The benefits of reading extend far beyond the academic sphere. Unfortunately, students in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) lack access to these benefits due to the closure of about half of the public elementary and middle school libraries.
The positive externalities of reading are especially strong for children, who can find solace in a relatable character or glean lessons from their travails. Unfortunately not all children have equal exposure to books and their distant worlds. More dire is the fact that those students who are losing their school libraries are most likely from low income families that benefit most from a library’s myriad services. Easily accessible libraries are vital to providing an equitable education to all children. With the advent of the e-reader and the closure of public school libraries, books threaten to become a commodity only available to those who can afford it.
Thousands of books sit behind locked doors in public elementary and middle schools across L.A., inaccessible to students because the district lacks the funds to pay library aides, according to Teresa Watanabe’s recent Los Angeles Times article. About half of all elementary and middle schools in the LAUSD have intermittently closed their libraries since 2008. More worrisome though, as Watanabe points out, is that schools in affluent neighborhoods are more likely to keep their libraries open through private funds, rallies, petitions and calls to elected officials. The parents of children in low-income schools often do not have the resources or abilities to perform these same tasks. Giving only students in more affluent neighborhoods access to these resources perpetuates the current income and education inequality in America.
Library services are increasingly overshadowed by technological novelties and profit-motivated ventures. LAUSD spent $1 billion attempting to provide all 600,000-plus students in the district with an iPad, a program that continues to ignite a huge debate about its practicality and sustainability. Its execution has utterly failed, with delays in developing the curriculum and the uncertainty of whether the district can actually afford not only the iPads, but also the software, training and repairs. While the students who do receive iPads will be able to play Flappy Bird to their heart’s content, most students will be left without either physical books or the latest technology from which to learn.
The race to develop the fanciest, shiniest technology extends beyond the public school realm. Oyster, for example, is a new company being hailed as the “Netflix of books” that allows users to download as many e-books as they want for a set price per month.
Consumers and producers alike seem to forget that public libraries provide this exact same service – for free. Although the reader must place holds like with any other library book, anyone with a library card can download e-books directly to their e-reader for free, for a limited amount of time. The critiques of Oyster fail to mention this irony, focusing instead on whether Americans read enough to make it a profitable enterprise at all.
Libraries, on the other hand, are multifaceted and adaptable spaces. Not only do they provide the obvious service of checking out books, but they serve as a social meeting place and educational hub. L.A public libraries help citizens file their taxes and complete a high school degree online. Most recently, the libraries held workshops and information sessions to help visitors enroll in California’s branch of the Affordable Care Act, Covered California. The programs target the Latino community specifically since they make up about half of California’s uninsured residents.
Los Angeles prioritized the services libraries provide through Measure L, a ballot measure passed in 2011 to increase funding so that all libraries could reopen on Mondays and two additional evenings and purchase more books and materials. Beginning in January 2014, nine libraries reopened on Sundays as well, one year ahead of schedule. The extended hours will not only provide more opportunities for patrons to take advantage of the services, but also create a safe and constructive environment for children when they are not in school.
Considering the breadth of services that public libraries in L.A. offers, it is even more vital for the public school system to reopen and utilize their libraries as well. Without school libraries, children are not exposed to all that a library has to offer. They never gain research skills or pick up the habit of wandering through stacks of books, scanning the spines and checking out those that interest them. When the LAUSD does not prioritize access to literature across all disciplines, an important linkage is destroyed between schools and the outside world.