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Some Austin schools lack libraries

by Sarah Ostman on December 14, 2010

For bookophiles of a certain age, school libraries harbor a particular nostalgia: the hushed-voiced librarians, the magazines bound in plastic casings, the escape from the classroom to a world of card catalogs and old book smells.

But many students in Austin will have no such memories, at least not in their school – at least three of Austin’s 24 public schools either have no library or no librarian.

The Chicago Tribune reported earlier this fall that 164 Chicago public schools lack a library – nearly one in four elementary schools across the city – and many that do have libraries house their books and computers in small, overcrowded spaces. The situation drew media attention after a group of mothers in Pilsen, so concerned about the lack of a library at Whittier Elementary, staged a sit-in at the school’s field house for more than a month.

In Austin, Howe Elementary has no library; neither does the charter school Austin Business & Entrepreneurship Academy, according to school employees.

At Key Elementary, students have a library but no librarian to oversee it. That’s because enrollment at the school has dropped and funding for the position has fizzled away, said the school’s literary coach, Anna Tines. Key has money for only a half-time librarian now, and the position has gone unfilled for two years, Tines said.

While funding for school libraries across the country has stayed fairly consistent in the past several years, those in low-income neighborhoods are being hit particularly hard, according to a study by the Chicago-based American Association of School Librarians.

Spending on school libraries in high-poverty areas has dropped 25 percent in the past year, from an average of $13,935 in 2009 to $10,378 in 2010, the study states – another unfortunate side effect of an ailing economy.

“We are in a very serious economic climate all over the U.S.,” said Julie Walker, executive director of the school librarian association. “(Schools are) having to make hard decisions … In most cases, high-poverty schools are the hardest hit.”

Illinois has been hit harder than most states in terms of losses of school librarian positions, Walker said, along with states like Michigan and Oregon.

There remains some debate over how vital a library is to a school. Loretta Lawrence, principal of the K-3 Leland Elementary School, said her school has a library, but with books and computers in every classroom, it barely gets used. Instead, her librarian prefers to go from class to class, leading her activities there.

“That’s just the preference of the teachers I’ve had in that position,” Lawrence said. “We have extensive classroom libraries … (and) when there’s a need to do a research project, they do most of their research online.”

Dwayne Truss, an Austin resident who has been active on several local school councils, said libraries are an important resource, especially to keep students up-to-date on current technology. Still, he said, student success doesn’t necessarily depend on physical space.

“Brick and mortar don’t teach kids,” Truss said.

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