The Importance of School Libraries and School Librarians

Did your elementary, middle, and high school have a library? I attended four different schools in two states between kindergarten and twelfth grade, and each of the four had a library; each of the libraries had a librarian and books. (I wish I didn’t have to spell that out, but bear with me.) Innocently, I took the presence of these libraries for granted, and assumed all schools had them, but this is not the case. Just as “extras” like music and art programs have been cut in public schools, so have libraries.

I read two articles last month (via the essential Library Link of the Day) about school systems that lack libraries and/or librarians and/or an adequate number of books that students are able to check out. The first article, “Unequal Shelves in D.C. School Libraries Benefit Wealthier Students” (Washington Post, March 9, 2015), says that despite literacy being a high priority, the District dedicates no annual funding for school library collections. Later, the article links to a report that conclusively shows the positive impact school libraries have on students’ literacy: “A school library media program that provides up-to-date, accurate, and attractive resources, managed by a certified school library media specialist who collaborates with teachers to augment and enhance classroom instruction, results in increased test scores, particularly in reading….The most important elements of school library media programs have been the quality of staffing and the quality of collections.”

Many Pennsylvania schools are without libraries and/or librarians as well, according to the article “School Cuts Have Decimated Librarians” (Philly.com, February 2, 2015), and in that state too, there is unequal access. University teacher and researcher Debra Kachel said, “The wealthy schools have great programs, librarians teaching kids, coaching them, developing a habit of reading with those kids. Librarians are teaching critical thinking skills, how to search the Internet, how to be safe on the Internet. If you invest in a school librarian, you invest in improving student learning.” Yet many other schools don’t have librarians and lack access to library resources, despite the fact that studies have shown that students who have access to a school library and librarian – “particularly students who live in poverty and students of color” – achieve more. Despite the evidence of their value, a school librarian commented, “Somehow, we struggle to get recognized as relevant to schools.”

This is one of those bang-your-head-against-a-wall* situations, where all the research points to one clear course of action, but rather than take that course of action, unproven alternatives are substituted instead. In this case, decision-makers will point to budget issues, but that seems short-sighted to me. You want to raise reading scores, literacy rates, and maybe even a generation of people who love reading? Fund libraries and librarians in schools.

*”If you really want to get to know someone, don’t see what they like, rather find out what really pisses them off.”

For more information, here are a few resources:

Lynne Truss at the library

Late last year, I saw that Lynne Truss (author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves; cue grammatically justified string of exclamation points) was publishing a novel this spring. I requested the e-galley, and received not only the galley itself, but a note from an acquaintance asking if I’d be willing to write a blurb for it. (Claire and I met in 2007 at the Columbia Publishing Course; after a stint at Knopf, she’d landed at the excellent Melville House, whereas I had left publishing after a few years and gone into libraries instead.)

I wrote the blurb, and then I asked if, by any chance, Lynne would be doing a U.S. book tour, and if so, would she like to come speak at the library where I work? Indeed, as it happened, Lynne would be coming to the States, and incredibly, she did make a special trip to the library. And I have to say, Lynne is one of the loveliest authors I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, as well as one of the funniest. Below is a little summary of the event.

Cross-posted at the Robbins Library blog.

Lynne Truss read to an audience of more than twenty people at the Robbins Library this past Monday night, inspiring much laughter and a few book purchases. Lynne read from her new novel, Cat Out of Hell, and she read from two sections near the beginning, “So you don’t have to know quite so much.”

Cat Out of Hell 300dpi (2)Lynne told us that the novel was commissioned by Hammer, a publisher of horror in the U.K. “I only wrote it because someone wanted it….Anything I’m asked to [write], I’m more likely to [write]….I like to write for a person.” She had never written in the horror genre before, but knew right away she wanted to write a comic gothic novel exploring the origin of the common phrase “cats have nine lives.” (Originally, her idea was for a story called Nine Lives, about a cat who had killed nine people. That’s not quite what happens in Cat Out of Hell.)

She knew from the beginning she wanted to use a pastiche structure, as she has long been a fan of “the phony documentary element of gothic novels,” which are often represented as a collection of letters and other documents (or, in the case of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, typewritten – a new technology at the time).

One concerned potential reader asked Lynne, “Does the cat die?” to which Lynne replied, “You’ll be much more worried about the dog.” (The dog is called Watson, so that his owners, Alec and Mary, can use Lynne’s favorite Sherlock Holmes line: “Come at once, if convenient. If not convenient, come all the same.”)

Lynne's American publisher, Melville House, made a video for the book's release. What do the cats think of all this?

Lynne’s American publisher, Melville House, made a video for the book’s release. What do the cats think of all this?

As for humor – Cat Out of Hell is quite funny – one audience member asked if Lynne laughed at her own jokes as she is writing. “Yes!” But humor is “high-risk: if people don’t find it funny then you’ve failed completely. And humor is very subjective.”

Structure aside, Lynne didn’t have the content of the story plotted out before she began writing. “If I don’t know where it’s going, the reader can’t possibly be ahead of me!” I’ve read a fair few mysteries in my time, and I’d agree with the author here – it would be rather difficult to guess where the story is going. You’ll just have to read it for yourself!

Other Lynne Truss books:

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: the zero-tolerance approach to punctuation

Talk to the Hand: the utter bloody rudeness of the world today, or, six good reasons to stay home and bolt the door

Making the Cat Laugh: one woman’s journal of life on the margins

The Lynne Truss Treasury: columns and three gothic novels

The passing of Terry Pratchett

Yesterday, the prolific and beloved fantasy author Terry Pratchett passed away. I found out late in the afternoon, and scrambled to put up a display of his bio and books before I left the library. Despite the fact that I’ve never read a whole Terry Pratchett book, I felt the loss, in that distant but no less real way one feels the loss of people one knows of but doesn’t know.

Except, with authors, we do know them: we know the output of their minds, their imaginations, their thoughts and ideas and convictions and feelings. Pratchett wrote some 40 Discworld books, as well as about 30 others, for adults and for teens. Readers will be discovering and re-visiting Pratchett’s writing for years to come, and even though he will not be writing any more, there is still a significant wealth of material to read and re-read. The existence of Pratchett’s books may or may not console his family and friends in their grief, but for readers, he still exists in thousands upon thousands of pages.

I am trying to think of writers that I have loved who have passed away, but, fortunately for me, many of them are still alive and writing (or were dead long before I came to their books). I remember hearing that Barbara Robinson (author of The Best School Year Ever) passed away in 2013, and of course there was Maya Angelou last spring. Musicians come to mind more readily: George Harrison in 2001, DeeDee Ramone in 2002 (I remember this only because I was supposed to see him in concert two days later), Levon Helm in 2012.

But like authors, musicians leave a legacy behind. The mind and talent that created a book or an album may be gone, but the words and the music remain.

goodomensSo although, when a friend lent me a copy of a Discworld novel* during my second year of college, I didn’t get into it, I’m going to try again: perhaps with Good Omens, perhaps with Dodger. If you have a favorite Terry Pratchett book to recommend, let me know in the comments.

*The same friend lent me Neil Gaiman’s American Gods right around the same time, setting me on course to enjoy many more of Gaiman’s books since then: Neverwhere; Stardust; Fragile Things; Coraline; The Graveyard Book; The Ocean at the End of the Lane; Fortunately, the Milk; Instructions, and, currently, Trigger Warnings.

3/14/15, edited to add these additional tributes:

What to Do When Authors Die,” Swiss Army Librarian (Brian Herzog)

On the Passing of Terry Pratchett,” Gavia Libraria, the Library Loon

Terry Pratchett,” xkcd (Randall Munroe)

4/13/15, edited to add: I have now read Good Omens and enjoyed its blend of fantasy and British humor immensely. Not sure what the next Terry Pratchett book will be but I’m open to suggestions.

Dogs in the library help boost literacy

The first I heard of therapy dogs in libraries was through the Library Link of the Day in July 2012, which was a short article (“Therapy Dog Helps Children Learn“) about a retired racing greyhound who visited libraries, nursing homes, and rehab centers. I sent it to a co-worker, who asked if I knew that “Lucy the READ dog” was visiting our main library and branch that very week? I had not known.

It turns out that dogs visiting libraries in order for kids to read to them or otherwise interact with them is becoming more and more common. Earlier in 2012, Library Journal posted a piece called “Therapy Dogs’ Presence Steadily Grows in Libraries.” Meredith Schwartz wrote about a public library in Wisconsin that welcomed Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ); children participated in the “Read to a Dog” program to improve their literacy skills. A study at Tufts University showed that reading to dogs helped kids improve more than reading to humans. Colleges and universities have also begun bringing dogs in during finals week to help students de-stress by spending time with animals.

In a public library in Ohio, the Tail Waggin’ Tutors (handler/dog teams from Therapy Dogs International) visit the library once a month. The dogs are non-judgmental listeners, who are able to give children an un-intimidating environment for reading practice. They don’t interrupt or correct, and some of them are even happy to cuddle. (“Therapy Dogs Help Give Kids Reading Confidence,” 11/2014).

Research is beginning to show that “Psychological effects of pets are profound” (Boston Globe, 1/2015). Sy Montgomery wrote, “pet-assisted therapies help troubled children, people with autism, and those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and drug addiction. Pets help normalize brain chemistry.”

Service dogs are even sometimes used in schools to identify and help stressed-out students (“Stressed? This Dog May Help,” New York Times, 10/2014), though service dogs are in a different category than therapy dogs; they’re trained more extensively and covered under the A.D.A.

Sudo with her Dog BONES bandanna

Sudo (and her new friend Daisy) with her official Dog B.O.N.E.S. bandanna at the end of the third class.

Here in Massachusetts, there’s an organization called Dog B.O.N.E.S. (Dogs Building Opportunities for Nurturing and Emotional Support) that trains volunteer handler/dog teams and helps organize visits to schools, libraries, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, hospitals, colleges and universities, and other organizations that request a team. This winter, despite the frequent blizzards, my husband and I and our greyhound, Sudo, completed a three-session training course with Dog B.O.N.E.S. Unfortunately, Sudo is a little skittish with children and wouldn’t be a good “read dog” for younger kids, but I hope that some of our classmates, instructors, or other Dog B.O.N.E.S. volunteers can visit our library this year. Meanwhile, we’ll look for opportunities to bring her to visit adults who might enjoy the soothing company of a calm, friendly dog.

Massachusetts libraries interested in having a team from Dog B.O.N.E.S. visit should contact the organization through the e-mail address on their website. Dog B.O.N.E.S. teams are insured in Massachusetts.

Five Librarian Bloggers to Follow

I’m honored to be included in this Information Today feature by Brandi Scardilli, “Five Librarian Bloggers to Follow,” along with David Lee King, Justin Hoenke (a.k.a. Justin the Librarian), Rita Meade (a.k.a. Screwy Decimal), and Joe Hardenbrook (a.k.a. Mr. Library Dude). Please read Brandi’s article and check out some of my fellow librarian bloggers’ sites!

I’ll just be over here, wishing I’d come up with a cleverer name for this blog when I started it six years ago.

JustintheLibrarianTwitter

Manual for the Future of Librarianship

libraryandMy librarian friend Brita, who knows about everything before I do, recently wrote a blog post about her submissions to the Manual for the Future of Librarianship project (under the auspices of the ALA Center for the Future of Libraries, inspired by the Long Now Foundation’s Manual for Civilization). She inspired me to do the same, and I’m sharing my submissions here as well.

1. It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by danah boyd
itscomplicatedIt’s Complicated is a must-read for teachers, parents, librarians, and anyone who disparages Millennials or “kids these days.” Researcher boyd unpicks the mindset that kids don’t care about privacy and shows how much of online life is “public by default, private through effort” instead of the other way around, making privacy difficult to obtain for those using social media. She makes the case that adults can best protect kids and teens by educating them about risks. boyd also addresses inequality and information literacy.

2. Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
littlebrotherLittle Brother is a young adult novel, but adults can learn a lot from it too: it’s a fast-paced story set in San Francisco before, during, and after a terrorist attack blows up the Bay Bridge. Seventeen-year-old high school student and hacker Marcus Yallow (a.k.a. w1n5t0n) and his friends are swept up by the Department of Homeland Security as the DHS cracks down on the city, and Marcus’ new mission is to expose their abuse of power. Marcus is more tech-savvy than most people, but Doctorow explains everything in a way that is interesting (and paranoia-inducing). It’s easy to imagine this scenario coming to life, and it leads readers to consider the relationship between privacy, security, and freedom. The follow-up novel, Homeland, is also worth reading.

3. “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading, and Daydreaming” by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman in October 2013. Photo by Robin Mayes.

Neil Gaiman in October 2013. Photo by Robin Mayes.

British author Neil Gaiman writes across genres and for all ages, and he’s a passionate advocate for libraries. In October 2013, he gave a particularly strong and articulate lecture on the importance of fostering literacy through teaching children to read and making sure they have access to books they enjoy. He also spoke about the positive correlation between fiction and empathy, which has now been shown in a number of studies, and the importance of libraries: “libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication…Libraries really are the gates to the future.” [I wrote about this same speech at length soon after it was published online by The Guardian.]

Julia Glass at the Weston Public Library

On a night that introduced me to the concept of “ice mist” (I think that’s what it was), there was a packed house at the Weston Public Library to see Julia Glass read from her newest novel, And the Dark Sacred Night. I’d seen Glass speak once before, in conversation with her editor at the McNally Jackson bookstore in Soho in 2009, and thanks to a major tidying effort, I turned up my notes from that event just a few weeks ago. At the time, Glass said:

“All serious fiction is emotionally autobiographical.”

“If you choose fiction, you distort.”

“There are always mysteries and things we will never know [about the people we’re closest to]….You cannot know everything about the people you love the most.”

Her words, and especially the concept of emotional truth in fiction, stayed with me, enough to get me out of the house on an ice-misty night. (What is that, Massachusetts? Seriously.)

Hardcover book jacket

Hardcover book jacket

In Weston, Glass started by observing the difference between a hardcover tour and a paperback tour: during a hardcover tour, the material is fresher in the author’s mind, but most audience members haven’t had a chance to read the book yet. With a paperback tour, on the other hand, the author may have forgotten details about the book, but the audience is more likely to have read it.

She spoke about her local connection, having grown up in Lincoln, MA and worked in the library there: “I really regard that library as my third parent.” Glass also talked about how she begins her books. Writers approach stories in different ways, but Glass comes to her stories through character. Malachy Burns’s mother Lucinda, a secondary character in Three Junes, was inspired in a unique way: Glass and her partner were stuck in traffic*, and the bumper sticker on the car in front of them read “Life: What a Beautiful Choice.”  That, Glass realized, encapsulated Lucinda’s Catholic outlook.

*Glass’s advice for couples stuck in traffic is: Don’t talk! It will only lead to fighting over whose fault it is that you’re stuck in traffic. She believes that the declining divorce rate is due at least in part to the rise of GPS devices.

Unlike some authors with ideas spilling out of their heads and onto scraps of paper everywhere, Glass says she doesn’t have lots of ideas for books. “Every time I’m coming to the end of one book, I’m terrified it’s the last one.”

“All of my books stand alone…but I do seem to be in the habit of bringing characters back.”

Paperback cover

Paperback cover

Glass’s books are all set in the semi-recent past. Does she rely on her memory to fill in details appropriate to the decade or year? She laughed at the idea of relying entirely on memory, but said that “personal stories that people tell me make their way into fiction,” and her books are usually set on “familiar turf” (New York, New England). But “research is important for every book…I always want to give myself a challenge…What’s something I really want to know about?” Fiction writers, Glass said, “are the people who want to be everything,” and researching for books is a great way to learn more about other topics and vocations. “There are so many ways of being and living in this world. The ‘what-if’ questions drive us.” Glass is particularly interested not just in what people choose to do, but in how that vocation in turn shapes them.

But research, for Glass, comes after writing. “I bluff my way through writing first, and research later.” For her books, she has interviewed oncologists; doctors familiar with HIV/AIDS treatment in the early days of the disease; classical cellists; and professional bakers of wedding cakes. She has also explored YouTube, especially when seeking particular pieces of music, and has learned to look at the number of page views to find the best quality videos. “YouTube is very dangerous.”

She writes her books from beginning to end, not allowing herself to skip over difficult scenes. Her manuscripts tend to be much longer than the final published versions of her books. Glass’ editor Deb Garrison told her, “You have a wonderful sense of responsibility to your readers…[but] they don’t have to know everything.” This revelation led Glass to cut an entire section from Daphne’s point of view from And the Dark Sacred Night.

After Glass read two scenes from the novel (one from Kit Noonan’s perspective, one from Walter’s), an audience member asked if she could talk more about her third book, I See You Everywhere. “You could see it as a novel, perhaps,” Glass said, but it’s really a collection of linked stories, all of which stand on their own; in fact, one of the stories won the Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren award, which was, Glass said, one of the best moments of her life. I See You Everywhere is her most autobiographical novel, which she published once she decided she did not want to write a memoir; “I just wanted to write about a certain kind of sibling relationship.”

I haven’t read And the Dark Sacred Night yet, but I plan to read it soon, and I can definitely recommend Three Junes, The Whole World Over, I See You Everywhere, and The Widower’s Tale. Thanks to the Weston Public Library for hosting, and to Julia Glass for a lovely and inspiring evening.

Incidentally, the ice mist has now turned to snow.