The books smell new. The computers are gleaming. The shelves are stocked. And there’s always someone at the reference desk to answer a question or point a student in the right direction.
Laura Kary-Smith feels good about the resources available to students. Because her school district has seen relatively stable growth over the last 10 years, local taxpayers have been willing to pay for some of what the state refuses to provide.
In her case, it’s a good school library.
Kary-Smith, the media specialist at Big Woods Elementary in the St. Michael-Albertville school district, has nothing bad to say about her library. “We’ve had technology increases built into out bonds and levies,” she said, allowing for mobile computer labs at every elementary school and labs for each department at the high school. Librarians and the technology staff attend conferences and bring back new technologies and educational tactics to the staff, which they share in monthly meetings. “And of course any teacher or student can come to us at any time. That’s part of our job,” she said.
Along with the traditional supply of books, magazines and reference materials, these are services school libraries must now provide. “This is not your mother’s library,” said Dawn Nelson, coordinator of instructional media and technology in Osseo Area Schools.
The nature of the school library has changed dramatically during the information revolution, and as a result, librarians have had to adapt to meet new demands. Paraprofessionals check out books and file returned materials. Librarians now take the lead not only in exposing and explaining new information technology to students, but also getting that technology into the student’s hands and teaching them how to use it properly and to its fullest extent. They also serve as a conduit for this information to teachers.
Unfortunately, Kary-Smith’s library is the exception. Chronic education underfunding by the state has hit libraries and librarians hard. The number of school librarians–those school librarians with a master’s degree–has dropped 63 percent since 1997-98. The number of media generalists– those school librarians with a bachelor’s degree–is the same as it was in 1998-99.
Minnesota ranks 35th in the nation in student to librarian ratio at 909 to 1 (the national average is 901 to 1). The recommended ratio is one librarian for each school building (Minnesota has roughly 800 school librarians and about 1,450 schools, not counting alternative learning centers, charter schools or private schools.)
The result is often that one librarian will serve several schools. “What we’re missing completely is the instructional literacy piece,” Nelson said. Instead of going to a librarian to help research a subject, both teachers and students often get frustrated “and Google becomes the main source of research,” she said.
Nelson pointed to a web research site–the Electronic Library for Minnesota–that offers information about all state resources. “It’s a fantastic resource but almost no one knows about it. It’s our job to make sure students and teachers have access to it, but we can’t do that if we can’t get into the schools,” Nelson said.
The ever-changing nature of technology needs constant surveillance and adaptability. Nelson suggested a savings if districts bought iPad computer notebooks for students to download books from public libraries. “This could be a great cost savings, but you need a librarian to make it happen,” she said.
Well-trained librarians also help teachers edit digital videos and record podcasts, as well as communicate with students on a variety of social networking platforms, networks and email.
State spending on education has dropped 14 percent since 2003. Minnesota’s shortsighted budget policy is hurting our children. In other states, in other countries, students are learning better ways to access research, better ways to use technology and better ways to advance their studies than in Minnesota.
Kary-Smith in St. Michael-Albertville says that for the first time in a decade her library will not receive any school money for book purchases and will rely only on proceeds from fundraisers to buy books. The $3,000 raised will buy 200 new books “which sounds like a lot but when you put them on the shelves with those out in circulation, it’s not that many,” she said.
All areas of education need attention, libraries and librarians not the least among them. They need the tools to do their jobs well, and right now most of these professionals are simply limping along, doing what they can with ever-shrinking resources.
It’s time for Minnesota to worry less about the change in our wallets and more about the future of our students. An investment in them now will provide immense financial and social payoffs in the near future.