What Can You Do to Fight for Equity in Seattle Public School’s Libraries?

We can supply books to school libraries throughout Seattle. It's just a matter of thinking we can.

We can supply books to school libraries throughout Seattle. It’s just a matter of thinking we can do it.

Over at the Seattle Review of Books, I’ve been interviewing Seattle-area school librarians all month long. They have, to a person, been delightful interviews: friendly, optimistic, and eager to talk about their work. Almost every one of them told me that they believe they have the best job in the world.

But they’ve also all talked about a problem that plagues every school librarian in Seattle. It’s a problem that is frankly unbelievable for a modern American city, especially one that considers itself to be as progressive as Seattle does. To be blunt: Seattle Public Schools’ libraries are criminally underfunded. Not only are school librarians in Seattle all expected to perform a more than full-time job on a half-time salary, but there is no budget to buy materials for school libraries. As in, none.

When Kathleen Eads started as the librarian at Greenlake Elementary School, she was greeted by the school’s Parent Teacher Association with a $5000 fund to buy books. Eads was thrilled to receive such generous support — to put it in perspective, Greenlake Elementary School has roughly 350 students, so $5000 is a lot more than the $10-per-student minimum that national school library organizations recommend as the bare minimum for school libraries to sustain themselves by replacing lost, stolen, and damaged books, and buying new books to keep the collections fresh and relevant.

But Eads also knows that other librarians in the Seattle area aren’t so lucky. She says our school libraries are suffering from egregious inequality. When a librarian starts the school year, they’ll receive a certain amount from the PTA “and maybe if your principal is nice, he’ll give you some money from the discretionary fund.” Librarians share stories about school libraries in Seattle that have only $1000 per year for schools of 750 kids. Other Seattle Public School libraries get nothing at all. Librarians try to make up the rest of the funds by applying for grants and throwing book fairs, but they’re already expected to maintain collections, support teachers, and interact with multiple classes of students per day on a schedule that only allows them to be at work for a few days a week. Their time is already stretched way too thin.

And this inequality means that the schools that need library funds the most aren’t getting them. Eads says her “heart hurts because the kids who have books at home get funding, while the kids who don’t have books at home don’t get funding.” That divide in Seattle falls almost directly on north-south lines: the poorer schools to the south — the districts with more people of color — always suffer more than the schools in the wealthier, whiter neighborhoods to the north. Eads says we have “this crazy thing in Seattle where we pretend we’re not divided, and in reality we’re so divided on systematic levels.”

School librarians have discussed ways to share resources more efficiently and equally — they’ve entertained the possibility of well-supported school libraries from wealthier neighborhoods establishing a sister school relationship with libraries in poorer neighborhoods. But experience has shown, Eads says, that “parents would not contribute as much [to the PTA] if they knew that their money would not go entirely to their school.” She pauses. “So that’s where we are now.”

Eads and other school librarians have founded a Library Equity Team over the last few months. They plan to work together to demand a $10 per student budget for every school in Seattle. But that’s a lofty goal — libraries have gotten short shrift in Seattle schools for a long time. Eads says that when the last Director of Libraries for Seattle Public Schools left, the position was not replaced. A part-time manager is now performing the duties for what used to be a full-time dedicated position.

Eads tries not to get discouraged, but it’s tough. “I feel like I’m alone in this mission at times,” she says. The fight for library equity is “really a grassroots movement. It’s really easy to think we’re never going to make a change, that we’re fighting a huge uphill battle.”

What can parents and concerned Seattleites do to make sure kids across Seattle get the books that they need? Eads advises “advocacy on a verbal level. Writing about it, going to school board meetings, hashtagging it, whatever it might be.” The recently created hashtag for the equity movement is #SPSLibraryEquity; Eads says that sharing your support on Twitter and Facebook would make a world of difference. And if you have any ideas on how to improve advocacy for our school libraries, Eads encourages you to contact her on Twitter @eadsreads or via email at kaeads@seattleschools.org.

Why, with all Washington state’s education problems, should libraries be a priority? For one thing, a school with a quality library is much likelier to succeed than one with a library in disrepair. Eads also thinks people should get involved in the battle for library equity because it’s a challenge with clearly defined goals. If Seattle properly funds its school libraries, she says, those libraries “can be a little beacon of light that would inspire” us to do better in other areas. If Seattle had the best public school libraries in the nation, for example, that would encourage us to look at other elements — special education, say, or arts programs — that can be improved.

No single signifier says more about a society’s commitment to learning than its libraries. Seattle can and must do better.

(Cross-posted.)

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Paul Constant
Paul Constant has written about politics, books, and film for Newsweek, The Progressive, the Utne Reader, and alternative weeklies around the country.