Don't judge a book by its cover. And don't think your school library is healthy just because books line the shelves, students crowd the tables and the person behind the counter is smiling.
Despite appearances, Kenai Peninsula school libraries are hurting badly because for about 15 years budget cuts have undermined the foundations of their function.
"To me it is the most critical component in kids' education. The need for information goes well beyond a search on the Internet," said Bob VanDerWege.
For five years, VanDerWege has headed the district media center and overseen its school libraries. He missed the district's heydays of the 1970s and early 1980s, but he has seen deterioration in just the past few years. He wants the public and the district to start confronting the problem.
With schools desperate to economize, cuts are everywhere and libraries often are an easy target.
Libraries have lost staff, materials and hours at the same time the computer revolution has transformed them from book and magazine depositories to multimedia, online "library media centers."
The damage is hidden and indirect in the short-term and vastly costly to remedy in the long run.
"... It becomes a shortsighted fix that impacts one of the most influential aspects of students' education," VanDerWege wrote in a memo to the district administration.
Kelly Smith, the librarian at Soldotna High School, has worked for the district for 24 years.
Her first post was at Susan B. English School in Seldovia. With about 125 students then, the school had a full-time librarian, plus a full-time library aide.
"Seldovia now runs on two volunteers who come in occasionally," VanDerWege said.
Smith recalled other resources that have been cut: districtwide librarian meetings, training sessions, displays and special projects with teachers. Limited contract days force some libraries to close before the end of the school year, stranding procrastinating students just when they are most desperate for information. She used to work with classes to enhance curriculum with bibliographies and specialized materials.
"That just doesn't happen anymore," she said. "Those good old days are gone."
She noted that some students now enter high school without knowing basic library skills, like how to use an index.
Librarians do far more than stamp books. Most career librarians have graduate degrees in library science. But increasingly, well-intentioned amateurs run school libraries.
The common scenario, VanDerWege said, is that a full-time, professional school librarian retires and the replacement is a teacher assigned to part-time library duties. Few peninsula elementary schools have credentialed librarians now, although most high schools still do.
Elementary library staffing is particularly vulnerable. District staffing formulas give individual schools a pool of specialist positions based on enrollment. The specialists include music, physical education and visual arts teachers, as well as librarians. Principals decide how to allocate those positions and can shuffle part-time library positions into classroom teaching hours, he said.
Middle school libraries also face staff cuts, and implications for popular programs like the Battle of the Books academic competition are unclear.
"My projection is for next year we will loose basically two or three full-time equivalent (positions) that schools will choose to use in the classroom," he said.
The result is a changing crew of temporary library workers with limited expertise and no continuity.
"We rotate people through there like it doesn't matter. But it does," VanDerWege said.
"That's the cycle that is killing library programs."
Studies, including one the Alaska State Library did in 1997-98, found that school libraries are linked strongly with student achievement. Students who have more access to libraries and trained librarians showed higher standardized test scores. In fact, the studies concluded that the libraries had a bigger influence than class size.
The positive relationship between school libraries and test scores cannot be explained away entirely by differences in school size, funding and teacher staffing levels, the Alaska study concluded.
"First of all, a librarian is a teacher. I believe they are the No. 1 reading teachers in school because they guide students to the love of reading," VanDerWege said.
A good librarian bases purchases on quality, gaps in the collection and curriculum needs. Without continuity and training, selection is difficult. Libraries become less effective and run the risk of selecting inappropriate materials, he said.
But in many schools, selecting materials at all is moot because budgets for new materials are so small.
VanDerWege compared the problem to deferred maintenance. The backlog builds up and becomes harder and harder to overcome.
Library books are purchased with capital funds when a school is built, but subsequent updates are haphazard and inadequate.
"You can walk into a school and go to the collection and see when the school was built," he said.
Students are reading books their parents and even grandparents checked out. While the classics endure, reference materials and popular fiction don't age well.
Smith said some teachers ask students to research topics using sources no more than 10 years old. That becomes a problem. And with fast changes in science, computing and international affairs, she has trouble keeping the collection relevant. The current budget allows her to buy about one-fourth of the materials she would need to keep up to date, she said.
VanDerWege said the situation used to be different.
"At one point, the district allocated $20 per student (per year) for library materials. ... We are now funding materials at less than half of what we were."
During the same time, the prices of books and other materials have soared. District funding for library materials now is lumped in with other school materials budget, and principals can decide how to spend it. The amounts paid for library materials range from about $12 down to zero, he said.
"If I had $20 a student now, I think we could still maintain libraries," he said.
Obsolete materials clog the shelves in some schools.
Library staff try to cobble together resources the best they can.
"In at least one school, the budget for the library is what they can raise from the book fair," VanDerWege said.
Libraries encourage people to buy new books for their collections, leaving wish lists at book stores and fairs and offering incentives such as book plates for dedications.
They also take donated books but, VanDerWege said, many of those are out-of-date, inappropriate or budget editions that don't hold up to the high use.
Volunteers now are vital and, without them, many libraries would have to close at times such as lunch.
VanDerWege said a new federal program offering grants for school libraries highlights his frustrations and hopes. The guidelines will be published and the applications due during the summer, when the district has no library staff available to work on them.
"But it is the first time in many years it has been recognized that school libraries are important," he said.
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