Monday, April 12, 2010

They say you can't judge a book by its cover, but I think you can judge a town, or a school, by its library.

This week is National Library Week, in which we celebrate libraries and librarians, and their contributions to our communities.  Environmentalists say every day is Earth Day; I say true dat, and also, every week is library week.  I spend a lot of time in libraries. 

In my daughters' school library, parent volunteers have always been helpful for checking books in and out, shelving them, putting books in order when they aren't, and rescuing books that have been mis-shelved and might as well be lost to anybody looking for them in their correct place.  This year, we're not just helpful, we are essential free labor.

Thanks to (somehow unanticipated) cuts in state funding and decisions by the Superintendent about what jobs to cut in turn, the library aides in each of our K-8 schools were laid off before Christmas. Our school of some 900 kids now has just one person to manage the circulation and condition of the entire collection.  She's supposed to do this on top of teaching research skills to each of the classes that come in at their assigned times and helping the children that drop in individually or in small groups throughout the day.  I can tell you it's impossible. My volunteer day is a typical one.  There's already a library class in session when I arrive in the morning, and two more classes of 22 or so kids each come in and out before I finish at noon.  There are projects for each of them; sixth graders might be doing reports on Presidents, fourth graders on constellations, and second grade might be hearing a story and learning how to find fiction they like. Each kid puts a couple of books in the return cart on their way in.  Each kid checks out a couple of books on their way out.  A few will need speaking to about overdue or missing items.  Several ask for help finding what they're looking for.  ("Do you have any books on dinosaurs/Greek myths/kittens/Star Wars/raising cattle/Tom Brady/origami/Uganda/the moon?"  I have more or less memorized the entire Dewey Decimal system.) There just aren't enough minutes in the school day for the librarian to do all she does personally with the students and completely handle the circulation and shelving of books. We volunteers fill some of the gap.

The Bean volunteers in the library too. After hearing me talk about the district's budget problems,* she tried hard to come up with a way to help out.  (She wanted to give her school principal her tooth fairy money, because the school needed it more than she did.  How do you explain that a dollar won't help the school one bit, even if it represents her whole heart?)  We decided that because she especially loves the library, we would help there together.  So once a week, the Peanut and I join her after school.  Bean shelves series fiction and easy readers, I make a dent in the nonfiction, and the Peanut disappears somewhere with a book of her own (heck, this wasn't her idea).  When it's time to head home, the Bean's pride is palpable, and the return cart is in better shape for the next day.  We're doing what we can.

Public libraries have been in the news around here lately because municipal budgets, like school budgets, are stretched impossibly thin.  Boston is looking at closing several of its branch libraries.  My Cape Cod town will likely cut public library employee hours (if not entire jobs) and reduce its operating hours. 

Adding insult to injury, our public library is also recovering from its basement having badly flooded.  We had a crazy lot of rain this March, and groundwater is high.  The library basement rooms are used for meetings and programs and story times and a children's play center and lots more besides.  They'd just had new carpet installed, and it's all ruined.  They pumped out the water and it came in again.  It'll be weeks before the space is usable.

I visit the town library often, maybe twice a week, to exchange our stack of children's books for different ones, and hunt down the novels my book groups are reading plus whatever looks interesting besides.  We borrow DVDs and audiobooks as well.  Lots of families do all that and more.  The library's a busy, busy place. 

People more eloquent than I are going to talk a lot this week about how libraries are the heart of their communities.  I think that's true.  Libraries house all we know about ourselves, the world, and beyond.  Public libraries ensure that all this is available to everyone.  It is an awesome, venerable function, because, as a free society, we value that.  Don't we?

Maybe not.  Last week on Cape Cod's local news and talk station, a morning show discussion began of the proposed library closings in Boston, and I heard one ignoramus host say to the other that she thinks libraries are "obsolete, because you can always go to a bookstore."  Yes!  She thinks that because you can browse at a bookstore without buying anything, that's functionally the same as having a public library.  And of all the stupid ignorant things I've heard from that silly twit's mouth since someone thought it was a good idea to pay her to squawk into a microphone, that beat all.  Well, I thought.  Here, at last, will come the callers telling her what a dope she is.  But no.  In came the calls wondering yeah, why do we need libraries, anyway?  Stupid libraries.  Stupid, money-needing libraries.

Oh. My. God.  I had to turn it off.   

This is what we're up against, friends and supporters of public libraries:  people who think Barnes & Noble is an effective substitute.  

Looks like we do need National Library Week.

*probably wondering aloud why we've laid off all the library aides, yet maintain a high school ice hockey program which has made local headlines for 1) the bad behavior of its players and fans and 2) the girls' and boys' teams not having equal facilites (illegal, btw, and I'll give you one guess which team got the short end of that stick).


  1. I am a reader, I read newspapers , books, magazines, on line content. In order to read , and make time for reading, I gave up watching television. . But I am also a dinosaur. The times they are a changing. I tried to explain to my college aged children over their recent break, that they would be far better educated if they were to read a newspaper cover to cover for 4 years, every day, than they are by attending college. Their peals of derisive laugher still hang heavy in the air.

  2. I don't have time for TV either. Don't miss it much (except The Daily Show and Dirty Jobs), but it does put me even more out of the popular culture loop. My girls will have plenty of cause for derisive laughter at my expense when they hit young adulthood!