In the 1950s when I was in high school (Oakwood Collegiate in Toronto) one of the more interesting punishments I received for my troublemaking was detention in the school library, where the school librarian would assign me the task of copying out sections of the dictionary or encyclopedia by hand. Ironic, I suppose, given the career I have pursued. My very first job in publishing was a proof reader of a dictionary. I have spent the past 30 years as the editor of Canada’s encyclopedia.
Today many school children have never seen a school librarian and never will (or perhaps no librarian at all if the mayor of Toronto has his way). According to a recent article in the Globe and Mail there are no school librarians in Nova Scotia, three in New Brunswick, with numbers declining in Alberta and British Columbia. In recent weeks school boards have cut library staff in Ontario as well. A study from People for Education, an Ontario advocacy group, documents the decline of school libraries, showing that fewer than 12% of Ontario elementary schools have a full-time librarian. Barely half have even a part-time librarian, down from 80% in 1997-98.
This is in direct opposition to studies in the United States and Australia, confirmed by research in Canada in 2006, linking school librarians to measures of student achievement. Repeatedly, studies show the strength of association between the presence of school librarians and students’ performance on standardized tests.
Perversely, digital changes have been used as justification for eliminating librarians’ jobs. This “reasoning” is backward, ignoring that librarians are in fact on the front lines explaining the limitations of Wikipedia, protecting online privacy and preventing the more odious aspects of the online world, such as bullying. There is no doubt that libraries themselves are undergoing profound changes. Books are becoming outdated and school boards and universities are focusing their resources on internet research. (The University of British Columbia, for example, now spends some 80% of its library budget on online resources.) The need now clearly is for experts to teach digital literacy and that is what teacher librarians are supposed to do. While in Europe this fact is clearly recognized and national programs in Norway, Sweden, Italy, Finland and elsewhere have been implemented as a force for improvement in education, the exact opposite is occurring in Canada.
Two months ago I had the great pleasure of launching the new web site Asia Canada at Gladstone Secondary School in Vancouver. The launch was held in the school library, presided over by school librarian Pat Parungao. There are still books and articles in the library, time capsules on the walls, multimedia materials gathered for projects and a lovely quote put up by one of the students: “There is little money in poetry, but there is little poetry in money either.” And of course there are computers everywhere.
It was hard not to see that library as the heart beat of the school and that librarian as the custodian of the elusive process by which information becomes knowledge. Anyone who cares how our kids are learning in this new digital age needs to support our libraries and our librarians. The teacher librarians are now the information providers and instructional leaders, as well as teachers. Their roles are increasing in importance at the very moment that our short-sighted bureaucrats and politicians are eliminating them.