Short Rations for School Libraries

A student, assigned to do a paper on space travel, consults the school library. He finds a book that predicts that man will go to the moon some day. Another student, assigned to write a paper on Japan, finds only information printed 25 years ago that tells her almost nothing about the world as it is in 1987. These are, to be sure, worst cases, but they tell a lot about the shape that California's school libraries are in.

A study, commissioned by the California Department of Education, surveyed more than 1,500 schools in rural communities, small cities, suburban areas and urban areas. The results, released last week, indicate that school libraries in most districts are grossly out of date and financially strapped.

More than 40 other states have more book titles per student than California school libraries do, according to the study. The state spends, on the average, $4.76 per student per year on library books--not enough to buy one average hardback. Nationally, the budget for school libraries is $6.24 per student.

School libraries began to fall behind, along with public libraries, when budgets were cut after the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978. They lost even more ground when federal funds that had been earmarked for libraries were consolidated into general grants that could be used for school programs generally.

To help make up for the fact that money seems always to lag behind expenses, some schools staff their libraries with parent volunteers, community aides, clerks or teachers who are willing to take on extra duties. In the absence of trained, full-time librarians, no one keeps up the card catalogue, an otherwise routine task, or teaches youngsters how to find information and do basic research.

Local districts can't afford to staff every school library, elementary through senior high, with a trained librarian, but school boards must rethink the importance of libraries when scarce discretionary funds are doled out.

The state can't afford to make every library a gleaming, modern resource center, but the report recommends that the California Legislature consider school libraries as important as computers and give books at least as high a priority. It also suggests establishing model media centers to provide examples of the way libraries can function as the center of instructional programs.

The best school libraries instill a love of learning in children. And they encourage a love of reading that many youngsters will retain as adults. If literacy is important, and it is, state and local educators must assign school libraries a higher priority.

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