Closing school libraries would harm the students who need them most

Shuttering libraries could hurt students, especially low-income and rural students who may lack the same access and money as other families.  

April 6, 2023 12:06 am

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Spotsylvania County, where two school board members previously championed book burning, has earned another demerit. The school superintendent’s casual suggestion that closing school libraries could help balance the budget should enrage parents and students at least as much. 

Such is the madness constituting the discourse about public schools in Virginia nowadays.  

The trial balloon floated by Superintendent Mark Taylor came the same week the Spotsylvania division removed 14 books from library shelves. Similar debates over book bans have taken place elsewhere in the commonwealth in recent years.  

Several of those titles focus on African-Americans and other persons of color, the LGBTQ community, sexuality, teen prostitution and other serious issues adolescents might face. 

So much for learning about folks unlike yourself or gaining an understanding about the struggles other people encounter.  

The debate over  libraries’ existence in the nearly 24,000-student division is particularly crucial. Yes, smartphones are a source of tons of information –  both credible and not  –  right in our hands.  

Libraries, though, support literacy and help enhance the school curriculum. They might provide the only broadband access some students have, too.  

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom, told me school librarians teach about misinformation as well as how to find accurate, legitimate sources of information and data.  

“School libraries are essential for better educational outcomes for young people,” Caldwell-Stone said. 

The Virginia Association of School Librarians, affiliated with ALA, said in a statement that state code requires specific library services in public schools and quoted that law in part: “Each school shall maintain an organized library media center as the resource center of the school and provide a unified program of media services and activities for students and teachers before, during, and after school.” 

The state association added: “Multiple educational research studies have proven the educational effectiveness of having a certified librarian on staff and the effect a certified librarian has on student learning and literacy.” 

The state code might make the subject moot, though the Spotsylvania schools chief used the specter of closures to try to loosen cash from officials who control the division’s purse strings.  

A spokeswoman for Taylor told me by email: “The superintendent does NOT wish to close libraries.” (Emphasis hers.) So why did he use this gambit for funding purposes? 

In a statement from Taylor after a recent meeting about the upcoming budget, he said: “I dislike every one of those cuts and do not want to make any of them. I did this to illustrate a point.  

“If the Board of Supervisors fails to appropriate $19 million in new local revenue to our division and/or if the state fails to fix the $5.25 million shortfall in their projection for the FY ’24 fund, then we will be facing some very hard decisions.” 

Some illustration.  

Given the county’s public image regarding K-12 schools in recent years, closing libraries was the wrong beachhead. Here’s a brief synopsis: 

Spotsylvania’s the place School Board members Rabih Abuismail and Kirk Twigg, in 2021, favored burning books they deemed  too sexually explicit. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. 

Positions like theirs make you wonder whether they even know history. Book burning is notoriously linked to Nazi Germany, especially during a 1933 incident in which university students torched more than 25,000 volumes of so-called “un-German” books. It was one of several precursors to World War II and the extermination of 6 million Jews.  

Communist China burned books under Mao during the Cultural Revolution.  

That’s what those board members hoped to rekindle? 

Communist China burned books under Mao during the Cultural Revolution. That’s what those board members hoped to rekindle?

– Roger Chesley

Some books recently ordered off the shelves in Spotsylvania have been the source of controversy in other districts around the country. A vocal, conservative minority of parents usually has agitated to remove them, often claiming several passages were too sexually graphic. 

That has occurred even when panels of reviewers had already determined the benefits of keeping the tomes in libraries and as part of school curriculums. 

A parent in Spotsylvania had complained about the books.  Jeff Kent, who helped review two of the books, told Washington D.C.’s NBC 4 the division’s ruling “seems to be an abuse of the system.”  

“We’ve had 70-plus parents and educators that make a decision, and the decision of one person can overrule all of them,” Kent added. 

This turns the notion of “the majority rules” on its head. It means a few parents can force their viewpoints on everybody else.  

Shuttering libraries, though, might be even worse, especially for low-income and rural students who may lack the same access and money as other families.  

“It’s troubling,” Lisa Varga, executive director of the Virginia Library Association, told me. “I just really support our school librarians and everything they’ve gone through.” 

We all should. They’re the ones guiding young people. They’re the ones broadening minds and helping sift fact from fiction. They’re the ones students depend on. 

They’re not extraneous. 


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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]