Recently, the Lester B. Pearson School Board of Montreal decided to eliminate the jobs of all school librarians in their employ because of governement budget cuts. I was asked to give a statement about this at a recent board meeting:
We send our children to school to learn to read, to write, to expand their minds, to give them a chance to lead successful happy lives. A primary school is a small milieu where for the first time, young children are exposed to the vast world outside of their homes.
It is a place where they will learn skills that, for the most part, they will use throughout their lives. So how can a school open the doors wide enough to introduce children to original thoughts, other lives, different cultures and knowledge?
As an author and illustrator of over sixty children's books over the last thirty years, I have had the pleasure of traveling all across Canada, from Vancouver to St, John's, and from Inuvik to Chissasibi, as well as crisscrossing the United States, giving workshops, presentations and readings to thousands of students in librairies and schools : huge inner-city schools, rural schools, remote island schools, first nation schools, alternative schools, private and public schools.
What has struck me in the hundreds of schools I have visited is the influence that a school library and a school librarian have on the children I meet. I can tell as soon as I start interacting with them that the children are more engaged, more articulate, they ask questions, their minds race to make connections. They share something precious: a love of reading, a curiosity, an open mind and a boundless imagination. And the reason is that they have access to a wide collection of books, classics and contemporary, and they have someone who can suggest, lead, persuade and inspire them to expand their minds with books.
That is the role of the school librarian.
In opposition to this, the schools that I have visited where school libraries are inexistant or very poor, where books are outdated and in sad physical shape, where the library is used as a place to put unruly students, and run by well-meaning volunteer parents or overworked teachers. In these schools, I meet children who know how to read, but since they are not in contact with a variety of books about an infinity of subjects that would expand their minds, they are more passive and less engaged. Some lucky and passionate readers in these schools might have a chance of becoming life-long readers if books are read in their homes, or if they have access to a public library. But the others, the children from low-income and less educated families, the reluctant readers, the slow readers, the bored readers, the new immigrants to our country will be functionally literate, but reading will not be an integral and important part of their lives. And a lot of doors will remain closed to them.
That is why I find it so shocking that we would not support the important role of the school librarian, as well as a school library in every single school. That, as a society, we would not demand that our young children be offered a rich choice of reading materials that will enlighten their choices, instill a sense of belonging to a community, accept difference and expand their vision of the world.
This is what school librarians bring to a school:
They have the up-to-date knowledge of what books will interest, stimulate and persuade children to expand their reading habits.
They make a choice of which books to buy on an often reduced budget. They prepare and catalogue the books.
They keep a modern, well stocked, well organized library where they suggest and recommend books that will ignite and inspire young scientists, romantics, adventurers, athletes, artists, science-fiction fans, drama queens, budding computer experts and daydreamers.
They give enthusiastic readings to classes that visit the library. Have you ever seen a school librarian reading a book to a class? It’s pretty awesome. Stories come alive. Strange voices ring out. Kids are mesmerized.
School librarians organize book clubs, book weeks, book fairs and reading marathons, creating an excitement and a buzz about reading and books.
School librarians organize and coordinate author visits, meeting with students to read, study and discuss the author's books ahead of the reading.
School librarians help, advise and collaborate with teachers as well as students with their research projects, directing them to books, materials and websites where the best information can be found.
Above all, school librarians are passionate about their goal, which is to get all children hooked on reading.
School librarians are irreplaceable and essential to a modern-day school.
— Marie-Louise Gay