Schools losing more than just book minders in librarian cuts across Canada

(Photo courtesy Thinkstock)
(Photo courtesy Thinkstock)

As a child, Ieke Giese used to love going to the library. She never lost her passion for books or reading, going on to become a certified teacher-librarian. The president of the North Vancouver Teacher-Librarian Association says her greatest reward is seeing students develop a deep love of reading, with some of them keeping in touch with her years later to tell her what books they’ve discovered. It’s a basic skill that she says is threatened when school boards start cutting librarian positions.

“One of my favourite things when I was as a kid was when we walked to the public library,” said Giese in an interview with Yahoo Canada at her school. “I was a library rat. That’s my love. The library is the heart of the school. When we take librarians out of schools, you take away the heart. You cut off the source of reading. If our job is to teach kids how to read, then you have to have someone who supports the reading programs, and those are your librarians.”

They also seem to be among the first to go when school boards across the country start cutting jobs to save money.

The shedding of jobs began in earnest in 2011, when the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board in Ontario was going to eliminate school library staffing and make serious cuts to school library services and resources. Last year, Coquitlam, B.C.’s school district eliminated teacher-librarians from its budget. Thirty percent of teacher-librarians in that province have vanished from schools since the stripping of teacher-librarian ratios from the collective agreement in 2002, according to the BC Teachers Federation. Library specialists in Nova Scotia’s Chignecto-Central region are the latest to be bracing for job cuts.

(Librarian positions are structured differently across Canada.  In B.C., credentialed teachers with additional training related to the library position are “teacher-librarians” and members of the teachers’ union; in other provinces, the librarians may not be a credentialed teacher. In Alberta, they’re called library technicians.)

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Despite librarians being cut throughout Canada, in some parts of Europe they’re being supported as a “force for educational reform, for improving reading education, and for developing students’ abilities in information handling and knowledge creation”, according to Dianne Oberg, a professor in the University of Alberta’s faculty of education, and Jennifer Branch, associate professor of elementary education at U of A.

“Other countries are undertaking library-based initiatives in response to the need to educate young people for the challenges of the 21st century,” Oberg and Branch wrote in an article in the Canadian Education Association’s Education Canada Magazine. “They are building on the potential of school libraries to enable students to become informed and engaged citizens and effective contributors to our society and our economy, through the acquisition of life skills, of information literacy strategies, and of dispositions for flexibility, creativity, and innovation.”

In Norway, for instance, the government has funded research and development projects on improving the learning environment and on developing the pedagogical role of the school library since 2000. In 2011, a law passed making school libraries mandatory in all schools across the country. In 2008, the Croatian government mandated that every school must have a library staffed by a librarian with a university library degree.

Neither Oberg nor a representative from the Canadian Library Association was available for an interview with Yahoo Canada.

Giese, meanwhile, says that there’s much more to a school librarian’s role than checking out books and tracking down overdue ones. Essentially, there are four pillars to the position: fostering a love of reading, helping kids develop solid research skills, teaching information technology (which includes using the Internet and, if time permitted, would include writing blogs and building websites), and administration.

“The role of the librarian in a school is to support learning in all aspects,” Giese says. “We work with kids and develop one-on-one relationships with kids. We work with teachers; there is a lot of collaborative teaching, team teaching. We support them with the resources they may require. We buy books for kids and fill gaps in the school’s collection. Every book has a reason and a place.

“But the biggest thing we support is kids’ reading, and our job is to build a love of reading,” she adds. “Reading is the one skill we all have to have to be successful. If they don’t learn it as a kid, it will be a lot harder when they’re adults. If I’m enthusiastic about a book, they’ll be enthusiastic about it.”

Time spent in a school library has numerous other benefits, Giese says. Picking books teaches kids leadership skills. When students ask her to buy a certain title, she explains that it depends how much money is left in her budget, teaching them money and math skills. Then there’s the fact that the library is a welcoming space.

“It’s a place where kids can come and hang out and be special and be part of the joy,” Giese says. “We create community and spirt in the school. In some communities, kids don’t have books at home. The irony is that everything we do is about getting kids to be readers. Yet [with job cuts], we cut off their source of reading.”