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Book it: Michael Borges at the New York Library Association office.

Photo: Shannon DeCelle

Read ’Em and Weep

As New York state’s school library books get older and older, funding to buy new ones has not been a legislative priority


In the modestly named “Children’s Corner” of the Book Barn in Latham, the overflowing horseshoe of shelves stretches nearly half the length of the shop. Many of the books on those shelves once were destined for school libraries and classrooms, but, after unexpected budget cuts, the schools were unable to pay for their book orders, and the unclaimed volumes eventually ended up in Dan Riggs’ used-book store.

Riggs interrupts his reading to recount the tale from behind the Book Barn counter. A few years ago, seven or eight school districts ordered sprawling collections of paperbacks, re-bound into hardcover volumes to endure years of being shoved into backpacks, dropped, stepped on, and lovingly mangled by a long parade of schoolchildren. But, according to Riggs, “When state funding doesn’t pan out, books are the first thing to go.”

And go they did. The schools couldn’t pay the bindery, so they couldn’t have their books. In turn, the bindery couldn’t pay the plastics company that had provided the protective coating for the book covers. So the bindery paid the plastics company in children’s books.

That’s when Riggs got the call.

“Do you buy children’s books?” He was certainly not expecting that the caller would be selling 40,000 books—40,000 brand-new, hardbound books, once destined for schools: reference books; Greek mythology; Newbery Medal-winning literature; child-friendly Tolstoy adaptations; biographies of Jane Goodall, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Wright brothers; and popular and classic fiction, from Nancy Drew to the Goosebumps series. Forty thousand books without a home, and Riggs bought them all. Forty thousand books that never made it onto the school shelves or into the hands of students.

“The paperbacks retail at $3.99 a book,” says Riggs. Now that they’re re-bound in hardcover, he’s not sure of their current value, but he is sure they last 10 to 20 times longer than paperbacks. “But schools just aren’t buying books anymore,” he adds, his brow furrowing behind his wire-rimmed glasses. “They expect kids to buy them. And teachers—teachers spend a fortune of their own money on books. I have teachers come in and buy 100 of these permabound books for their classrooms or libraries.” Even at Riggs’ bargain-basement price of $2.75 per book, it’s a huge expense for teachers and librarians to pay out-of-pocket to ensure that their students have the books they need. The books they’ll love. The books that will make them love reading.

For Riggs, a self-proclaimed book person, who was an educator himself before opening the Book Barn, “It has always been a pet peeve that books weren’t being ordered. Books really are a bottom priority,” he says. “I never could understand that.”

Based on a study released in March by the New York Library Association, Riggs is right: Schools just aren’t buying books anymore. According to the study, the average age of school library books in New York state public schools is between 21 and 25 years old. The average book in Capital Region school libraries dates from 1987, the year President Ronald Reagan declared his famous challenge at the Brandenburg gate: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” In 1987, the Berlin wall was still standing. The Cold War soldiered on, as did the Soviet Union.

And yet, Soviet Society Today, a tattered, red and “commie pinko” pink volume from 1989, pulled from its place on a local library shelf only this year, sits in Michael Borges’ office at NYLA. In a box beside it are The First Book of Science Experiments, from 1942, and Computers in Society: The Where’s, Why’s and How’s of Computer Use from 1974—its headline printed in a heavy, digitized font more familiar to kids playing shareware on their MS-DOS than Wii bowling or Rock Band.

“In 1942, FDR was still president, and we were fighting World War II,” says Borges, executive director of NYLA. “When they say ‘The first book of science experiments,’ they really mean it,” he chuckles, shaking his head as he sifts through the boxes of outdated books. “We have students reading books on computer use that were written in the equivalent of the Computer Stone Age, and reference books on a communist empire that no longer exists.”

Meanwhile, the contemporary biography of Gorbachev that the schools ordered—covering his landmark reforms of glasnost and perestroika, the downfall of the Soviet Union, and his post-resignation political activity—sits on a Book Barn shelf, waiting for a home.

“If we’re trying to improve student achievement,” says Borges, “trying to raise test scores, trying to produce kids who can compete in a global economy, we need them to have access to up-to-date reading materials. It’s important that school libraries get the funding they deserve to provide those resources.”

Until last year, library materials aid, the money that New York state provides to school libraries to buy books, had been stuck at $6 per pupil for eight years. Last year, aid was increased by 25 cents per pupil, which comes to about $750,000 statewide. “You divide that up among 600, 700 school districts,” says Borges, “and it doesn’t really amount to much.”

Especially when you consider the average cost of a new library book is $23. Or that former Gov. Eliot Spitzer proposed a $5 million cut in library materials aid from the 2008 state budget. “The Legislature restored the five million, but then was told by the New York State Division of the Budget that they had to accept a 2-percent across-the-board cut in funding.” Borges chuckles out another exasperated sigh. “But that 2 percent wasn’t really across the board. Some organizations were exempt, and some aid categories were exempt. But we had the 2 percent imposed on us. We lost about $2 million.”

After this year’s budget cuts, schools will receive less library-aid funding than they did in 1998. And over those 10 years, the cost of library books has increased by more than 30 percent. Today, library materials aid allows for approximately one new book purchase for every four students.

The New York State Board of Regents has recommended that library-materials aid be increased to $10 per pupil, an approximately $10 million increase statewide. Pocket change, claims Borges, considering this year’s $1.8 billion increase in school aid. State aid spending is not discretionary; the budgeted aid is broken down categorically. School library-materials aid must be spent on library books. None of the other funds may be used to purchase library materials.

“It just boggles the mind,” says Borges. “We increased school aid by $1.8 billion, yet not a dime of that went to school libraries. To me, that’s, well, it’s just outrageous. I realize we’re facing a $4 billion deficit, but we’re increasing school aid. It’s just not necessarily going to where it’s needed.” He shakes his head again, visibly burdened and baffled by a decade of funding disappointments. “We demonstrated, both in our survey, and by talking to school librarians around the state, that there’s a need. We also have well-documented studies that show that having a well-stocked library, staffed by a certified librarian, has a positive impact on student academic achievement. There’s a need, and we’ve also demonstrated results, accountability. But it still didn’t go anywhere. It’s very frustrating.”

In October 2006, NYLA and Scholastic Inc. partnered in hosting a roundtable discussion with state and local policymakers to inform them about the role school libraries play in student academic achievement. At the forum, Dr. Ross Todd, director of research for the Center of International Studies in School Libraries, presented a paper titled “School Libraries Work.” The paper, compiled by Scholastic Inc., summarized the results of 16 statewide studies, undertaken since 2000, which document the impact of school library programs on student achievement.

The paper was updated this year to include studies by 19 states and one Canadian province. From Alaska to Pennsylvania, from kindergarten to 12th grade, the findings were consistent. Schools with well-stocked libraries managed by qualified librarians demonstrate markedly higher student performance than schools with inadequately funded libraries. Standardized test scores are, on average, 10- to 20-percent higher in schools with well-stocked and well-staffed libraries than in schools without comparably equipped library programs.

According to the Scholastic paper, there are “explicit links between availability of library resources, technology, information-literacy instruction and student achievement.” In North Carolina, scores on standardized reading and English tests proved higher at schools whose libraries had newer books, and were staffed for more hours during the school week. In Oregon, it was determined that students from the high schools with the best Oregon Statewide Assessment scores visited their school library more than three times as often as their colleagues from the lowest scoring schools. The Texas study found a more than 10-percent increase in the number of students that met the minimum state expectations in reading at schools with larger and more current collections, and higher levels of library staffing. And in Colorado, the size of the school library collection and staff was determined to explain 21 percent of the variation in students’ reading scores.

According to each of these studies, the relationship between library programming and test scores is not negated by other school or community conditions. In fact, quality library programs have been shown to boost achievement for students who are considered at risk due to poverty or family instability. Libraries, Borges claims, have the potential to significantly equalize learning opportunities for students. Libraries provide access to a wealth of information and educational resources—resources that are available to anyone, regardless of their personal situation or socioeconomic status.

“Unfortunately,” says Borges, “the funding problems are more prevalent in high-need school districts, particularly in rural and urban schools, where the local tax base isn’t as well situated as some, say, suburban school districts are.” Well-funded school districts are able to spend much more than $6 per pupil, supplementing state aid with local funding. “There really is a wide range in what’s being spent, but it’s needed the most in those high-need school districts, and the funds just aren’t there. Those districts really need up-to-date reading materials, and state policy simply does not reflect that.”

In addition to outdated books that don’t engage students and sometimes even misinform them, libraries often are inadequately staffed. Many schools can’t afford to keep their libraries open for the entire school week or to staff full-time librarians. New York state requires that libraries be staffed by certified library-media specialists only in seventh through 12th grade. “A room full of books is just a book warehouse,” says Borges. “Without a librarian, you can’t really call it a library. It’s important that the state recognize not only the need for materials, bt the contributions that school librarians have in improving student academic achievement, in promoting curriculum and reading.”

According to the Scholastic report, 67 percent of schools with above-average reading scores had a full-time library-media specialist. In Alaska, schools will full-time teacher-librarians were almost twice as likely to score above average on achievement tests than schools without. The preliminary report of an ongoing impact study of New York state’s school libraries and library-media specialists conducted by the Center for Digital Literacy at Syracuse University, the first of its kind in the state, found that New York schools with certified librarians score almost 10 points higher on the English Language Arts test than those who don’t.

And in Ontario, Canada, the presence of a teacher-librarian was determined to be the single strongest predictor of reading enjoyment for students in grades three through six. According to Borges, that’s where the role of school libraries is most critical. “If you instill a love of reading in children at an early age,” he advocates, “that love of reading will translate into better test scores, and more interest in school and academics. It will create a thirst for knowledge, and improve skill sets at all levels. And it will last a lifetime.”

The lack of up-to-date materials and qualified staff in school libraries is demonstrating itself in New York state’s public-school graduates. NYLA also represents college libraries and, according to Borges, one of the main concerns college librarians raised at a recent conference was that public schools aren’t doing enough to prepare students to do challenging, college-level research. Students are coming out of school, says Borges, “and using Wikipedia as their primary reference. They’re not using factual, reliable, solidly backed, in-depth information.”

People perceive the Internet as the end-all for research, he says. “But we’re not teaching the information-literacy standards: What is factual information, what is reliable information, how to connect that information.” He recounts an amusing anecdote, but his brow furrows, because it’s true. “A third-grade class was given a project on explorers. One child picked Magellan, went to Google, and typed Magellan. It came up with a GPS device. He was thinking, OK, travel, geography . . . and he set out to do a whole paper on a GPS system instead of the explorer. That’s what librarians have been trained to do. To help students learn how to distinguish what’s factual, what’s reliable, what’s relevant. And what’s not.”

High on the list of NYLA’s legislative priorities are the School Library Media Specialist Bill (S.1687), sponsored by Sen Hugh Farley (R-Amsterdam) and Assemblywoman Sandy Galef (D-Ossining), which would require certified library-media specialists in K-6 schools; and an amendment to the Contracts for Excellence initiative, which was adopted last year to provide extra aid for schools in high-need areas. Under Contracts for Excellence, approved schools must commit their aid spending across permitted criteria before receiving funds. The original legislation outlined five aid categories; a sixth, English as a Second Language, was added this year. NYLA lobbied to add school libraries to the list, in hopes that Contracts for Excellence funds could be used to purchase library books and hire librarians. However, according to Borges, “It wasn’t a priority for lawmakers. But we’re still hoping to move forward with that. There are two ways to affect education policy, legislatively . . . or through regulatory change by the board of Regents at the State Education Department. We’re going to travel those parallel paths until we reach our goal.”

So, with a clearly established need, and demonstrated impact, why can’t school libraries get the funding they’re pleading for? Why did 40,000 school books end up at a used bookstore in Latham?

“We release reports, we have press conferences, we issue press releases, we meet with legislators, we try to inform them about the need and about the impact,” says a clearly disillusioned Borges. “It’s unfortunate that, when they decide what’s a priority, school libraries are not in their top 10. Not even close.”

For Borges, the problem boils down to public perception. “People take them for granted,” he says, “and, in turn, don’t provide the necessary resources for libraries to fulfill their missions. Public perception and funding are the two greatest challenges facing the library community today.” And those two problems go hand-in-hand.

As for the students, they might have a deeper appreciation for the value of their schools’ learning centers. An Ohio study revealed that 99.4 percent of students in grades three through 12 believe that school libraries and their services help to make them better learners.

“It really isn’t rocket science,” says Borges. “It’s as true in New York as it is in Ohio. If you have a school library that’s stocked with engaging, up-to-date materials, and it’s staffed by a qualified librarian, you’re going to have a positive impact on student academic achievement. The need is there, the proof of the impact is there,” he adds, shaking his head again from a decade of frustration. “But the will power of the Legislature to do something about it, is not.”

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