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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Why kids need us to stick up for libraries

I’m down with the flu and thinking about libraries. An article from the Huffington Post’s UK edition caught me this morning; it’s a very human piece about the very human value of one community library that, among many in England, is headed for severe downsizing — if not closure. Here’s the piece, "The Real Cost of Library Cuts." It’s well worth reading.

Then I came across this data-rich essay: “Public and School Libraries in Decline: Why We Need Them,” by Yvonne Siu-Runyan, president of the National Council of Teachers of English, in the NCTE’s monthly journal Council Chronicle. Siu-Runyan, professor emeritus at the University of Northern Colorado, cites these findings of recent surveys and research:


By far, young readers look first to libraries for their books. When 40,000 teachers in the U.S. and the UK were asked where they most often get books for independent reading, in a survey by Scholastic, Inc., and the Gates Foundation, 83% said the school library. Second came public libraries, at 38% from public libraries; retailers were a distant third at 20%. Eighty percent of high school students, their teachers said, get their books mainly from libraries.

Libraries fight poverty in nurturing readers. “Study after study reveals that children of poverty have very little access to books at home and in their communities” — yet a number of recent studies have shown that access to books does as much to build reading achievement as poverty does to limit it, Siu-Runyan writes.

Public funding for public libraries is shrinking. Between 2008-10, more than half of U.S. states cut funding to libraries. Eighty-six percent of big-city libraries have seen cuts.

Funding for school libraries is also declining — especially where it’s needed most. Between 2009-10, American Library Association says overall school spending on information resources shrank by 9.4% — “but in high-poverty areas, the decrease was 25 percent.”

The Web does not replace the library. “Only a small percentage of information contained in print is on the Internet,” Siu-Runyan notes. And even though there’s been much publicity about ebooks and Kindle-type e-readers, it’s mostly the affluent who own those devices and those types of books.

It’s time to take a stand. I can’t improve on the writer’s conclusion: “All of language education is in crisis because of the decline of libraries. We now know that libraries are utilized, that they contribute powerfully to literacy development, and have the potential of closing the gap between children from high and low-income families in reading achievement. Yet library funding is declining, and the situation is the most serious in high-poverty areas.

“Library funding should be expanded, not cut. Democratic societies need libraries.”

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