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Libraries Can Be Open to All

This post is written by our Teacher/Librarian Donna Alden, in response to an article titled "The Unhappy Place: What libraries can do to welcome kids who struggle with print" written by Ira Socol and published at School Library Journal.

Well Ira, I am glad to hear you persevered, despite the unfriendly and foreboding presence the libraries of your childhood presented!

To provide some context: I am a qualified teacher-librarian working in a dynamic middle school in Alberta, Canada, and I’d like to respond to your article in School Library Journal called “The Unhappy Place…Libraries …Welcoming Kids Who Struggle with Print”. I have an Education Degree, and a Master’s Degree in Library & Information Studies, 15 years experience as a teacher-librarian, and before that, 10+ years teaching experience in our province. My experiences with libraries began when I insisted on catching a city bus by myself, and marched into a public library, intent on filling my arms with as many books as the rules would allow.

I completely agree with what you have said about making libraries more accessible to everyone, including those not geared towards text-dense books. I believe you’ll find many libraries already reflect what you have so passionately and clearly expressed in your article. In fact, I just attended a conference here in Calgary, and a full-day session on school libraries of the future, presented by two leading experts in this field- Dr. David Loertcher (USA) and Canadian, Dr. Carol Koechlin. “Googling” their names along with the refining term: “school libraries” will offer you a wealth of information, and I trust, much reassurance. I’m not sure books were even mentioned during the whole day’s work, nor was the word “rules”!

First, I would like to comment upon your generalization that all librarians love books, that libraries are book focused, and that (it seems to me) you believe most libraries still present unwelcoming barriers.

For over thirty years public and school libraries have been making changes in order be more accessible to all people. These libraries have a mandate to provide access and information to their clientele, unlike in the old days, when libraries seemed to be mostly focused on being the “keeper of books”- period.

Although libraries may still seem print and book oriented, there are many alternative forms of print (including your suggestions in technology options), books that present more information graphically than through text, offer choices in items that are not books at all, feature numerous programs in support of literacy initiatives, allow eating and drinking, encourage chatting areas with comfy seating arrangements, and have welcoming decors. I’ll concede not all libraries reflect all of everything cited as examples here and in your blog. Perfection is not easily attainable.

What is important is that the ideal, the goal, the mission and vision, of school and public libraries is in agreement with your message. You’ll not see all changes in all libraries, and the reasons for this, I suggest, are numerous, common, and multifaceted. Funding is, and will continue to be, a challenge for change for some libraries. The qualifications of personnel in libraries across our two countries are inconsistent. In smaller libraries, many people who loom behind that big desk you mention, make rules, and decide on procedures and policies, are probably not qualified- to put it bluntly- and thus are not informed. Or, perhaps they’re hanging on to their positions for dear life, with blinders on, and have ignored all the changes encouraged and supported in the field of public and school libraries in North America, and other areas of the world as well!

The picture you present of your-self as a youngster is a recognizable picture of the typical boy. This is a generalization- but a valid one. There is a mountain of evidence in the field of education that backs the notion that boys (and many girls) learn differently than how schools are traditionally set up for- a text-dense, sit still world of books and routines- the proverbial square pegs in round holes image comes to mind- but we’ve made great strides in differentiating instruction in literacy, and offering all the kinds of alternatives to word-heavy books you and many others struggle to find meaning within.

What you say supports what is being done in many schools and libraries everywhere- working from where the child is, presenting alternative forms of information, recognizing non-text information as legitimate and effective means of information and communication, etc. That little boy comes into our school library and knows exactly where to find the magazines, the Dewey section where comics are located, the jokes section, where books like Guinness Book of World Records and The Dangerous Book for Boys (and …Girls) are shelved (again, by the cursed Dewey system!), the shelf of graphic novels, and books on card tricks, optical illusions and books that show how things work.

And you did too- you loved books, just not the word-dense ones, and knew how to find them.

We don’t allow food or beverages- reasonable because we don’t want them to have to handle the “worse case scenario”- spills and spoiled pages, computers, etc. However, I know the public library here does indeed allow food and beverages, and they budget for accidents.

Our school library has no problem with hats, i-pods, or whatever else libraries in the past may have prohibited. Our library doesn’t have rules- rather, we have guidelines and suggestions, to empower students to take responsibility, respect others’ needs to access, and consider the library one of their areas of security and discovery in our school. We have flexible scheduling for teachers all day, and are open to students before and after school, as well as at recess times.

Although our school library is, first and foremost, an instructional space, we have areas to chat and relax, play hand-held video games, share magazines, or whatever, and there is only one area where the “cone of silence” reigns- an area for those who need quiet to read, or think, or study. Our library is a good place to be, I think.

I’m a librarian, and I do happen to love books. As a professional, however, what I love and am passionate about more than books, are children, teaching & learning, and information literacy. The focus of my professional position, and the mission of our library, is one of access and information- not books! And, I know I’m not one of the few- I’m one of the many. We’re making headway towards the vision you present, Ira.

But, like all institutions, fields in social services, and society- it takes time, vision, energy, passion, and, I believe, sound information backed by research. We’re achieving that, and more- I encourage you to look for the evidence. And in the libraries you see little or none of this- continue to shout out your message…. There’s much work to do, and many of us in the fields of education and libraries completely agree with you.


irasocol said...

Thank you Donna for a great reply, and I want to say that I do know many librarians and libraries which are making great strides.

When asked to write for School Library Journal, and specifically the print edition, I decided to focus on "the problem" - especially for those librarians (and their administrators) who are unlikely to be reading blogs and twitter, or engaging in future-directed conferences.

Because, I need to say that I have seen only school library this year, among the many schools I have visited, with even one computer equipped with Text-to-Speech software. I have seen many school libraries where hats are prohibited. Many without wifi, tying those technology users to brutally uncomfortable workstations. I am often flooded with text as I enter school libraries - on every wall and seemingly, in every unreadable font. I have been in school libraries where Wikipedia is banned, where all social networking tools are blocked. The progress, in other words, is horribly uneven, and - at least in the US - the most impoverished students, and the most rurally isolated students - are the least likely to have the kind of school library you describe.

So I hope I was not insulting anyone, and I hope you don't imagine me living in the past. And please, realize that I would never have written this if I didn't know these changes to be very possible, where librarians and administrators are committed to access. I've seen it, just as you have.

But uneven information access is as corrosive to a society as unequal educational access, or uneven health care access. And I think we need to do better.

- Ira Socol

DAlden said...

Hello Ira-

Well said, and well taken. I knew from reading your posting you were informed and speaking in support of the positive aspects of libraries. You provided an opportunity to add further voice to your comments, and I took full opportunity to jump in and do that! You are bang-on, in my mind, in pointing out that the source of inconsistent access to optimum library services, as well as health and education, rests soundly in the laps of administrators at all levels- in both our countries. At least in the area of libraries- public and school- I do think some of the lack of funding, energies and thus, progress, can also be attributed to lack of information. Articles such as yours (in print format to reach the perhaps most needy eyes and brains) help spread that information.

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