It’s bad news and some good news today, but as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Bad times have a scientific value. These are occasions a good learner would not miss.”
Considering the state of our state, nation and world, we must be ripe for learning. The good news is quick: Anchorage’s public libraries are joining New York Public Library’s decision to stop charging overdue fines. The better news is that our library stopped its overdue fines many decades ago, thereby seeing countless thousands of books returned and library users retained that would have been lost. The bad news begins with pseudoneglect.
Wiktionary.com says pseudoneglect is “a mild asymmetry in spatial attention, displayed by neurologically normal people, in which the left side of space tends to be favored.” In other words, when normal people are told to look straight ahead and divide what they see into two equal parts, they’ll subconsciously make the middle line slightly to the left, producing a counterclockwise error.
This showed up when a German-Slovak research team studied the alignment of Neolithic houses in Central Europe and found that despite the builders’ intention to line their new houses up exactly like pre-existing ones as intended for religious purposes, over the generations the openings in new houses gradually shifted counterclockwise. Scientists suspect this has to do with the differences between our brain’s left and right lobes.
Plain old “neglect,” on the other hand, is, in Oxford Dictionary’s definition, “failing to care for properly,” and that describes what’s happening to libraries around the country, and especially here in Fairbanks. The governor has announced a new K-3 reading initiative based on the “Mississippi model,” in which state reading scores, which are tested in fourth grade, are improved by flunking poorly reading third graders. This ill-conceived solution has been adopted in a number of states. Fourth-grade scores improve, but overall reading skill continues to decline.
A more effective and sensible solution is rebuilding the school libraries. Numerous studies have shown a direct correlation between well-staffed and stocked school libraries and improved reading scores, but instead cost-conscious administrators opt for cutting school library staff and budgets. For example, a MichiganRadio.org report last August said, “This school year, districts in Michigan will start holding back third graders who are more than one grade level behind in reading. Michigan students have been sliding down the national rankings of test scores for reading. At the same time, school librarians are becoming less common in the state.”
It’s abundantly clear: Few librarians equals lower reading scores. A 2018 Forbes.com article by Adam Rowe is titled “U.S. Public Schools Have Lost Nearly 20% of Their Librarians Since 2000.” The most dramatic drop came with the Great Recession of 2008, and a nationwide study “found signs that states’ fourth-grade reading scores dropped in correlation with their loss of librarians.
School librarians not only read to students, they encourage them about reading, teach research skills, and help guide students’ reading choices and use of libraries. But when library aides are fired, like was done here last fall, suddenly the librarians have much more grunt work — checking books in and out, reshelving and repairing damaged books, etc., and a lot less time for firing kids up about reading. The school district’s degreed librarian position for overseeing the school libraries was eliminated several years ago, and administrators seemed hell-bent on employing computers rather than print books, despite the a plethora of evidence that reading print promotes reading far better than screens.
Let’s not forget the neglect heaped on poor old Noel Wien Library. When I oversaw the remodeling of that library in 1997, I was concerned that we weren’t renovating any of the rotten plumbing, substandard wiring, leaking roof, and other failing structural systems remaining from the 1970s, but money was limited and we were told by the borough administrators that those problems would be addressed “in a few years.” Several decades later, scare talk about the proposed Noel Wien Library, like the “café” that’s actually only a place for mothers to feed hungry babies. Concern should be focused on half-century-old pipes, ancient wiring and other immediate concerns.
Our library remains the most popular service the borough offers, despite being seriously degraded in the past few years — fewer open hours, fewer staff, etc. But we can do something about that, beginning with repairing a beloved institution. As jazz musician Taj Mahal once said, “It’s not just about bad times. It’s about the healing spirit.”
Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. Contact him at 479-4344.