The Heart of Reading

March 7, 2010

A recent thread on the school library association discussion list  in my state caught both my attention and my heart.   The initial question was simple, something about asking about the basis for deciding how many books students in elementary school were allowed to check out.  I waited and waited, reading several posts for both the reasons for limiting checkout, and far too few librarians who defended unlimited checkout.  Finally, I could not resist the urge to post.  My comments are below.

I know that my former students must know how my fingers have been itching to get in on this thread, since I strongly believe in taking off the limits on checkout, for the reasons that many have stated.  Namely, that it creates an administrative burden on the librarian to keep track, do overrides, and ride herd on the numbers.  Second, it contributes to the stereotype of the library job being mainly clerical, after all, why do you need a master’s degree to check books in and out?   And why are we shelving all of these books anyway, instead of encouraging students to browse through these hot reads before they get back on the shelf?

 I know that some are hung up on the whole teaching responsibility thing, but I don’t know that denying access to a print-rich environment for print-starved children is the best way to do that.   I know that we have no way of knowing that the books are being read, but I am positive that the ones remaining on the shelves are certainly not being read.  Sitting in a backpack at least gives the book a chance.   I know that the more books that go out, the number that will not come back will rise, but I suspect that the percentage of books lost in circulation will decrease.  And lost does not mean lost, it means that at least one book is in a home that previously did not have any.

 As a field, we need to be the cheerleaders for reading, and that means taking the risk to place as many books as possible in the hands of children while they still want them.  Far too soon, circulation rates will drop as students turn to other activities.  Let’s drown them with reading as much as possible in order to keep them reading as long as possible.

 I want principals to walk in the door of the library at any time of the day and see it overrun with children checking books out.  I want the stacks to look as if a whirlwind had just blasted through, and I want the return box, carts, desk, and even the librarians chair to be stacked with books awaiting the return procedures.  The best chance of proving that we as a field are essential to learning is to make us essential to reading, and we can’t do that by having “library days”,  only certain tiny segments of the day for checking out books, or counting out only a limited number of reading for each child.   The only things in life that are limited are the ones that are bad for you.  We need to stop treated books as if they were breaded deep-fried Twinkies.   Eat your vegetables!   Read!

I see this discussion as extremely important, especially as I also read the headlines of impending severe budget cuts in the local  area. Can we afford as a field to withhold reading?   Could we not position ourselves as so central to the process of reading that parents would march in the streets to save jobs and increase budget?

I don’t see that limiting access to library materials gets us anywhere, and I know that it doesn’t get children nearly as far as open access will.  My challenge, as an educator of pre-service school librarians, is how to ensure that those entering the field will understand the dispositions of librarianship.  The most important value we hold as a profession is open access to resources and services.

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