District: Berkeley School Libraries Growing Strong

By Suzanne La Barre
Friday April 07, 2006

It’s not secret that California’s public school libraries have plenty of room for improvement.  

With one librarian for every 4,541 students, the state ranks 51st—behind the other 49 states and Washington D.C.—in the ratio of library media teachers to students. Collections carry about 16 books per student compared with the national average of 22 books per student, and the average tome is 15 years old. 

Funding is in short supply, too. Between 1998 and 2003, state financial support of school libraries plummeted 92 percent, according to the California Department of Education. Currently, California allots 73 cents per student for books. 

The trend is unsurprising in an educational era that places the utmost importance on standardized testing, and finds the link between flourishing school libraries and test scores too fuzzy to expend much energy on improving resources. 

Be that as it may, the recipe for successful media programs is quantified. Based on research conducted over the last 13 years, solid school libraries are comprised of large, varied, up-to-date collections, credentialed librarians, active, knowledgeable staff members who teach information literacy, and flexible hours. 

Berkeley Unified School District is on its way there, said District Library Coordinator Pete Doering. 

With an average copyright year of 1990 and about 21 books per student, the district’s collection is slightly older and smaller than the national average. 

But staffwise, BUSD is on a roll. This year, Measure B of 2004 earmarked $1.34 million for school library employees including two full-time librarians and a clerk at the high school, a credentialed librarian and a part-time clerk at each of the middle schools, library technicians who work six hours a day in the elementary schools and a new district-wide coordinator who oversees general library operations.  

Staff additions have been a boon to library employees, some of whom were at their wit’s end following significant district cutbacks a few years ago.  

“We have 3,200 students and over 150 teachers. I love what I do, but there’s no way I could collaborate with every teacher and help every student [before],” said Ellie Goldstein-Erickson, who has worked at the Berkeley High School library for 10 years. 

As of February, she is assisted by an additional full-time credentialed librarian and a part-time clerk, and works in a newly erected facility where she estimates there are more than 30,000 books and seating for 150-plus. 

The facility is “the most beautiful library in a public high school,” she said. 

“Now, we’re able to give a lot more service than we were in the past,” she said. “We’re virtually always busy. When we open at 7:30 a.m., people are waiting.” 

Deborah Howe, the library technician for Rosa Parks Elementary School, agreed that more staff time spells better service for students and a less stressful workplace for her. Howe’s hours recently grew from three to six hours a day. 

“Before, I had to cut back a lot on classes that I saw,” she said. “And also, I had to work a lot of overtime. I still do, but before, I couldn’t get everything done.” 

Howe sees every Rosa Parks class at least once a week for half an hour to 40 minutes. Students can pick up encyclopedias, cookbooks, contemporary recreational reads or peruse the library’s special display; most recently it featured farm worker books in honor of Cesar Chavez Day. 

Howe touts the importance of exposing students to books and libraries on a routine-basis, but fears library services are at risk of losing support. 

Measure B sunsets in 2007, as does the Berkeley Schools Excellence Project, which has contributed $410,000 to K-12 library materials this year. The average cost of a book in 2005 was $20.52, an increase of 14.4 percent over the last five years. 

The school district is considering a replacement measure for the November 2006 ballot, but the question arises: Will it be enough to make school libraries great? 

Despite extended hours for elementary school library employees, facilities still aren’t open before and after school. Additionally, those sites lack a fundamental feature: trained librarians. Library technicians aren’t certified to teach, an expertise administrators believe students need to reap the full benefit of media centers. 

Librarians can train students on how to look up books, how to turn raw information into a well-researched paper, and how to conduct fruitful Internet searches—rather than grant gospel status to the first Google hit that comes up, like many kids do, Doering said. 

BUSD also lacks a standard curriculum that would transcribe those teaching points into a districtwide policy. The district is in the process of developing such a program, which would include annual library orientations, storytelling, book talks, author visits and access to online resources for all students.  

“I’d like a K-12 curriculum to become a vital part in every school,” said Doering, “and that every kid leaves our high school knowing how to do the research to be in a university.””