Reflecting Upon School Libraries

I was honored in August to learn I’d been selected to receive the District Librarian of the Year award from the Oregon Association of School Libraries (OASL) . As I reflected upon this award and the opportunity to share my thoughts with others, I realized I wanted to convey a message about the importance of school libraries and encourage community members to advocate for stable and sufficient funding for public education in Oregon. The following is an excerpt from a speech I presented at the OASL Fall 2012 Conference. I will send this to local newspapers, perhaps in a more brief form as a letter to the editor or guest editorial piece.

Oregon’s School Libraries
October is Information Literacy Month in Oregon.  What is information literacy?  It is the ability to find, evaluate, use and produce information effectively and ethically.  Why is it important for students to learn these skills?  As of June 6th 2012, CNN Money reported that: “The Internet now has 340 trillion trillion trillion addresses.”  How many zeroes does that represent? (37 according to a Wolfram Alpha search).  With the ever-increasing tsunami of available information, students now more than ever need to learn how to identify the best information resources, sort through that information, evaluate it for bias and reliability and synthesize it into their own work.
The following excerpts from the Information Literacy Month proclamation signed by Governor Kitzhaber explain the importance of these skills in education and in the workforce:

“Individuals who are comfortable working with the information resources available in the digital world are able to seek highly skilled jobs and compete at high levels in the global economy; and

“Information literacy is a crucial part of education, and if taught as early as kindergarten, will expose students to analytic and research practices that will better prepare them for changing technologies;”

Licensed school librarians are trained to equip students with information literacy skills so they can be independent researchers, critical thinkers and effective communicators using a full range of media and technology tools.  Unfortunately, due to ongoing school funding constraints, many Oregon schools have lost their licensed school librarian positions over time.  According to the 2011 “QEM and Libraries” report published by the State Library, the number of licensed school librarians in Oregon had fallen in 2009 by 61% since 1980 (from 818 to 319 librarians).  That percentage is even higher today with cuts to licensed school librarian positions in Salem-Keizer and Beaverton since that time.  This report also outlines the minimum criteria for quality school libraries as defined by the 2008 Quality Education Commission.  These criteria include licensed school librarian staffing, school library support staff and school library materials expenditures.  Only five of the 1,303 Oregon school libraries in the 2009-2010 school year met these guidelines.  When school librarian positions are cut, the teaching of these critical information literacy skills often falls by the wayside because classroom teachers have so many other demands on their instructional time.

Last spring a fifth-grade student in Portland spoke during a school board meeting regarding proposed budget cuts and asked “What did we do wrong to deserve this?” Susan Nielsen, Editorial Writer for The Oregonian, followed with a column in which she stated:

“My kids don’t deserve this. They deserve a full school year, a full week of Outdoor School and a full platoon of librarians, music teachers and counselors. They deserve the sun and moon and stars, or at least a school with a working drinking fountain.”…

“So this week, I’m searching for a more hopeful question for the grown-ups to ask. Instead of, “What did we do wrong to deserve this?” How about, “What can we do differently, today, to improve this?”

Educators working in Oregon schools have experienced budget cuts year after year.  It’s not about tightening our belts anymore because any “extras” have long since disappeared and there aren’t any notches remaining to tighten.  Rather than fall into easy rhetoric about schools not spending money wisely, please commit to spending some time volunteering in schools to experience first-hand how hard teachers and other educators are working to do the very best for students despite making do with less each year.

Our students deserve a quality public education.  They deserve sufficient and stable funding for public education.  They deserve moderate class sizes.  They deserve high-quality school libraries as a piece of the complete educational environment preparing them to become our future doctors, scientists, teachers, engineers, and community leaders.  I urge parents, grandparents, and community members throughout Oregon to advocate on behalf of students for the full educational experience they all deserve.  For more information about how well-funded and staffed school library programs contribute to student achievement and specific examples of high-quality school library programs, please visit <http://learnforlife.info>. This website also includes links to Oregon school library standards for students and citations for sources appearing in this letter.

Jenny Takeda
OASL District Librarian of the Year