In this month’s column, Nancy weighs in on the Common Core

Q: There has been much discussion of how libraries and publishers can benefit from the Common Core curriculum, which emphasizes literacy and critical thinking. Can you weigh in on the new standards, and also on the relationship between public education and public libraries?

A: I’m a bit surprised by some of the controversy among librarians about the Common Core. Not that I ever thought that every librarian would agree with every one of its provisions, or with the way the curriculum will be put into practice (and paid for). Certainly there’s a real need for more information and transparency regarding its implementation. And we as individual librarians are certainly entitled to our own opinions about the Common Core and the testing that will go along with it. But doesn’t the Common Core give us—public and school librarians alike—a reason to cheer?

“You like me, right now, you like me!” Sally Field gushed to the members of the Academy when she won an Oscar in 1985. And shouldn’t we be gushing, now? “You need us, right now, you need us!” Helping students develop critical-thinking skills and information literacy is one of the core missions of libraries everywhere. Goodness knows we’ve been angsting about what our role in the 21st century should be, asking ourselves and everyone else if libraries (and librarians) are even necessary in a world that has, for example, Google and Wikipedia. You can be sure that a lot of people outside of libraryland are still asking that question. And here, with Common Core, we’ve been handed a role that doesn’t entail mission creep, or learning to tap-dance, or driving go-karts through the stacks. Supporting the Core Curriculum means we’ll be able to continue to do what we’ve always done: support every student who comes to us for assistance.

It’s a role we are well suited for. Librarians have always tried to work with their local schools; they regularly go out to the elementary schools to talk about summer reading in general and the library’s summer reading program in particular, along with book-talking some of their favorite titles. When I was a teen librarian we’d encourage the teachers to let us know what assignments were coming up, so we’d be prepared with books to hand to the kids who came in. These ranged from biographies to science experiments with everything in between. Sometimes these requests for information from teachers were successful (i.e., we got the information) and we had plenty of time to prepare. Other times not, and we’d come up short on materials, which meant that kids would have to go home empty-handed, a sight no librarian likes to see.

With the acceptance of the Common Core in the majority of states, we have an opportunity to show how central our services are to developing well-educated, critical-thinking children, teens, and adults. As librarians, we already know how necessary we are (and how necessary we’ve always been) for creating a society of intelligent and literate people, but now we have an opportunity to take that message beyond the library walls.

So, if librarians haven’t already been doing this, why not organize a meeting at the library with library administration, staff, local principals, and school librarians, and suggest ways to work together and outlining what resources the library can offer to support Common Core at their schools? And then have follow-up meetings with the teachers of the relevant topics. Don’t argue in these meetings about the pluses and minuses—what’s gained and what’s lost—with the Common Core, but instead discuss how to work together to give our students the best support possible. If we can help bring up a generation of students who can think critically and read widely, won’t that make the world a better place?

Q: While Common Core suggests a return for libraries to their most basic, traditional role—information literacy and promoting good reading—the other trend we’ve been hearing a lot about in libraries is “maker spaces.” In his column last month, Brian Kenney wrote about maker spaces in libraries, and we’re curious to know your thoughts on the movement.

A: I have very mixed feelings about maker spaces in libraries. On the one hand, as anyone who has read anything I’ve written about libraries knows, I believe that the continued survival of the library as the heart of its community (whether city, town, school, or university) depends on building relationships with that community, one library user at a time. If giving over space and financial resources (3-D printers aren’t cheap) to allow library patrons to create things brings new users into the library, what could be wrong with that?

On the other hand, libraries are unique in the community in their role of providing books and other materials for pleasure, information, and learning. True, these services aren’t “free,” but they’re not pay-as-you-go either. You’re not charged each time you check out a title or consult with a librarian. What other type of institution could boast of a mission statement like the one from the Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Public Library, which says that the library “will be at the center of community life by providing an environment where reading, lifelong learning, and civic engagement thrive.”

Only libraries are positioned—through their history, through education, and through deep belief—to give the sorts of benefits and value to the community that we do. Nobody else can, or does, do what we do, with regard to reading, technology, education, and civic engagement.

For all the things libraries are, there are many things that libraries are not. For example, libraries are not, and should not be, day centers for the homeless populations in our communities. In many cities, including my own, they certainly point up the need for the city government to devote more of its resources to this underserved and needy population. Perhaps I should say that of course libraries should and do serve the homeless population, expressly by providing materials and other information to help the men and women find jobs, shelter, and other necessities. We help them best by doing what we do best. In the 1960s, Pat Woodrum, then the director of the Tulsa City-County Library in Oklahoma, almost singlehandedly convinced the Tulsa City Council to build a day center for the homeless, because she saw that it was not part of the library’s mission to house men and women who need a safe place to spend their days when the homeless shelters are closed.

We’re not after-school babysitters. We’re not recreation centers. We’re not movie theaters. We’re not gas stations or mini-marts. So do we really need to prove our relevance by funneling precious resources (time and money) away from what we do that nobody else does in order to remain (or become) relevant? Just askin’.

This month, Nancy shares her favorite books on education and educational theory

Ruth Adam, I’m Not Complaining
Isaac Asimov, The Roving Mind
Howard Gardner, 5 Minds for the Future
John Holt, How Children Fail
Bel Kaufman, Up the Down Staircase
Herbert Kohl, 36 Children
Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes
Alfie Kohn, Feel-Bad Education: And Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling
Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools
A.S. Neill, Summerhill