"Crisis or Opportunity? School Libraries in the 21st Century”: that was the question for panelists and the audience at an event hosted by the Canadian Book and Periodical Council and Ontario Library Association earlier this month, and the answer heard around the room pretty clearly was crisis. But there were also a lot of voices offering ideas of how to address the problems.

Panelist Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, a research and advocacy organization dedicated to the publicly funded education system, offered some startling statistics to illustrate the crisis. In 1997, 80% of Ontario elementary schools had teacher librarians, she said. This year, that number was down to 56%. In secondary schools, the number of teacher librarians was down from 78% to 66%. But for schools in northern Ontario, it’s about 10%. Schools are sometimes choosing between spending money on fixing a leaking roof or paying a teacher librarian, and the roof wins. Some schools have no library at all, she said. “This fight is being lost right now.... School libraries, in particular, are being closed. Teacher-librarians are being cut.”

Aside from financial pressures, another contributing factor has been a narrowing of the definition of education, Kidder said. As standardized testing has focused on measuring and improving achievement in reading, writing, and math, it has created a “two-tiered curriculum where what we measure is important and everything else starts to fall away.”

Panelist Patsy Aldana—founder and publisher of Groundwood Books and also co-chair of the National Reading Campaign, a project to promote a reading culture throughout Canada—agreed that there have been negative effects from this educational approach. “We know as our [standardized test] scores have gone up in Ontario, the number of children reporting that they like to read has gone down,” she said. (Last week, a report from People for Education showed that the percentage of third graders in Ontario who liked to read fell from 75% in 1998-99 to 50% in 2010-11, while sixth grade students who said they like to read fell to 50% from 65%.) The case must be made to the public, she added, that school libraries are essential to giving children equal opportunities to succeed: “Where else are critical thinking, empathy, language, and joy going to come from? I believe they come from reading.”

A Toronto teacher-librarian in the audience added that there needs to be more showcasing of what good school library programs in Canada can do. “There’s an intrinsic perception in our society of what libraries are that is changing completely,” she said. “I think we need to be very cognizant of what libraries can be, not just what they used to be. The perception was that it is just a storehouse of information, [but] it is rather a very active, dynamic, collaborative, thinking place, and we need to make that the future and make it very public.”

Panelist and teacher-librarian Diana Maliszewski offered a hopeful example of what’s possible when a school library is valued in this way. When the budget for the library in her school was going to be cut by $1 per student, which she acknowledged is not a huge cut compared to what many other schools are dealing with, “my students spoke up and the other staff on my budget committee spoke up”; the principal abandoned the cut. Maliszewski has built that kind of dynamic relationship with students by doing things like taking them book shopping with her to the Greater Toronto Resource Fair, “so that they know exactly how much money it costs for good books,” she said. “We spent $1,800 at that fair, and when we came back we spread out the books for the students and staff to see, and it was magical. And they bring me lists” of books they want the library to have.