Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Lost World of the Public Library

Here in Las Cruces, New Mexico, the city's public library, called the Branigan Library, sits basically in the center of town. The problem with Las Cruces is that there are no satellite branches, so there's one big library in the center of town.

I'll admit, this isn't a huge city, but for people like me who live on the edges of town, we may find ourselves as far as 10 to 15 miles away from the library. For the more economically disadvantaged in the area (most of whom live on the southern or eastern part of town), this means either a multi-stop, multi-change over bus ride just to get downtown. So for some of them, the public library simply isn't on their to-do-lists.

For me, I try to take my children (as in my sons, not my students) to the library at least twice per month, where we check out books by the dozens. The things I always notice about the library is that it's never very crowded, the majority of people that are in there are there for the public computers, the overwhelming majority of people in there are adults, and that the library is a safe haven for people that have no other place to go.

The problem with this all is that there are never very many children in the library, which is, in my opinion, the people the library should mainly be trying to serve. It's great that there are resources out there for adults, but kids are the ones who need to read, and for most of them, their school libraries are simply not adequate in terms of broad interests in books, and a trip to Barnes & Noble is simply out of the question, because it's so expensive.

After talking to a few of the librarians at the local public library about my concern, they had a few things to say as well. They said that first of all, the libraries are a by-day shelter basically for many homeless people who just want a roof over their heads. They said that as long as these people don't cause any trouble, they have as much right to be in there as anyone else. They confirmed that the majority of patrons enter the library to use the public internet computers, and that on any given day, there are probably ten books checked out to adults for every one to a child.

There are many different directions I can choose to continue on from here, because the issue of how to get kids in the public library, and why it seems that less are going is obviously one that has many influences. Let's just start from the angle of why I have defined public libraries as "the lost world." As a student at New Mexico State University for many years, I have lived near the main undergraduate library (the Zuhl), and have spent time in the graduate library (the Branson).

As an undergradute, I never had any massive need to enter the university libraries, and even now, as a doctoral student, the majority of research and texts that I need can be found online through the university article search features (which aren't cheap, but are included in the cost of tuition).

Applying this to public libraries, I'm beginning to think that people decide that if their kids can't find the books at school, then they can't find them. They decide to find those resources online (if the kid is interested in fantasy books, why take them to the public library to get The Lord of the Rings when they can read fantasy fiction online?) Of course, there's also a major problem of parents not knowing or caring what their kids are reading (if they're reading at all). But that's an entirely different discussion that could go on for days and weeks.

I have asked my own students about their perceptions of the public library, and can basically summarize their opinions in a few ways, which I'll try to do without offending anyone. In the state of New Mexico (I say this because I don't know how it works in other states), a school librarian does not have to be certified as a librarian, in fact, they don't have to be certified at all. They make about the same pay as an educational assistant, and are basically required to have the same amount of education (a high school diploma, some college preferred).

The problem then is that the person in the building who should be a resource to teachers and students alike has less knowledge and skill in the area of children and young adult literacy than probably anybody else in the school. The students see this, have to deal with it every time they walk in the door, and begin to associate the library with boredom and tedium.

This isn't true at the public library level, at least in most decent sized cities. There are many certified librarians who have that appropriate educational background, people who understand literacy issues, who children read and why, and who actually know the books and authors. The problem is, many kids get disillusioned at school, or have apathetic parents, and never make it to the library to begin with.

One of the great, eye opening experiences I've had while running this blog is that I've come across some professional librarians, and they are the people who should be running the libraries, not just at the public level, but in our schools as well. Librarians who read the children and young adult literature, who try very hard to stay at the forefront of new reads, and who know the ways to get those books on their shelves as soon as possible upon their release.

We need more of those people, as well as those who advocate the use of public libraries. We need to educate parents that these places are great resources to keep their children loving literature, a great place for children and adults alike to find not only books, but movies, documentaries, video games, cook books, magazines, etc. We also need to, as teachers and literary professionals, bring clarity to children about the joys of holding a book, and the satisfaction that comes with finishing one. We need to show children how much more fulfilling a book is than a web page or texting on a cell phone. If we can't get kids in the libraries, they surely will become lost, they're already practically empty.