Philadelphia's school budget woes have shuttered the district's much-lauded libraries. It's a failure of basic civilization that cannot be allowed to stand.
And so finally it's come to this: The Philadelphia School District has closed its top schools' libraries due to the budget crisis. Only 15 librarians remain in the entire district, where enrollment has already climbed past last year's 150,000 students. As the Inquirer reported today, principals at Central High and Masterman are scrambling to figure out how exactly they're supposed to give students an education without being able to give them books to read.
Let me spell this out in no uncertain terms: The library is the single most important operation in any school.
It's more important than each and every classroom.
The library is where students engage their own minds.
The library is the place that embodies the concept of intellectual activity being something for a person to choose.
Whether you are a social progressive who believes public education should be the nation's top funding priority, a fiscal conservative who believes a free market of school-choice options is the only way to keep educators accountable for their job performance, or a moderate who just hopes kids will emerge into adult society as vaguely functional human beings, there is nothing to debate here. Libraries are civilization.
Whether you believe public-school teachers are tragically underpaid and under-appreciated martyrs to humanity's future or lazy union employees who enjoy coasting on tenure and seniority through a lifetime of ten-month work years, there is nothing to debate here. Libraries are education.
Whether you point a finger of blame for our sorry school system at negligent parents, corrupt politicians, inner-city violence or an uncaring corporate nation that prefers to raise mindless consumers rather than engaged citizens, there is nothing to debate here. Libraries are sanctuary.
A school where students are not free to use a library is not a school. It's a multiple-choice indoctrination camp.
On occasion, I've heard people suggest that the ubiquity of the internet makes libraries obsolete. They are wrong. They are very, very wrong. And here's why: because what a library is goes much deeper than its collection.
Yes, the internet is the greatest library collection of documents ever imagined by man—and yet it is a collection, not a library, because people are not disembodied information searches, we are people. We exist in our bodies, adjacent to other people who exist in their bodies, and the library is where we go and join those other people in the shared communion that seeking knowledge and understanding of our world is good. That communion—the unspoken pact everyone in every library has tacitly signed that we are part of an ongoing, eons-old quest to improve our lives via learning—is what makes it possible for a people to keep creating tomorrow.
The books, whether they're printed books on shelves or digital books on screens, are important. But what actually makes the library the core of civilization, of education, isn't the books themselves—it's the communal agreement that sharing the books makes us all, individually and collectively, better.
Any closed library is an insult to civilization. Closing the libraries inside schools isn't just an insult: It's a declaration of war. As of this week's hobbled attempt at a new school year, Philadelphia has declared a suicidal war on our own future. The question is no longer who's responsible. The question is: What are we all going to do about it?