Monday, November 10, 2014

Burning Pittsburgh's Libraries to the Ground

Since time immemorial, libraries have been among the first thing torched when a conquering enemy invaded. In 1358 B.C.E., the libraries of Thebes were destroyed. The Persians burned Egyptian libraries in 525. In 213, the new ruler of China ordered the destruction of all writings. The Patron Saint of Libraries himself, Jerome's library was burned in 416 in Bethlehem. Pope Gregory I burned all the books of ancient Rome in 590. Talmuds to the flames in Paris in 1244, followed by the death of every Jewish book there in 1309. Our own Library of Congress burned to the ground in 1814, fired by the British.

 In every century, a library is burned or murdered by destroyers of whole worlds and generations-- in the hope of replacing past narratives of strength and individual culture with the preferred one-- or who knows-- perhaps mostly out of simple malice. In our own time, The Sarajevo Library was burned by the Serbs in 1992. Almost all Iraqi libraries were destroyed in 2003 in the American invasion.

Sounds terrible and makes you shake your head-- oh, the terrible excesses of war. But if we "stay woke," as the activists in Ferguson implore us all to do as they continue their fight for justice, we see that the destruction of libraries is not a thing that belongs to the past. Instead, we must see-- we must be "woke" enough to see-- that libraries have been quietly being burned to the ground without much notice and, sadly, with most of our complicit inaction-- in our city, the city of Andrew Carnegie, the great builder of libraries himself.

If you live in East Hills in Pittsburgh, you don't have a public library you can walk to. If you live in Manchester, you don't have a public library you can walk to. If you live in some neighborhoods where it is dangerous to walk outside of your door, and if you are a child, you can't walk to a neighborhood public library-- even if it is a few blocks away--because you may be in danger of being hit by stray bullets. There are no book stores in those neighborhoods. Poverty is highly concentrated there, and in many other neighborhoods in our city that also don't have easy access to books. This has generally been true, and for a long time, and not just for Pittsburghers. Poor folks have less access to everything. However, public education, the great equalizer, used to provide libraries to students.

Think about that. Kids without resources had the opportunity to meet with a credentialed, highly skilled professional librarian once a week at school to hear the best literature told in the most engaging ways, and then to freely peruse bookshelves, inhaling the scent of thousands of books from which to choose. They had a warm personality to help guide them to a book that was "just right" for them- and to exchange books at least weekly, possibly more. They chose a book, took it home in their backpack, enjoyed it with their family for a week, then got a new one-- free. And safe. The great equalizer was the school library and the school librarian. 

In Pittsburgh, for a reason I do not claim to know, school libraries have been decimated as surely as the libraries in Thebes. If that sounds like hyperbole, ask yourself: if a library at school is unstaffed or locked to middle school students, does it exist for those students?

At one time, we had a Library Services Department that was an example for other cities, with high standards and highly regarded leaders. The Library Services Department advocated for librarians and libraries, set standards based on the best of professional practice and demanded librarians live up to them, among many other things. Long ago, the Library Services Department was eliminated and book budgets dried up. A group of the most highly credentialed professionals in a building, working to serve hundreds of disparate staff and students, will have many needs and concerns that only a highly skilled and credentialed member of their own profession is qualified to understand and address. Yet that entire department has burned-- scattered to the wind.

And as for the death of book budgets across the district-- You simply can not run a library without a book budget. It is not possible to meet the needs of your school with no new books. As curricula and the student body change, collections change-- since library collections MUST reflect the population they serve. What will you offer your struggling reader with a vision problem, who needs a beginning chapter book in large print? How will you romance your recalcitrant middle schooler, who "hates books" and only wants to read about WWE heroes, if you don't have anything she is interested in? Without an up-to-date collection, you prove to children that libraries and books are irrelevant to them.

But these things are not as bad as the death of librarians in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. Trying to create equity by giving each school a librarian one day a week is a failed model. Librarians succeed when they are deeply entrenched in the culture of their school. When a librarian knows every child's name, the projects teachers do each year, the curricula being taught, the foci of the school, she can build a collection to fit each of those things. Each one. Each child-each teacher-each project. I know. I did it. It was marvelous. One year, in which we received extra library funding to build the collection,  I was able to raise my school library circulation 600%.

But in Pittsburgh, that kind of success is simply not currently possible, because the position of School Librarian has been burned to the ground by the invading forces of Gates, Pearson, Broad et al. And we-- with a few notable exceptions-- have let them. Jessie Ramey, along with Kathleen Newman and Pamela Harbin has been a metaphorical Boudica and her daughters in a chariot for school libraries and public education. They aren't alone. Heroes like Wallace Sapp, Brenda Simpson, Kipp Dawson and so many others have raised their swords skyward and fought real battles for libraries in schools. As we put away our joy at having elected a new Governor for our state, one who promises to be a friend to public education, and get to the work of helping him define what that means, let us not forget the lessons of history: enemies burn libraries to the ground for a reason. And we who cherish and work to instill critical thinking, imagination, love and respect for "other," and basic humanity into our children and our students have reason to fight back.

Libraries Tell Our Story

Librarians, Libraries, Serendipity And Passion

Source: Book on Fire: The Destruction of Libraries throughout History, Lucien X. Polastron.