No access to school libraries

Stop! You are forbidden to read further!

I hope that opening elicits two reactions: first, that you want to continue reading, and second, that you wonder why you should stop.

Since 1982, the last week of September is designated as Banned Books Week. Its goal is to celebrate the freedom to read. It brings together librarians, journalists, teachers, booksellers and most important, readers as they support the freedom to access and express ideas and raise awareness about the harms of censorship.

While the designation of addressing the wrongs of banning books began 35 years ago, the practice of banning and burning has existed for centuries. Fortunately, it is not as common as it once was, but sadly, it remains in fashion even to this day.

Annually, lists are published of those books most often challenged, and looking back at those lists reveals some surprising titles. A few of the better-known works are John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

Supporters of banning books argue that we need to protect people, especially children, from offensive, inaccurate, or potentially corrupting printed content. Critics insist that everyone deserves access, regardless of a book’s controversial nature.

In researching this topic, I learned that there is a Library Bill of Rights, a list of policies established by the American Library Association. Of the six policies, there are three that I want to highlight.

r Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background or views of those contributing to their creation.

r Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.

r A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.

It is this last policy, regarding access to the library, which struck me. In fact, with apologies for the play on words, it truly lit a fire.

Would it surprise you to learn that there are NO requirements for school libraries or librarians in Pennsylvania public schools? It is more surprising that prison, barber, cosmetology, and nursing programs must have them. In other words, school districts have the right to ban libraries. Banning means no access, which means that students and staff should not be surprised to discover a sign on their school library door saying “No Access.” When parents visit their child’s school and see the open doors of a well-stocked library, do they realize that there are days when those doors are locked because there is no librarian to unlock them?

The adjective “public” means “open to all, concerning all the people, for community use.” We, as citizens, have the right to be outraged if something designated as public access is not available to us, just as we might be outraged if someone tries to keep us from reading the Bible (one of the 2015 banned books). Are we outraged to learn that library doors are locked in our neighborhood schools?

So, who is to blame? We, the public, are to blame. We, as taxpayers, dutifully if also grudgingly, pay our school taxes, and those monies go to school districts that struggle to decide how best to distribute the funds to meet many needs. Libraries and librarians are not among those mandated needs, so districts are within their rights to underfund or not fund them. Then, who says it is right to require a prison to have a library but not a school? And so we move the blame farther up the food chain to our legislators. However, do we shake our fists and demand change?

Stone Soup Literacy’s mission is to empower this community to prioritize literacy. Previous columns have encouraged using and supporting our local libraries, but have not addressed what is happening to our school libraries. The problem is insufficient funding, and when we, the public, disagree with how the money is spent, we have the freedom and responsibility to voice our concern. Our students need ready and easy access to the written word in all its forms.

Just as important, they need a trained professional to help them navigate and evaluate what they find.

As Debra Kachel in her article “The Calamity of Disappearing School Libraries” states, “Librarians teach information literacy — how to separate the useful from the less useful, the credible from the inaccurate, and how to navigate the Internet safely. Those who think that the Internet replaces a library must think it is okay to use WebMD instead of going to a doctor.” (Houston Chronicle, July 20, 2015)

To learn more, I recommend the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association’s publication “Talking Points – One Certified Librarian Per Public School Legislative Campaign.” ttps://www.psla.org/assets/Documents/Legislation/TalkingPoints.pdf

As always, I welcome your response and ask you to email me at kathy@stonesoupliteracy.com. Please note that the previously shared email address was incorrect. I also welcome your questions about individual or community literacy and will use them as topics for future columns.

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Kathy Gephart is a mother, grandmother, wife, daughter, sister, graduate of Lock Haven High School, Lock Haven University and Penn State University, educator of children and adults, volunteer and avid reader. She is the founder of Stone Soup Literacy whose mission is to build readers, one community at a time.

Email Kathy at kathy@stonesoupliteracy.com or visit www.stonesoupliteracy.com.

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