While visiting high schools across the country in recent months to speak about author Ray Bradbury and his work, I have become aware of a troubling trend that greatly disadvantages young readers, particularly those in lower-income communities.
Earlier this fall, I spoke with a group of kids in poverty-stricken, rural Shawnee, Okla., and learned that their library had received zero dollars for book acquisitions in 2016. The librarian in this tiny athenaeum was unable to purchase a single book for her students.
I recently spoke in Wichita, Kan., at three public schools and discovered that all high school-certified librarians had been let go, replaced by clerks. Budgets were simply too tight, and trained librarians, it would appear, were deemed nonessential to the learning outcomes of Wichita students.
Never mind the fact that librarians are schooled to guide students to credible resources, train them on database usage, steer them to reputable peer-reviewed journals, and they teach young people a range of technological skills. And the staff cuts aren't happening only in Wichita. According to the Kansas Department of Education, in the last 15 years the number of certified library media specialists dropped to 688 from more than 1,000 — a startling and steep reduction of nearly 31 percent.
Chicago Public Schools is facing an equally dire situation. In 2015, Sara Sayigh, a beloved, 13-year librarian, was cut at the predominantly African-American multischool DuSable High School campus on Chicago's South Side. Students protested the decision, taking their impassioned outcry into the hallways and onto social media. After their protest gained national attention, an anonymous donor came to the rescue and the librarian was retained — for the time being. According to WBEZ News, there were 454 librarians budgeted at CPS schools in 2012. This year? A shocking decline to 160 in the fall of 2016.
Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 envisions a society where books are burned and mass media reign supreme. The people in this near-future dystopia are comfortably numb in their state of uneducated existence, screens serving as opiates from thinking any kind of big and important thoughts.
So here we are in 2017, 64 years after the book's publication. Who needs to douse kerosene on a stack of books and light a match when it's so much easier to devalue our school libraries and lay off our librarians?
District superintendents, senior administrators and bean counters with the ability to slash jobs apparently don't get it. School librarians are an essential component to a full education. Trained librarians are media specialists with master's degrees who can teach school-age kids the skills necessary to quickly access accurate information from sources beyond Google and Wikipedia.
Equally important, a great school librarian, through individualized instruction, can guide a young reader to a book or a story that has the potential to resonate deeply. Studies show conclusively that independent readers have greater success in school and, as a result, greatly emboldened career options for their future.
Librarians, because they are trained in the science of information, can help young students learn to use technology to achieve more than simply using Snapchat, Pokemon Go or the next app du jour.
School librarians are the ushers who light the path for our children. They guide students toward knowledge, understanding and empathy. They foster a sense of curiosity and teach young people the tools necessary to research effectively and think critically. Make no mistake — librarians are teachers.
In Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, we see what happens to a society that no longer reads, that no longer yearns to be educated. In cutting trained librarians in our schools, we are stepping ever closer to Bradbury's fictional dystopia.
As Bradbury famously stated: "You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”
This essay first appeared in the Chicago Tribune