Guest Column: Public input needed on Rockford Public Library decisions

January 18, 2012

By Amy Orvis

Curled in the lap of the library; surrounded by shelf upon shelf of information, cultural explorations, adventure and reading freedom … this is a public paradise, a place to be preserved.

What part of public is the Rockford Public Library board missing with its recent, privately-made decisions; the decisions that affect the preservation of this paradise? The same part, it appears, that is missing from our public schools institution — public input.

Public schools: Between the federal government’s probably well-intended, but definitely misguided, decree of No Child Left Behind (and its inherent, impossible mandates); and the greed of coat-tailing corporate testing giants fashioning and hawking shallow, scripted lessons and texts that promise to help students pass the tests they create; the public, and indeed, even the educators, were (are) removed from curricular decisions. And, thus, the morphing of public school content; shamefully narrowed to place “success” on high-stakes tests above that of acquisition of a broad and deep knowledge base, critical thinking skills, and most horrific, the joy of learning.

Public input in these decisions: Zero.

Rockford Public Library: Between dreadfully shortened patron hours, and the decision to allocate 34 percent of collection budget dollars for electronic books (contrast 8-10 percent to be allocated in most public libraries by 2016) at the sacrifice of print books (which are available for all patrons, and not just those who own e-readers); our tome-filled paradise is coming perilously close to an endangered classification. The words of Lady Bird Johnson at this juncture become bittersweet, “Perhaps no place in any community is so totally democratic as the town library.

Public input in these decisions: Zero.

As a Rockford Public School teacher, I am dismayed by the twisted connotation of a foundational tenet of our country. Democracy, as I learned it and teach it (even though it’s not a fill-in-the-bubble question on the high-stakes test-du jour), resembles a very different animal than the one described above. Am I lying to my students?

Nonetheless; denotations, connotations and quotes aside, I see a desperate need for increased (not decreased) resources at the RPL that offer full and equal access to all of the families I and my fellow educators serve. That is, increased hours of operation at all sites, and increased number of accessible-to-everyone books — books of high art, books of popular culture, books that offer entertainment and escapism, books that serve as an avenue to pursue topics that consume our attention, books that are used as a tool for social change and personal transformation, books written in Spanish and other languages, books that help us to navigate our world (the world that Brazilian educator and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire, aptly refers to as a “difficult text”). And an increase of coveted new titles, cherished classics, books that speak to readers across time and culture, and colorful/engaging/wonder-inspiring/cuddling-up/ towering-stack kind of books that you bring home with your toddler to be read, re-read, and then traded in for another stack.

Should we not be doing everything we can to increase literacy? Should we not be doing everything we can to narrow the 30,000,000-word gap our neediest preschoolers face, providing a “book flood” to those in danger of word poverty? For those readers who are undernourished in literature?

How about for those students who have not yet found the types of books they love, will come to crave, and will wait with joyful anticipation for the newest title in the series for? Studies show that students do not engage in enough recreational reading, and that those who do read the most for fun, score the highest in both reading and writing. Compound this finding with the bowdlerization of literature in schools (read Diane Ravitch’s eye-opening 2003 book, The Language Police), and the fact that a narrowed/test-driven curriculum leaves insufficient time for free-choice reading, and, resultantly, the need for a never-ending cascade of books that children WANT to read becomes even more apparent. Bear in mind the absolute necessity of myriad books available to borrow, enjoy and marinate in over summer break; the need crystallizes. Let’s not forget the students who frequently borrow books from the RPL for assignments. And we face less of these resources?

Don’t get me wrong, e-readers are amazing technological wonders that seem to provide many with the convenience they need; but we definitely need to keep the digital divide at a minimum. Furthermore, I certainly understand the role of budgetary constraints in issues such as patron hours. But, since the role of the public library is to provide for all of its public, let’s see if we can’t actually acquire some public input, and be constantly cognizant of all of the patrons of this paradise. Save the books, save the future books; open the doors and save the library. Let’s get the Rockford Public Library off the endangered list, and give the word democracy back its rightful place.

A library is not a luxury but one of the necessities of life.” — Henry Ward Beecher

To help, please contact the Rockford Public Library board members, visit saveourrockfordlibrary.blogspot.com, and/or make an appearance at the Jan. 23 board meeting.

Byron resident Amy Orvis is a National Board-certified Rockford Public School teacher.

From the Jan. 18-24, 2012, issue

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