Making a Point, Missing the Point

Lava Lamp Red
Image via Wikipedia

I am still astounded at the new things I’m realizing now that I am responsible for taking a library that stopped progressing sometime in the mid-1970s and bringing it into the 21st Century.

The first thing is that organization, never my stro

ng point, is essential in a library. There is so much to keep track of: books, borrowers, the card catalog (more on that in a bit) return dates, trends (more on that, too, in a minute) and new releases.

There are likely more things to keep track of, but those are the ones I’ve discovered in my first two weeks. I hope some more experienced librarians I’ve come to know will inform me what I not paying attention to that I should also be focusing upon.

The second thing I’ve realized is that it is almost impossible to go directly from being an excellent 1970s library that unfortunately finds itself in 2010 to being a 2010 library ready for whatever develops in the next decade or two.
Let’s start with the card catalog.

The subject catalogue (
Image via Wikipedia

We have a lovely wooden card catalog unit with a matching four-drawer file cabinet. Both pieces would look terrific in my house. The newest item in that file cabinet is a clipping from the New York Times of November 8th about the results of the Presidential election held the day before.

The card catalog is an anachronism. I just uncrated 15 cases of books and have a stack of catalog cards about a foot high that I need to file. I can’t begin to estimate the amount of time it will take to do that filing, but I have to think there is a better use of my time than doing that.

One potentially better use of my time would be to organize our non-fiction section currently in total disarray. It does one no good to look up a topic, say the grammar of Old French (perhaps you wonder as I do why we have two books on that topic), and not have a clue where to find the books filed under 841 in the Dewey decimal system.

Or perhaps an even better use of my time would be to figure out how to sell off that non-fiction section (complete with six — count them! — six different encyclopedias) and the lovely wooden card catalog and file cabinet in order to buy a few e-readers.

My friend and colleague Lisa Nielsen has been hosting an interesting conversation about e-readers vs. books on her blog. The conversation started with the news that Principal James McSwain of Lamar High School in Houston, Texas got rid of many of the books in his school’s library and replaced them with e-readers and a coffee shop.

I’m not at all interested in the discussion of whether a

coffee shop belongs in a high school, but I am interested in the fact that Lamar High School can afford to buy a bunch on e-readers. So can a lot of schools around the country. But I’m scrounging for bookends.

A black metal bookend.
Image via Wikipedia

Think about that for a minute. E-readers for a rich district and school, but my poor students get to watch me try to scrounge bookends.

While you’re thinking about that I hope you come to understand that until we find a way to make sure every student in America has access to the same resources, whether they are great teachers, e-readers, or classrooms with heat, all the other talk is meaningless.

All the education reformers, all the politicians, all the teacher unions and all the teacher-training colleges are all avoiding the central issue affecting the future of education and the future of our country: the large and growing gap between the rich and the poor.

Find a way to fix that and you’ll see a whole bunch of other problems you waste time talking about disappear.

E-readers? Maybe someday.

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3 Responses to Making a Point, Missing the Point

  1. erin says:

    Hi, it’s Erin (aka @erinreads).

    The point you’re making about resource disparities is so well taken. One would think it would be obvious, but so much of our national discussion seems to be about ignoring them or saying they don’t matter.

    When I was a librarian at a charter school (I’m in the public library now), our school was far from being the poorest in DC–we had about 65% of our students eligible for free/reduced lunch, and there are schools in DC where that number is 90%.

    My budget was actually better than what a lot of public and charter schools get ($7000/year + RIF money), but it still wasn’t nearly enough. I spent lots of time doing things like going to public library booksales and scrounging for donations.

    I think before making the jump to e-readers, we could start by giving economically-disadvantaged students access to actual _books_.

  2. Beth says:

    Your post sent me thinking in many directions, but the most salient point was about equity. I was speaking with a colleague in a different district recently. Her district has enormous differences in wealth from school to school. My colleague happens to work in a school with sparse and dated resources (and working class families). You can imagine her shock when someone else in the district (at a school serving a wealthier population) sent out an email asking for advice on how to barcode and catalog the 30 new iPads she had just purchased. My colleague has 5 computers in her entire library – on a good day, 3 are working.


    I have no idea how to solve this but talking about it is a step toward something.

    All that aside, it seems like you are already off to a great start. Reading your tweets from earlier last week, it sounds like you are creating an environment where students want to come and spend time doing all kinds of learning. Resources are important. The most important, I’d say, is the people there…the students and the librarian. (This doesn’t excuse inequity by any means, but it is something.)


  3. Deven I feel your pain too regarding equity. While it is depressing, you are in a position to make great changes. Make the library a place where things happen. Cultivate relationships with teachers. Be a partner in teaching to EVERYONE in the building. And look for some grants to get a few things you want. DonorsChoose is a great start that is fairly easy.

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