Thursday, June 03, 2010

In defense of librarians

Below is a letter that my friend and fellow author, Helaine Becker sent to the National Post re:  a derogatory comment about librarians.  It's such a great letter, that I want everyone to read it.   Yeah Helaine!  And if you think this letter is great, you can check out her books too.  You'll find a link to her website at the bottom of the page.  PS. Helaine is really really funny:)

Dear Mr. Gunter,

I was enjoying your analysis of Easy Rider in this morning's National Post
("Getting over Easy Rider, "June 2,2010) when I was caught short by this
sentence: "The teens who were prompted by its anti-establishment message to
pledge themselves to change the world are today school librarians and public
broadcasting technicians living in suburban bungalows, looking around the
next bend at pensionability and wondering whether to open a B&B in Niagara."

Yikes! There's a sweeping stereotype there! 

I know you were trying to humorously make a point about becoming the essence
of establishment self-focus. But clearly, you have not met many school
librarians, nor do you fully appreciate what they do every day. (I can't
speak for the broadcasting technicians.)

I am not a school librarian, but in my career as a writer of children's
literature, I have had the great privilege of meeting and spending time with
hundreds of school librarians across North America - from Nunavut to New
Brunswick, from the Jane-Finch Corridor in the GTA to the rural communities
of Manitoba, Alberta and Yukon; in Texas, California, New York and Lima
(Peru). Virtually every single one of the people I met are still honoring
that pledge to change the world.

Don't be fooled by the prim reading-glasses-on-chains cartoon image.
Teacher-librarians are true revolutionaries, trying to change and improve
society by empowering the most vulnerable members of society: children. 

Their working conditions: abysmal. 

Their weapon: literacy. 

Their opposition: entrenched bureaucracy that gives lip service to literacy
and equity, but shows its true colors by gutting schools of books and
trained staff. 

Meet, for example, Nina W., a school-librarian in the great State of
California who currently has responsibility for three inner city schools,
virtually no support from administration (when I visited with her two weeks
ago, nearly 600 teachers had just been let go and were engaged in costly and
divisive legal hearings instead of teaching in the classroom). Yet despite
being stretched nearly to the breaking point, Nina still managed to
administer a Reading is Fundamental book program for Kindergarten and grade
1 students, organize author visits to inspire hundreds of children, and
facilitate delivery of books to needy schools that were collected on an
independent book drive.

Or meet Fabienne T., who works in a remote Northern community. Her student
body contains a high number of kids who come to school hungry, tired and
unprepared to learn because of upheaval at home and in their community. For
these children, literacy is truly a foreign concept - their own culture did
not even have a written language 40 years ago! Many elders there are
actually suspicious of reading as a form of learning, since their own
educational system involved a more active approach, being out on the land.
Yet Fabienne cheerfully strides from school to school, bringing books and
enthusiasm and a desire to help improve the opportunities available to her
charges. Those opportunities will only open to them when they possess the
skills needed to "make it" in the contemporary world, so with her copies of
"Clifford the Big Red Dog" and "Twilight" in hand, Fabienne is truly
managing to change their worlds.

Or why not let me introduce you to Jenny E., who teaches in a tough primary
school in one of Toronto's most challenging neighborhoods. To see what she
has done with these old-too-soon kids is nothing short of miraculous, and
she's been doing it for more than 20 years, day in and day out (I'm sure the
number is higher than that, but I don't want to embarrass her!). 

The crisis facing school libraries today is an issue that has not yet
surfaced in the Canadian consciousness. Yet let me assure you, it is very
real, pervasive, and will have long-term consequences. Only a tiny
percentage of Canadian school libraries meet the minimal standards (Set by
the Canadian Library Association ) required to achieve learning objectives
in all curricular areas, not just literacy. 

A fully functional school library is the heart of a school, providing
necessary sustenance and support for teachers and students. It is at the
vanguard of "best practices," incorporating information literacy into school
culture, and it the avenue through which students learn how to do research,
analyze sources and interpret media messaging. 

School librarians are professionally committed to freedom of thought and
speech, and to the notion that teaching kids how to learn is the root of all
education. If that's not progressive, I don't know what is.

I know, I know, you didn't really mean to disparage school librarians -
yours was a throwaway comment designed for a laugh. But it perpetuated a
lie, and was a disservice to some of the most revolutionary members of our
society. But! Here's the good news! You can easily correct that disservice!

Let me suggest that, next Fall, you accompany me to some representative
school libraries in the GTA. Let me show you how we are letting down
Canadian students by underfunding our school libraries. Let me show you how
the mouth-noises that insist "we support literacy" are a lie when in fact
the school libraries in our country are short of books and staff.

On a personal note, it was in a school library that I first fell in love
with books. That early exposure and support has enabled me to live a full
and productive life as a literate citizen. 

When I speak to kids during my school presentations, I often ask them, "Why
are you learning how to read?" The typical response is, "so I can get a job
one day." "So I can get good grades." Or simply a shrug of shoulders - we
are made to read and write because the grownups want us to. 

I tell the kids that all of those answers are all acceptable ones, but are
not the best reasons. Do you really want to learn to read just so you can
grow up to become an obedient worker bee, or to boast a meaningless A on
meaningless report card? No.

No, The real reason you should want to learn how to Read well, Write well
and Speak well is because these are the tools that give you power - both the
power over your own life, and the power to persuade others to make
improvements to our world.

School librarians are bringing power to the people, every day. Please give
them their due. 


Helaine Becker

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