Just a few days ago, it was announced that the Cape Breton Victoria Center for Education was going to be removing Library Support Staff from all its elementary schools. The decision, according to Minister of Education, Zach Churchill, was not about saving money, but rather about meeting the changing needs of our students.
Now, I have been struck many times by some of the statements made by this government as a way of defending their somewhat questionable decision making processes. I am almost certain my neighbours could hear my eyes roll when, after claiming this had nothing to do with saving money, the Minister explained that staffing resources and allocations are often changing, based on enrollments. Sorry kids, that kind of rhetoric is exactly about saving money.
However, in this case what has again left me in abject awe at the lack of educational understanding demonstrated by this government was the devaluing of not just the role of the school librarian, but of the school library itself.
After brushing aside concerns that this decision was financially based, the Minister was quick to defend this action as actually being good for students. “…the fact [is] that students are using traditional libraries less and less as technology changes….This is about ensuring that the education delivery model is always changing to meet the needs of our students, and the fact is that they’re learning differently now than they used to.”
With all due respect to the Minister, I don’t necessarily know that I quite share his confidence in the validity of either of those particular statements. Our students may be exposed to a new level of technology, but I do not know if there is any research that allows us to say with this kind of conviction that students are “learning differently”. The jury is still out on that one.
When it comes to Library usage, however, we do have some fairly solid data on that, at least as far as public libraries are concerned. Here in Nova Scotia, public libraries saw an increase of 22% in usage between 2015 and 2016 (much of which was accredited to the opening of the new Central Branch in downtown Halifax). There are also a number of studies which show that although traditional library visits may be decreasing, there is a general upwards trend of use of public library programs, many of which are geared towards children and increasing literacy rates.
Where the rubber truly hits the road, however, is when it comes to the benefits of having trained library staff working with children. A few years back, a group called the Ontario Library Association did extensive work on this, and discovered a tremendously positive connection between having a school librarian and student success. They found that not only did having a school librarian increase the chances that students would develop a love of reading, but that it was, in fact, “…the single strongest predictor of reading enjoyment for both grades 3 and 6 students.”
More recent studies have shown these seemingly self aggrandizing statements to be true. One such study, called, somewhat obviously “Why school librarians matter” looked at research done over a twenty five year span. The authors concluded that having a librarian in a school not only helped improve such things as standardized test scores, but also overall academic achievement and graduation rates.
Somewhat more telling was that these benefits were not simply limited to wealthy schools. In fact, the researchers concluded that “the benefits associated with good library programs are strongest for the most vulnerable and at-risk learners, including students of color, low-income students, and students with disabilities.”
So, having a strong library program in schools increases a love of reading, academic achievement, and graduation rates, with the largest positive effect being seen in students who come from traditionally disadvantaged backgrounds.
Remind me again why we are pulling librarians out of Cape Breton elementary schools?
Now, in the name of full disclosure, my wife is a librarian with the HRCE, so I do have some advantage when it comes to understanding the value of the position. Hers is not the library I knew when I went to school. It is a learning commons, complete with computer access and overstuffed chairs. It contains a maker-space where students can come to colour and play board games as a way relieving stress and reducing anxiety. Her library was one of the first in the province to integrate a regular visit from a therapy dog, again to help kids deal with stress. She is working on a project right now which, if successful, will create a writing center in her school, modeled on similar centers offered at post secondary institutions, as a way of getting students familiar with how to utilize the service.
Oh, yes, and she checks out books, too.
Libraries have evolved fundamentally over the past ten years. They have had to. Unlike some sectors, when technology became so invasive, libraries knew they had to adapt. So, yes, they still contain a good measure of ink and paper resources, but also have become so much more. Libraries have changed, but sadly, our perception of them has not.
Without the elected school boards to lobby for such things as maintaining school libraries, there are few avenues left for questioning the wisdom of a decision such as this. The cynic in me feels that perhaps this was rather the point, but I will leave that for now.
However, the “facts” are quite clear in this matter. Libraries, and the people who run them, are good for kids.
I would be very interested in finding out how our government has concluded otherwise.
Originally published in The Chronicle Herald, June 4th, 2018