Wednesday, June 2, 2010

An Open Letter to National Post columnist Lorne Gunter regarding School Librarians

I sent this letter to National Post columnist Lorne Gunter today. I thought blog-readers who are supporters of school libraries might find it of interest too!

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


  1. Helaine, this is breathtaking!

    I'd like to make another suggestion: Whenever I did a unit on tall tales with my Grade Fours, I always read aloud the series of tall tales by the great American picture book author/illustrator Steven Kellogg; he did a Paul Bunyan, a Pecos Bill, etc. To my great delight (and surprise!), one year I discovered that he had illlustrated Library Lil (the author was Suzanne Williams), whose tall tale heroine is a librarian with powers on a par with those of Bunyan and company. As I recall, Lil turns a town of TV-watchers into readers, and even tames the town's oversized bullies who attempt to turn her library upside-down. The book is a typically Kelloggian romp; you'd all enjoy it. I don't know if it's still in print, but, well, tell Mr. Gunter to . . . borrow it from his local library!

    On a more serious note, I can speak from bitter experience to the lack of school librarians. For twenty-four years, I taught in an economically declining Nova Scotia town -- Amherst, in Cumberland County. None of the schools in that county had school librarians (not to mention libraries) by the mid-1980s, and it showed: in the ratty, dog-eared books in derelict libraries, in classroom libraries whose only books (paperbacks that fell apart after a year's wear and tear) had been acquired as dividends from Scholastic Book Club orders, and were generally of inferior literary quality as well. In poor communities, local public libraries are also under-supplied (often there is nothing but a bookmobile). Families don't read either, and it's tough to get the reading bug to bite if there simply are no books. Most of us teachers bought lots of books out of our own salaries for our classes; there was simply no other way to keep classrooms stocked. School libraries were unknown in so many rural Nova Scotia towns, and the consequences were tangible: pop culture reigned.

    Marjorie Gann
    Children's author and retired teacher

  2. Thanks so much, Majorie, for your info about Amazing Lil, and your story about your experiences.

    I recently presented at a school in not-very-far-North Ontario. The library there was horrific. They only had a part time "librarian," who was actually a library-tech. The shelves were dirty. The books were so old I found titles called "Young John Kennedy" and "The Red Indian."

    Oh Canada, indeed.

  3. Helaine,

    I blogged about librarians last week and I couldn't agree with you more!


  4. Great letter, Helaine. Food for thought.

    I volunteer at my boy's school library one afternoon a week. The kids all want to know "why?" Playground discussion this morning led to a trip to the school library for a book explaining Islam. Our school librarian always makes time to help the kids find answers to their "why?"s. The other volunteer is there day in day out - for the past 11 yrs. or so.

    Best investment of time I feel I can make in my community is to be a part of opening the door to "why?".

  5. What an excellent article in support of qualified school librarians and school library collections to encourage a culture of reading and inquiry in our young people. The document you quoted (Achieving Information Literacy:Standards for School Library Programs in Canada)was published by the Canadian Association for School Libraries(CASL), a division of the Canadian Library Association, and demonstrates the current lack of funding for school libraries, as outlined in your comments.
    Linda Shantz-Keresztes, President (CASL)


Because: Science!