Among the news stories that have shadowed these bright, late-summer days is a recent report from Houston, where the state of Texas has announced its plan to close public school libraries in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. The former library spaces will now be used as so-called “multipurpose” rooms, which actually seem to have one single purpose: punishing “disruptive” students by making them watch, on computer screens, what’s happening back in their classrooms.
No one seems clear about the fate of students who remain disruptive in the multipurpose rooms. Surely I am not the only adult who remembers that being sent to detention was more of a vacation than a punishment. So it’s uncertain how precisely a student’s internal exile is meant to function. It’s hard to imagine what students will learn from these cheerless, punitive spaces – except for the grim possibility that they are being prepped for incarceration.
I loved my old-fashioned grade school and high school library, a central area surrounded by wooden book shelves, wide enough apart so students could sit or lie on the floor between them and read for 40min without being bothered. I loved the quiet, I loved the smell of it and I especially loved our librarian, Mrs Morgan, who knew us better than our teachers did. She knew what we liked to read: in my case, everything I could get my hands on.
When I ask my seven-year-old grandson what he likes best about his local public school, he invariably answers, “Library.” I’ve never met his school librarian, but I think she is a genius. She won the heart (and the attention) of our first-grade soccer fanatic by offering him a large-print, pamphlet-sized biography of Lionel Messi. She sent him home with a large-format book about the planets, its pages edged in gilt, that he proudly showed everyone in the family.
These are the experiences – the ability to choose and take home a book, the sense of being seen by a sympathetic librarian – that will be denied to the students in the Houston schools that are being affected. The rationale is that these schools are under great pressure, that these elementary and middle schools are among the nation’s “lowest-performing” institutions, regularly failing on standardized tests of reading and math.
Even parents and teachers with serious reservations about the proposed plan to shutter libraries agree on the urgent need to address the fact that so many students have been unable to learn the basics. This crisis has been cited as the reason why elected local school boards have been stripped of their authority and educational decisions are now being made by state authorities.
I honestly cannot imagine any argument that would convince me that the best way to raise kids’ reading scores is to decrease their exposure to books. Haven’t children learned to read precisely because they wanted to unlock the secrets of a book that looked intriguing?
I’m much more easily persuaded that an attempt is being made to deprive certain students – children in the targeted schools are more likely to be poor kids, students of color – of the experience of holding a book in their hands, of seeing a book as a portal and a promise, a key to whole new worlds, new information, new ways of imagining and reasoning. The destruction of the school libraries is an extreme form of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s efforts to censor and monitor what students read, to prevent them from learning the truth about their history, their government and even their own bodies: thinly disguised attempts to keep kids from figuring out how to think for themselves.
Students without in-school libraries are being denied one of the most very basic sources of education. You might suppose they are being trained for jobs (if there are jobs not more cheaply done by robots) that require minimal verbal skills – just enough reading to decipher the wrapping on the cheeseburger they’re bagging. Do administrators think that children are too stupid to understand what it means when their libraries vanish – too young to know what it suggests about their government’s wish to educate them, its faith in them, its belief that they can be educated?
Were I a philanthropist, I’d endow the American Library Association and other organizations that dispatch bookmobiles, libraries on wheels. At present, according to the ALA website, only 6% of public schools are currently served by mobile libraries. I’d park a bookmobile outside every school that no longer has a library – as a service, a protest and as a signal to students and parents that someone still cares about their education.
One last question that seems not to have been thought through by the new program. Or if it has, the answer has yet to be made public: what will happen to the books that will be de-accessioned when these school libraries shut? Will they be given away to the students? To public libraries? Will they be sold at community book fairs? Will they be sent across town to help the “high-performing” schools expand their libraries? Or will it be agreed that it’s more sensible, quicker and way more cost-effective just to burn them, like they did in the old days?
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