Closing school libraries? This means war

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.

By Stephen Segal
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 18 | Posted Sep. 13, 2013

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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?

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Comments 1 - 18 of 18
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1. Anonymous said... on Sep 14, 2013 at 08:24AM

“Our library is closed and the area is being used as a classroom so we can't even have access to the books or the 20 or so computers we used to be able to assign students to use. Waste!”

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2. Bryan Karl Lathrop said... on Sep 14, 2013 at 09:13AM

“Bravo, Stephen! Eloquent, pithy, punchy and really balanced sentiment about the insanity that confronts not just our students, but our city and region. "Suicidal war" pretty much sums things up. Thank you so much for writing this gem, I'll be spreading the word a out our plight via your article. again, bravo! Hellz yeah, even.”

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3. Anonymous said... on Sep 14, 2013 at 02:27PM

“We are a elementary school. Last year our library was opened with two Paraprofessionals manning the helm. This year it is closed. Right now it has become a storage are of books that teachers do not need.

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4. Anonymous said... on Sep 14, 2013 at 06:03PM

“I taught in Phila. public schools from 1985 until 2007 and was in an elementary school until 2004. During those 20 years, in 3 different schools, there was a paraprofessional in one elementary school where I taught for 8 years, a librarian in a middle school the one year I taught there, and NO librarian or paraprofessional in the beautiful library space in the elementary school where I taught for 12 years. I fully agree that a school without a library is tantamount to a declaration of war, but why wasn't that declaration made back in 1993 when I first went back to elementary? Our school never did get a librarian. To my mind and though I never did agree, that sent a message to administration that libraries were not necessary in elementary schools. This decline has been a long time coming, but has finally become a steep, slippery slope.”

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5. Anonymous said... on Sep 14, 2013 at 07:19PM

“We hold these students accountable for high acheivement but don't provide the equity amongst districts and schools to support them, you don't have to be a math genius to figure out that high standards with NO resources will NOT add up to a quality education. Common Core standards require students use critical thinking and evidence to support their findings - just where will these students access the needed resources and who will instruct them in how to use them ethically?Libraries are just about reading they are also about contributing as a participant as a creator of information. Students aren't prepared for post graduation opportunities IF we don't provide age appropriate instruction to prepare them. We want our graduates to be critical thinkers and problem-solvers not unengaged bubble fillers.”

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6. TooManyFreeloaders said... on Sep 15, 2013 at 01:53PM

“Let's get real. Education costs money. That money comes from taxes. Philly has a serious rat population. Those who have no jobs and cannot afford kids continue to out breed those who do! All I see are more mommas popping out kids, all while living off welfare. If a college educated woman who is married and makes very good money each year can afford ONE not try to convince me that the woman with a HS diploma, no husband and five or six kids with NO job can. They TAKE tax dollars, yet do not MAKE tax dollars. And you think the money to educate all your kids comes from WHERE????”

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7. Dr Phil said... on Sep 15, 2013 at 03:21PM

“Schools need libraries. Any government's first duty is towards the development of its population. If in a civilized nation, like the United States, education is not readily and freely available to all its children, what would that nation look like ten years down the road? It will slide down the hill. Tax money should go into providing all our children with schools equipped with good teachers, libraries and librarians. To fail to do this takes away the claim to greatness by any nation. Any government that shows the lack of understanding of its purpose and duty of investing in the future of its community should resign. It has lost its way, and has failed the very people who elected it in the first place.”

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8. Katie said... on Sep 16, 2013 at 12:13PM

“Who decides to close the libraries? Each individual school- or is this an SRC policy? Or a school district policy? Who is making these decisions? Who is drawing up the priorities of our public schools during the financial squeeze?”

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9. A sad observer... said... on Sep 16, 2013 at 03:05PM

“I think it is crimnal how the profession of Librarian has been so dumbed down in stature by those in power who do not have a true clue to the importance of someone trained to give the best help to any individual- whether a child in school or an adult doing research- in a library environment. Many public libraries advertise for directors with the only requirements being they have a high school diploma, or in some cases a couple of years of college. It is obvious that they do this to save money, but what are they sacrificing? They don't know or care. With the disrespect libraries and librarians receive now it is inevitable that this will bleed toward academia and college libraries. Our entire system of learning is in crisis, and I hope it is not too late to turn the situation of public learning around to again be the benefit to society it most definately can be if done correctly. That is the key- to be done correctly. Those with minimal training cannot be expected to give good service.”

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10. Anonymous said... on Sep 16, 2013 at 03:39PM

“Has anyone considered having the librarian also be an English, vocational and/or Computer Science teacher? Or have all teachers in a school who are qualified in these areas also spend 1 or 2 class periods in the library tutoring and teaching? What about student teachers or interim teachers?”

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11. LRG said... on Sep 16, 2013 at 05:19PM

“A library without a qualified librarian is unchartered territory without a learned guide. You cannot throw a parent volunteer or an untrained teacher into a library and expect it to function as a functional part of the learning environment. There are reasons we librarians pursue higher degrees (without appropriate compensation, I might add) and it has to do with our commitment to information and information dissemination. Student teachers and interim teachers are not librarians, and don't confuse the two.”

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12. Anonymous said... on Sep 19, 2013 at 07:25AM

“The real Librarian in schools today, besides doing all that the article eloquently stated, is an educator who teaches reading, Computer Science, Mentally Gifted programs, study tools, and a million other life long skills needed for success. Studies have shown students in schools with libraries have higher test scores. Philadelphia is asking the few remaining librarians to do an impossible job with no resources or time to do the job well.”

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13. Anonymous said... on Sep 19, 2013 at 10:21AM

“At Edison HS the school library was the public library for those kids in that area. They came everyday looking for information, checking out the new books, requesting bestsellers by authors, titles and series. They demanded to have the best books and this school library provided that need and now except for an SSA ( Service Support Assistant), who knows the library very well but only works 3 hours a day which is better than nothing!!! Without this school library these children will have no means of getting their hands on books that can open a new world for them.”

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14. Texas Elementary School Librarian said... on Sep 21, 2013 at 10:23AM

“We still have school libraries in Texas. Some of the programs in the more affluent areas are wonderful, but in many of the Title 1 schools they are not. I am a Title 1 school librarian. I am forced to close the library many hours of the day to perform daily hall duty before school, daily hall duty after school, daily hour-long lunch duty, provide hour-long rotation for teacher planning periods, and teach a class of 16 first grade students. These are all times that the library is closed to the rest of the school. Also, we no longer have clerks to help maintain the library, so it's quickly becoming one big mess! So even though we have a librarian and a library, we really don't, because a closed library is useless to the students. What did Mark Twain say? "The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read." I cannot conceive of how my administrator can think that closing the library is a good idea for our disadvantaged students. They want to read!”

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15. D.Grill said... on Sep 23, 2013 at 11:20AM

“A paraprofessional or classroom teacher is not replacement for a certified school librarian. A librarian is familiar with the schools curriculum and trained to build and maintain a print and electronic collection of resources that support that curriculum. A librarian if familiar with the current children's and young adult literature as well a the classics, and uses that knowledge to excite students about reading. School librarians teach research skills. They take students beyond a simple google search. They teach them how to assess the validity of a website, and introduce them to licensed academic data bases. A school library with out a librarian is a library that is not being used to its full capacity. Finally, school libraries provide students with immediate access to information. As a member of the faculty, a school librarian is familiar with the information needs of the students and faculty an is best suited to fulfill them.”

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16. Joan Taylor said... on Sep 23, 2013 at 08:25PM

“Thank you. I've worked with--years ago--and without school librarians, and I can tell you that there is a big difference between a para, or a LIMA, or an aide, or an eager volunteer and a trained, professional librarian. This is not to demean the non-librarians who have helped out in the absence of the professionals, but librarians have extensive training in research that the general public lacks. With all the nonsense published on the web, it is more important than ever to have a professional guide students through all levels of library research.”

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17. Susan Hall said... on Sep 24, 2013 at 08:25AM

“This closing of libraries has been happening in Philadelphia for years. It is a shame no one seemed to notice until it happened to the top schools. All the students, especially in the schools that are in struggling, need libraries! Those that have not been closed have librarians who are being used as prep teachers. It is impossible to run a good Library program where the library is open to all students and librarian can collaborate with teachers in this case. When a librarian is a prep teacher she can only work with the 7 classes she is assigned to see each day. Often that leaves some students without access to the library. Think about the logistics. 7 classes a day times 35 students times 5 days a week- if she lets each student only take one book a week that is about 1225 books a week to put back on the shelves. Librarians are given the same 45 minutes a day as teachers to prepare to teach classes-when do we do do the job we are trained to do as librarians?”

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18. Anonymous said... on Dec 5, 2013 at 05:28AM

“The school library system in Philly is embarrassing. The city is depending on non-profits like Read-Aloud and WePAC to keep libraries open or partially open. And sorry offend anyone, but some parents don't even care...”


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