Thursday, May 11, 2023

An Open Letter To the Lockport School District

Have you ever heard the term, “cut off your nose to spite your face?” It means doing something even though you know it will put you at a disadvantage. In my opinion, that is exactly what the Lockport Board of Education and District Offices are doing with their latest proposal regarding school librarians. In my opinion, this cutting of library services is a detriment to the overall education of our students, ultimately affecting the graduating students that the Lockport City School District so proudly sends off into the world.

New Superintendent, Dr. Mathis A. Calvin, III attempted to spin the narrative in the Union-Sun & Journal by stating that “any gaps in library/media skills instruction will be covered by existing teaching staff next year.” With all due respect to Dr. Calvin, this spin is quite similar to those of us who have been stuck in the ends of our driveways after a fresh snowstorm -- a lot of spin, but not a lot of traction. Teachers are already pushed to their limits by more and more onerous mandates sent down from both the State Education Department as well as directives from their own administration. Adding more to that plate seems unlikely, and not a focus for the teachers when the exams are the measurement by which they’re judged.

Libraries are important, especially in the formative years. If you think back to your earliest memories, I bet most of us can remember our parents or grandparents reading to us. I would also bet that most of us who are parents also read to our children. Despite the idea that no one reads anymore, reality is quite different. Those early days of reading should be nurtured from the moment we walk through the school doors as kindergarteners or preschoolers, and continue through every level of our schooling.

I had an amazing introduction to the library when I entered kindergarten at Washington Hunt in 1979. One of the first field trips I ever took was a walk from our school on Rogers Avenue to the Lockport Public Library. I got my first library card then, and I’ve never stopped using it. As a class, we went to the library, listened to a story being read, and then were set free among the stacks. Some of us found history books. Some found mystery books. Some found comic books (lately relabeled to ‘graphic novels’). We all found something. That’s the secret -- giving everyone a chance to find something that speaks to them rather than telling them what they should read. That freedom would do a lot to help literacy rates in this country move up from 36th in the world.

One of the things about libraries that has been relegated  to near disappearance is the importance of research. There is a common misconception that because we carry the “world’s knowledge” at our fingertips through the internet, that we no longer need libraries. This could not be further from the truth.

Have we learned nothing over the past decade about how dangerous and wrong the internet could be? We have unfettered access to unverified information. Most often lately, the more wrong the information is, the more it is passed off as true by acolytes. Facebook memes have done more damage to facts than any censor could ever imagine. That misinformation, unfortunately, is easier to access than what really matters -- facts.

Nearly all the books that make it to the shelves of the library are vetted for facts. Obviously some, especially by the politician, du jour, and other talking heads can be skewed. However, for the most part, you’re going to find books that have verifiable facts in them, unlike the internet, which often attempts to pass off opinions as facts. Libraries still hold the truth.

One of the most important things a librarian can teach is how to do great research. Yes, that starts in the English classroom, but it’s put into action in the library, with the assistance of librarians. These librarians will jump into the trenches with you as you’re learning the ropes. Many of the librarians I’ve spoken to over the years cite this as one of the biggest perks of their jobs. 

Recently, I had the opportunity to read a research paper written by a college freshman. I was astounded at how poorly it was written and researched. Almost all the citations were from online sources, with only one book from a library being utilized in the process. The writing was choppy, and seemed as if it was simply cut and paste from the selected internet sources. If I were a high school teacher, I would not have passed it, let alone if I were a college professor. Some of this shortfall can be attributed to the COVID years, since those students caught the pandemic at the worst time for learning about writing research papers. However, much of this, in my opinion, is directly attributed to the lack of library skills being taught, and the lack of a librarian. And this problem will only be getting worse.

With the loss of these skills, an over-reliance on questionable internet sources, and the rise of AI writing, what will we be left with? We will lose even more critical thinking skills, blissfully happy to subscribe to whatever views most directly align with our own regardless of the veracity. This will divide our populace even more, making us all unhappier.

The happiest countries in the world all have the same thing in common. They have strong library systems, including in the schools, and they have very high literacy rates. That is no coincidence. Finland and Norway have the best literacy rates in the world. They also have what are considered the best public library systems in the world. Children are introduced to the libraries as soon as they enter school. Both countries emphasize the importance of reading and having unfettered access to libraries. Both countries also top the lists of the happiest countries in the world.

Libraries, public and in schools, are the cornerstone of a strong republic, and the cornerstone for a strong and educated public. Libraries are one of the truest examples of values of democracy. The library doesn’t know, nor does it care, about your socio-economic status. A millionaire heart surgeon can walk into a library and read a book where he dreams of being an astronaut traveling among the stars. Likewise, a child from a lower socio-economic household can walk into the same library and read a book to dream about solving the world's energy problem or becoming the next great inventor. 

The Lockport City School District wants to expand their STEM offerings, which is quite noble. However, they plan to do it at the expense of the libraries and librarians. This trend has been happening for far too long. It’s easy pickings when it comes to budget time because we’ve been deluded into thinking that libraries are expendable. That mentality is dangerous. What’s the first thing that despots and dictators do after taking power? They burn the books that would be a danger to them, the books that contain the knowledge of a free people. That tells you the power of books. It’s a power that we all need to exercise.

I suppose part of what makes these decisions easier for school districts is the fact that libraries at all levels are under attack by political provocateurs attempting to rewrite libraries in their own images, much like the internet gives them their own versions any truth they want. After decades of near neglect, attacks on libraries are being met with indifference and apathy. It's easier to avoid the fight rather than face it head on. That is exactly the wrong message to be sending. Good things can be difficult to obtain. Great things are worth fighting for. 

As I close, I’ll let you in on a not-so-secret secret. I did research for this article. I even used real books. Here’s another not-so-secret secret: I learned how to research papers and use the library during my time as a student in the Lockport City School District. It is a skill that I rely on every day as a historian. It is a skill that I cherish. It is something that the Lockport Board of Education and district office need to preserve. Librarians make me smile every day. They can make you smile, too.

Craig Bacon
Library Patron