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School Librarians and the Pioneer Spirit

This story from the New York Post last week about activists calling for more librarians in Harlem schools reminded me of what happens when the ALA Council calls for something. Nothing happens, because nobody cares about activists or anybody who isn’t them.

The activists make a couple of arguments. One is legal, and summarized in the article:

The Department of Education has failed to provide librarians at 87 percent of Harlem schools that are legally required to staff them, according to a group of activists.

State education law mandates that schools serving kids in grades seven to 12 must have a librarian on staff to develop research skills.

As we all know, what the law demands and what the law produces are very different depending on your socioeconomic circumstances.

The other is educational and financial: The students “jump into college without these basic [research] skills,” and “A lot of them end up taking remedial classes and having to use up their financial aid to do so. It’s a serious problem and no one seems to want to do anything about it.”

Probably they don’t take remedial classes in research skills, but it’s a good point that they’re behind where others will be because of denied opportunities.

The educational activists may or may not know that Harlem is just the latest in a growing number of places and cities that have abandoned school librarians to other budget priorities.

The situation with school librarians in public schools is a tiny example of a larger trend, and just what that trend was has been nagging at me, but I have an answer that at least satisfies my curiosity.

We’re returning to the age of the pioneers, and public school librarians, indeed public schools in general, are just one victim of that.

In the popular imagination, the age of the pioneers was one of both “rugged individualism” and “nobody caring if you lived or died.” Those two fit well together.

The pioneers, at least as imagined, struck out on their own to fight nature, their own limitations, and all those inconvenient human beings who happened to be already living on the land they hoped to conquer.

They had to be rugged because what else was the choice. Neither nature nor their new neighbors particularly wanted them.

And they had to be individualists because they were alone, or mostly alone. Except for all those people they wanted to displace, but they didn’t really count.

That’s the pioneer spirit that’s been propagated in America for generations. What hasn’t been propagated is that pioneers tend to be pioneers because they face terrible choices at home, and if they live or die nobody cares anyway, so why not face slightly less terrible choices somewhere else.

Go out into the wilderness, get eaten by a bear, and you wouldn’t even have been a statistic, just bear chow.

That’s the spirit pervading so much of America these days, at least among the settled if not the potential settlers, as it’s often been.

People might think they live in communities that provide the mutual benefits of sharing goods and services and helping to make sure everyone is healthy and educated. Those people are deluded.

That kind of communal benefit is for those who can afford it, the ones who got lucky and got the resources. The remainder are just pioneers, and they’ll succeed on their own or they won’t, and nobody cares.

Whether it’s Harlem school libraries or the Appalachian Opioid Trail, the story is the same: public services are only guaranteed for those who can privately contract for them, which leaves everyone else on their own.

The difference between this pioneer spirit and the previous one, whether real or fictional, is that the pioneers are in the midst of plenty instead of being out on the prairie or wilderness or wherever it is pioneers were supposed to pioneer.

Public school libraries outside of wealthy areas are going to need some rugged pioneers to keep them open, or as in many places they’ll just close and the librarians go away.

Either way, if you’re poor in America, you’re on your own, and no one’s coming to save you. At least if you’re lucky you can still go to a public library if your school library closes. Those aren’t going away. Yet.


Please note that new comments for all posts on this blog have been closed.


  1. anonymous coward says:

    I think you’ve really missed the mark here. This is not the pioneer spirit. The pioneer spirit hasn’t lead to increased spending on schools- proposing to spend $30.8 BILLION next year to educate ($6.5 billion alone in pensions and interest). This is to educate about 1.1 million students. That’s an annual cost of (taking away pensions and debts) $22,000 per student. That’s more than twice the national average.

    Not having school librarians isn’t a case of denying the less fortunate because they can’t pay- this is a case of a massive and expensive school system prioritizing other things well above libraries. This is a failure of libraries and librarians.

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