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Making a difference for school libraries, by MCLS Executive Director Randy Dykhuis

This article was adapted from a talk I gave at “Public, School and Academic Libraries and Student Achievement”, the 2015 Mahoney Conference. The conference was sponsored by the Library of Michigan, in conjunction with the Michigan Association for Media in Education, the Cooperative Directors Association, MCLS, Michigan Library Association, and Michigan Academic Library Association. The conference focused on ways that school, public, and academic libraries can work together to enhance student learning. There was a special emphasis on ways to respond to the closing of school libraries across the state.

As I was preparing these remarks and thinking about the work that we do as librarians, I was reminded of an article by Neil Gaiman, patron saint of librarians everywhere, that appeared in The Guardian on October 15, 2013. Entitled “Why Our Future Depends On Libraries, Reading, and Daydreaming”, Gaiman talks about the importance of libraries and the necessity of good librarians. He says:

I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read…[one] way to destroy a child’s love of reading, of course, is to make sure there are no books of any kind around. And to give them nowhere to read those books. I was lucky. I had an excellent local library growing up…I worry that here in the 21st century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a world in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to miss the point fundamentally… Libraries are places that people go to for information. Books are only the tip of the information iceberg: they are there, and libraries can provide you freely and legally with books. More children are borrowing books from libraries than ever before – books of all kinds: paper and digital and audio. But libraries are also, for example, places that people, who may not have computers, who may not have internet connections, can go online without paying anything: hugely important when the way you find out about jobs, apply for jobs or apply for benefits is increasingly migrating exclusively online. Librarians can help these people navigate that world.

For Gaiman, libraries are places where children learn to dream and discover their worlds and themselves as well as places everyone goes to for information. He calls librarians the navigators that help visitors to the library find their ways.

Joe Janes, associate professor in the I School at University of Washington, goes even further. He has called librarianship the most important profession. He says that because librarians help

every other professional, whether lawyer, doctor, or engineer, do their jobs better. In effect, we help every other profession advance.

Nowhere is this truer than in elementary and secondary schools. Librarians help teachers and administrators perform at higher levels and spur greater academic achievement among the students in all those buildings. But as important as achievement is, librarians do more than enhance academic performance and help improve standardized test scores. As Gaiman says, we also make students better people. We change lives for the better.

We have always known this – which makes the loss of school librarians all the more wrenching. In Michigan, there are 60 percent fewer librarians than just ten years ago. That is an astounding and disturbing statistic and quite overwhelming. Yet, as librarians, we are by nature resilient and resourceful and solution-oriented. Across the country, librarians are building exciting coalitions to ensure that students have the access to library services. At the conference, librarians from La Porte County Public Library’s Libraries 360 service in La Porte, Indiana and Nashville Public Library’s Limitless Library program in Nashville, Tennessee, described how librarians from multitype libraries are coming together to assure that K12 students can work with professional librarians

We also heard from a panel of superintendents who affirmed the importance of librarians in their districts. They get it. They see on a daily basis that librarians can make teachers better and the positive impacts they have on students. These are not the administrators who see library services as low-hanging budget fruit. Unfortunately, there are many more of their colleagues who do not share that outlook, and they are the ones closing school libraries. They are the ones we need to get to. Whether it is school board members, school administrators, or politicians, it is up to us to tell them our stories. Only then can we turn the tide against disappearing school libraries.

Let’s do that. Let’s find ways to continue our collaborations. Let’s find ways to get more school librarians back into school libraries. Let’s go make a difference.