Top News

‘What a school thinks about its library is a measure of how it feels about education’

['At the School Board with Adam Davies']
Education Matters with Adam Davies

Education Matters with Adam Davies

As another elementary school library is dismantled I cannot help but think of a comment made decades ago by Harold Howe II: 'What a school thinks about its library is a measure of what it feels about education'.

Harold Howe II, often referred to as 'Doc', was a United States commissioner of education from 1966 to 1968. During that time, he worked to abolish segregation within American public schools and he directed the disbursement of newly assigned federal funds into the education system. Later, he joined the Ford Foundation and then was a senior lecturer at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University.

aforementioned comment comes from a 1966 interview Howe had with the editor of the School Library Journal. The interview was first printed in the Journal later that year, with the title 'On libraries and learning', and was widely reprinted.

many people, Howe's comment may seem quaint and passé. It is seemingly out of touch with the realities of today's schools, where school libraries have fallen victim to funding cuts or the need for additional classroom space for students. Often, school libraries have been replaced by classroom libraries, which promise a literacy-rich environment specifically tailored to things such as the students’ interests, experiences and culture. There is a notion that school libraries can be replaced by a public library within the same community. Furthermore, the specialized skills of the school librarian, which include teaching students how to locate appropriate information and materials, the responsible use of information technology, digital literacy skills, and acting as an overall information resource for the school, have been taken over by specially trained teachers and other staff.

Those are all valid points but I think we need to reconsider Howe's point about the school library as a 'measure' for opinions about education. On this Howe outlined four different ideas.

school libraries enabled students to access materials and ideas outside of the school curriculum. They provided students an opportunity to read what they wanted to read, not what they had to read. In addition, school libraries insured that this opportunity was afforded to every student. Howe recognized the importance of public libraries but he also knew that not every student had the means or opportunity to get to those libraries.

Howe explained that school libraries operated within the school environment but outside of the classroom. This meant they were able - indeed obligated - to house materials and resources that were outside the curriculum. In the 1960s, school administrators and local school boards could easily exclude books and materials from the classroom but it was much harder to justify keeping them out of libraries.

he noted that school libraries were a resource for students to learn independently outside of the classroom. They provided each and every student a safe space for self-directed learning and enrichment.

Howe noted school libraries were one of the very few places in school that a student could go to and not be disturbed. Student use of the library was voluntary and optional, thereby empowering them to make of it what they wanted.

It is unlikely we will ever see a return to fully funded and maintained school libraries but that does not mean we should dismiss Howe's comment or points. We need to think about what the Howe-era libraries offered - student access to material outside the curriculum, an obligation for schools to provide extracurricular material, independent learning and a safe space for all - and ask whether those ideas are being maintained by the current model.

Adam Davies lives in Amherst and works for the Cumberland Public Libraries in Amherst. He is a former member of the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board.

Recent Stories