Did you know that parents want their children to have access to well-stocked libraries in their schools? Were you aware that they’re very concerned that provincial governments aren’t doing enough to ensure that there’s enough money to pay for these books and libraries? Or that increasingly teachers have to dig into their own pockets ($453 on average) to compensate for funding that just isn’t there?
Perhaps this comes as a newsflash. More likely, though, it doesn’t. Virtually anyone with even the vaguest of connections with their local school is at least mildly aware that the library is less robustly stocked than it was when they were a student. Perhaps there’s only a part-time teacher-librarian. Maybe the books are particularly “well-loved.” And I suspect more than a handful of parents have participated in some sort of community fundraising campaign for their school library. Indeed, one 2006 study (Commercialism in Canadian Schools: Who’s Calling the Shots?) indicated 60% of elementary schools fundraise for their library.
There’s also the unspoken hierarchy between print and technology. A wired school is a modern, healthy school (what’s a migraine or two?), we’re told. Students (and teachers, and parents, for that matter) must be cyber-savvy, presumably more so than “printed word savvy.” Certainly when my partner and I attended school orientation the spring before our daughter started Junior Kindergarten a much greater fuss was made of the computer lab (“and hopefully this September a smartboard!” beamed the principal, fingers crossed on both hands for luck) than the library.
So, on the one hand we have inadequate public funding. On the other we have parents and teachers kicking in not insignificant amounts of their own money to compensate. And then on the other (that’s three hands but never mind) there’s society’s decreasing emphasis on books—though not, it seems, on literacy.
This is the backdrop to a recent poll by Ipsos Reid (Aug 10-17) on the state of public school libraries and how parents feel about them. Well, that’s sort of what the poll is about. The big takeaway statement is that:
Eight in ten (84%) Canadian parents of children aged 4 to 18, inclusive, ‘agree’ (36% strongly/24% somewhat) that “private companies should donate funds and sponsor public school libraries.”
Conversely, fewer than two in ten (16%) ‘disagree’ (6% strongly/10% somewhat) with the notion of businesses sponsoring public-school libraries.
I have to say, I was surprised. I mean, it’s a bit of a jump from recognizing the importance of libraries in schools and identifying inadequate public spending to a throwing up of collective hands and calling for corporate involvement as a solution.
The survey analysis continued:
The quality of the books isn’t the only area where parents see room for improvement but also with the content. Three in ten (29%) actually ‘disagree’ (4% strongly/25% somewhat) that their child ‘thinks that the variety of books in their school library is great’. On the other hand, 15% ‘strongly agree’ that their child thinks the variety is great, while a majority (56%) ‘somewhat agree’.
I might be inclined to flip these findings to read something like: “more than 70% of parents agree that their child thinks the variety of books in their school library is great,”—but then again I didn’t sponsor this survey. Indigo Books did.
Indigo has a fair degree of self-interest when it comes to public school libraries and their (potential) relationship with the corporate sector. Their “For the Love of Reading” Foundation has been collecting donations from the public for several years now to be allocated to schools with special emphasis placed on those identified as high needs (there’s a link on Indigo’s website that also references the responsibility of provincial governments to fund libraries—but “Until then, Love of Reading is dedicated to putting books in the hands of children.”). And like Walmart, Indigo is in the adoption business—as in “adopt-a-school.” According to their recent news release, Indigo will strive to “put 38,000 books into the hands of Canadian children” to help “rejuvenate the libraries at more than 132 public elementary schools from coast-to-coast.” (Schools can apply online to be adopted by filling out an online form—does anyone else think this sounds a bit odd?)
And like Walmart’s Adopt a School program, Indigo’s initiative heavily relies on the generous donations of customers (who presumably will prefer to donate money, online or in-store, to a corporate conglomerate to fulfill the terms of a PR campaign—whoops, good corporate citizen initiative—rather than to their local school) to give select schools “the opportunity to refresh their libraries with new books and learning materials to encourage student literacy with funds raised.”
Of course I think there should be adequate reading materials in schools—more than adequate. I believe everyone should have the pleasure of getting lost in a book and recognize the power of words and the richness of languages. And I believe that, especially for those children who are less likely to have well-stocked libraries at home, fully-funded public school libraries play a vital role in ensuring access to reading material. But if we understand that literacy is not a privilege but rather a necessary gift we give to each other and particularly to children, we need to ensure that access to books is a public good—and is funded accordingly.
Which is not to say that public funding for school libraries is even close to sufficient, and parents and teachers and neighbours often find themselves digging into their own pockets to compensate. And arguably there’s a tendency to judge the quality of a school by the computer-to-student ratio as opposed to the number of books, or full-time qualified staff, in the library.
But programs like Indigo’s don’t solve the larger problem of the underfunding of libraries. Rather, they use the public interest in and support for literacy and access to books as a point of entry into a cause-related marketing strategy. They merely shift the focus: concerned and well-meaning and dedicated people who already fundraise for their local school donate to Indigo’s program instead, and let Indigo allocate the money and books accordingly. Which, let’s face it, also means lots of feel-good advertising for Indigo, along with increased foot and web traffic as people visit the store or the website to donate.
While it’s an effective PR strategy, it’s not a long-term solution to a funding crisis. Nothing that relies on good intentions (of individuals who donate, or even of individuals within the corporation itself) is. Because the moment a service or a good is removed from the public realm and reconfigured as a charity, something we donate to because we’re feeling generous or even because we are generous, it ceases to be something we can be guaranteed of. Consequently, our expectations of the kind of society to which we together can aspire to live in become lessened. Good intentions are no substitute for full public funding; it’s not that the road to hell is paved with them—but the road to a more privatized, inequitable society is.
Then again, if we’re talking about less government responsibility and more private charity, it’s likely that portions of the road won’t be paved at all.
- Canadian Teachers Federation. “Teachers go out of pocket $453 on materials and activities for their students.” (July 12, 2010)
- Indigo Books & Music Ind. “Indigo Love of Reading Foundation takes aim at ending Canada’s literacy crisis.” (Toronto, September 13, 2010) http://www.newswire.ca/en/releases/archive/September2010/13/c9155.html