The Role of School Libraries in Elementary and Secondary Education

Teacher Librarian, October 2002 | Go to article overview

The Role of School Libraries in Elementary and Secondary Education


To a great extent, this conference is a celebration of Andrew Carnegie's vision and largesse. Carnegie's vision was to create places, where children and their families could have to free access to books and information. Even a decade ago, people could enter our libraries and see very much a scene reminiscent of Carnegie's dream: large rooms with great tomes, people quietly reading, lights dim, voices in whispers throughout the building.

Today, this scene would look far different than a decade ago. Our libraries of today include open shelving, computer access, a virtual as well as a physical space. They are community centers, literacy playgrounds for many of our children. This transformation led the William Penn Foundation in Philadelphia to sponsor a 50 million dollar effort to create model urban library system in Philadelphia and to sponsor a study that would examine how these transformations affected children's literacy development, particularly for poor, minority families, and its relation to reading achievement.

This study was conducted over a 5-year period during this transformation, and involved methodological strategies that were far different than clinical trials or experimental research. Rather, the study took us into neighborhoods, both middle-and well-to-do and poor communities as well to examine how people used libraries, the relationship between public libraries and school libraries, as well as the hidden stars of libraries--the excellent children's librarians that make a difference in their children's lives.

What we learned, based on a wide variety of methodological strategies, including ethnographies, interviews, time on task studies, as well as frozen time checks, challenges some common folk wisdom and myths about library use in these neighborhoods. And these myths often perpetuate the belief that library use is important to some children but not all children which has led to some unfortunate consequences. In brief, let me focus on some of our key findings, providing data to support these conclusions.

First, the good news.

Libraries are vital to all children, poor and well to do.

Previous methods of counting "use" in libraries have been based on circulation figures--simply how often children and their families check out books. In many library systems across the country, this figure will be used to determine budget allocations for the next year, leading to some libraries having larger budgets than others. Libraries in poor areas have dramatically lower counts than middle-income. In our exit interviews, for example, we found those children in middle-class neighborhoods checked out an average of 6 books per hour; compared to 0 in poor neighborhoods.

Yet our interviews revealed that many of these families did not own a library card, or were reluctant to check out books due to overdue fines, or fear of getting them. We therefore conducted an extensive `in-building' library use study, clocking the number of children engaged in reading activity, adults reading--actual time spent in the library. Over 80 hours of analysis was conducted.

Our study revealed an important finding. Across all these branch libraries, in-building use was approximately the same for children in poor--as well as middle--and well-to-do communities. Over a 4-hour period for example, we clocked an average 3,992 minutes for 72 patrons in libraries in poor neighborhoods, compared to 3,255 minutes for 72 patrons in middle-class neighborhoods. This chart provides an average time for individual reading per child, and the average number of materials used. Regardless of wealth, libraries were busy places, active information centers for children in these communities.

But there is concerning news as well.

Library use is different in different communities.

Although libraries were important in all communities, we found that children in poor- and middle-income neighborhoods used them differently. …

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