers, and some of them are faced out. There are paperbacks available for those who prefer them. And the first thing you see as you walk in isn’t a row of computers; it’s a book display on the counter of the library desk. (The computers are around the corner to your right.)

But even more important than the physical layout of the library is its emotional tone. The first question students hear isn’t, “Do you have a pass?” it’s something more like, “How are you doing today, Todd?” One girl told me she volunteered to work in the library during 7th period because it helped her wind down after a stressful day of classes. That she loved the library because it felt “safe”—her word, not mine. Another student told me about coming to Mrs. Gick for assistance with a disturbing and thorny issue with another teacher, and how Mrs. Gick had helped her resolve it. These teens have so much trust in their library and librarian that they feel comfortable asking anything. During our discussion of ASHFALL, one student wanted to know about my use of the term “spooning”—did that mean Alex and Darla were having sex? As I listened to the question, I expected raucous laughter and teasing. Instead, her question was met with nods and some embarrassed glances. What followed was a thoughtful discussion about the definition of spooning and the role of sex in ASHFALL—why it wouldn’t have been appropriate for Alex and Darla to have sex in the scene under discussion, and whether it was appropriate at all.

By all measures—books circulated, computers used, and classes taught—Mrs. Gick’s library and thousands like it are excelling. But both school and public libraries across the country are facing devastating budget cuts. Between 2000 and 2008, the per-student funding available for school library materials fell 31% in the U.S. It’s not that we lack money for education. Between 2002 and 2008 we increased spending on standardized testing by 160%. Overall education spending increased 21% between 2000 and 2005. Why do we starve libraries while throwing bushel baskets of money at testing companies like McGraw-Hill? The short answer is that McGraw-Hill has better lobbyists than the American Library Association. (Which industry do you think spent more on lobbying in 2011—defense or education? If you guessed defense, you’re wrong.)

Library funding is being cut despite a long and rich history of studies linking school libraries to student achievement. But the most important way libraries matter isn’t measurable in studies. It’s the things librarians like Mrs. Gick do—creating passionate readers and providing students a safe place to reflect and learn. Let’s spend more time and money on what works—reading, libraries, and librarians—and reduce the amount of time and money wasted on standardized tests. Every student deserves a library like Mrs. Gick’s.

p.s. If you’re interested in having a day of presentations at your school or library like the one I did at Mrs. Gick’s school, I’m offering them at no charge in 2012 and for a nominal fee in 2013.  There’s more information here.

Mrs. Gick and me