Letters: 'Branch libraries are not school libraries'

Posted: April 29, 2014

I totally agree with your editorial, "No Mere Words," that libraries are important and that every school child in Philadelphia should have and utilize a library card. As the proud holder of four Vacation Reading Club certificates from the Free Library of Philadelphia (1956-1959), as the daughter of a decade-long head of the Falls of Schuylkill branch, as a retired English teacher who walked entire classes across the parking lot from Rush Middle School to the Katharine Drexel branch, as a retired English department head at A. Philip Randolph Technical High School who regularly invited the local branch librarian to freshman orientation to sign up students for cards, and as now a board member of the Friends of the Free Library, I would, under normal conditions, applaud the motive and action of awarding member cards to every student in the city.

Your acknowledgment, however, that "the school budget cuts have led to a decimation of school libraries, with few school librarians left in the system," and the news that "[Superintendent] Hite and library president Siobhan Reardon are working to see how the Free Library can help fill the void" fills me with renewed sadness and even alarm.

Branch libraries, wonderful as they are, are not school libraries. Public libraries cannot, and should not, be asked to serve the essential and unique function of a fully-supplied and certified teacher/librarian-staffed school library, where materials are selected and suited to students and the curriculum, where librarian and teachers can collaborate in developing student research skills, where students are able to access the full attention of their librarian in lessons attuned to their grade level and where utilization is certain and woven into the school day. Rather than assume, somehow, that every one of the newly-equipped 98,000 student card holders will now be regularly reporting to her or his local branch library for leisure-reading materials and individualized guidance in research projects, we should instead be intent on restoring the cruelly-excised school libraries and librarians that no suburban or private school has been asked to do without.

Let us remember the words of Dr. Harold Howe, U.S. Commissioner of Education in the Johnson administration: "What a school thinks about its library is a measure of what it feels about education."

Tolerating one hundred eighty-seven schools devoid of libraries speaks volumes about what Philadelphia thinks.

Barbara McDowell Dowdall

Member of the Alliance for

Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS)

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