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:

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Did you miss the moment?

“Did you miss the moment? And, would it kill you to miss it for good? I think it would.”

This is, according to my memory, the beginning of a prose poem inside the liner notes of a CD by a band called Chamberlain that I discovered when I was fifteen or sixteen. The song lyrics were printed in the booklet too, in the obligatory tiny font, but this wasn’t a song, and yet it’s lodged in my head all the same.

The teen years are an incredible time to encounter new things, a time when you feel things intensely (“more feelingly feel,” as Rilke would have it), absorb them, adopt them as your own. You are, to some extent, a product of your time, but you also pick and choose from what’s on offer to construct your identity: do you listen to the Top 40 or do you scavenge punk rock records made before you were born? Do you read Jane Austen or Stephen King (or both)?

But the real question is, as an adult, do you latch onto books and music in the same way? Do you feel, at twenty-six or thirty-six or forty-six, the way you did at sixteen? If you didn’t hear The Smiths as a teenager, are you likely to love them as passionately as someone who did, or does it just sound morose and kind of whiny? (For the record, I discovered The Smiths at the perfect time, thanks to Stephen Chbosky’s including the song “Asleep” on a mix tape in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which led directly to my purchase of Louder Than Bombs.)

Cover of A Wrinkle in TimeMore to the point for book lovers: If you didn’t read A Wrinkle in Time or Anne of Green Gables or The Perks of Being a Wallflower or The Golden Compass or Alanna at “the right time,” did you miss the moment?

I’m not sure. When I began dating my now-husband, we kept having these conversations where I would mention a book that I just assumed “everyone else” had read, and he would say he hadn’t read it, and my jaw would drop, and I would lend him a copy or, if I didn’t have it on hand, buy one at a used book store and give it to him to read. He was very good about reading them (see: now-husband), but it was hit or miss. A Wrinkle in Time simply isn’t and never will be part of the fabric of his mind in the same way that it is woven into who I am. The Golden Compass, on the other hand, he liked so much he read The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass without any prompting from me (and then he nicknamed our dog “the subtle knife” when she tried to nose between us on the couch).

Cover of Alanna: The First AdventureEvery reader misses some things that “everyone else” has read, and I am no exception. Recently, I read Alanna by Tamora Pierce, which had been recommended to me by a friend who couldn’t believe I hadn’t read it (sound familiar?). I read the other three books in the Song of the Lionness quartet as soon as possible. My adult mind cheered for feminism (a fantasy novel with birth control!), while my tween mind (though we didn’t have that word then) inhaled the characters, the story, the world-building and mythology, the romance.

I wish I’d read Alanna when I was twelve or thirteen, but I enjoyed it immensely as an adult too. It is rare for me now to lose myself in a book in the way I did routinely when I was younger, but it still happens – and it happens more often, I’ve noticed, in books with a fantasy, dystopian, science fiction, or magical element, books like The Night Circus or The Bone Clocks or Station Eleven. These books are worlds in which I’m immersed, rising out of them at the end only reluctantly and regretfully. But of course, I can always read them again.

In Gabrielle Zevin’s novel The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, the title character writes a note to his adopted daughter about “the necessity of encountering stories at precisely the right time in our lives.” He urges her to remember that “the things we respond to at twenty are not necessarily the things we will respond to at forty and vice versa. This is true in books and also in life.” The perfect time to encounter a book may be when you’re thirteen, or it may be when you’re thirty; you may read it once when you’re thirteen and once when you’re thirty and discover different things the second time, or simply enjoy it all over again.

Though some books and some readers will never be a match – and that’s okay – it’s worth keeping an open mind and going back to books you may feel you’ve missed. Now might be the perfect moment.

Book Club Books

In the fall of 2008, when I was living in Brooklyn, I helped to start and run a book club. We met consistently (once a month, give or take) for about a year. According to my records (i.e. a post-it note), here’s what we read:

October 2008 – The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
November 2008 – On Beauty by Zadie Smith
January 2009 – Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman
February 2009 – The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk by Randy Shilts; Matrimony by Joshua Henkin
March 2009 – Watchmen by Alan Moore
April 2009 – You or Someone Like You by Chandler Burr
May 2009 – Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion
July 2009 – Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
August 2009 – All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
September 2009 – Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

11 books total: 8 novels, 1 essay collection, 1 nonfiction, 1 graphic novel

In the spring of 2010 I moved from Brooklyn to Massachusetts. It took me a little while, but I found a book club again that fall, and have managed to keep it together, more on than off, since then. According to my records (i.e. a piece of yellow legal paper and, more recently, a google spreadsheet), here’s what we’ve read so far:

November 2010 – The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
December 2010 – Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin
January 2011 – A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
February 2011 – Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
March 2011 – Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
May 2011 – Room by Emma Donoghue
June 2011 – Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
July 2011 – The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
August 2011 – The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard
September 2011 – Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
February/March 2012 – Bossypants by Tina Fey; Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling; Seriously…I’m Kidding by Ellen DeGeneres
April/May 2012 – The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey
August 2012 – The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
December 2012 – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
January 2013 – Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson
March 2013 – The Receptionist by Janet Groth
April/May 2013 – We Sinners by Hanna Pylvainen
June 2013 – Little Wolves by Thomas Maltman
August 2013 – Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters
September 2013 – Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer
October 2013 – Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
Nov 2013 – The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
January 2014 – Longbourn by Jo Baker
February 2014 – Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History by Andrew Scott Selby; The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft by Ulrich Boser
March 2014 – Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings by Craig Brown
April 2014 – Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
May/June 2014 – Orlando by Virginia Woolf
July 2014 – The Haunting of Hill House and/or We Have Always Lived in the Castle and/or “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
August/September 2014 – Summer Sisters by Judy Blume
October 2014 – Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
November 2014 – Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
December 2014 – Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
January 2015 – Wild Girls by Mary Stewart Atwell
February/March 2015 – Breasts by Florence Williams
April 2015 – The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

37 books total: 28 novels, 10 nonfiction (including memoir), 1 short story, 2 repeat authors (Virginia Woolf and David Mitchell)

After this many years of book club experience – plus over a year of co-leading a book group in the library – I stand by my “What Makes a Good Book Club Book?” post from 2012. A book should have a little conflict or a central dilemma, be thought-provoking or eye-opening, prompt readers to consider the past, present, or future in a different light. Page count and availability are also important practical considerations.

Are you in a book club? What have been your favorite and least favorite books to discuss? Do you have tips for moderators or facilitators? Do you start with a simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down? How do you choose what to read next? Leave a comment!