Patti Bacchus: School librarians are the heroes we need

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      The Donald Trump presidency and the circus that surrounded and enabled it are, to a large extent, what happens when voters don’t know how to think critically and separate fact from spin, or from outright lies.

      More than ever, democracy is being undermined by leaders who lie and by misinformation deliberately spread by foreign actors, politicians, their supporters, and others with ill intent, and unwittingly—and wittingly—shared and amplified by the ignorant and the corrupt.

      I have an aphorism I made up years ago to explain why I advocate for strong, accessible and equitable public schools: Education is the solution to almost all the problems confronting society. That still holds up, but more than ever, education needs to be supported by teacher-librarians, and lots of them.

      October was Canadian Library Month, and October 26 was B.C. School Libraries Day. I meant to mark those occasions with an October column dedicated to the essential but endangered species that is the school librarian—or, as they are called these days, teacher-librarians. They are specialized educators who often, but not always, have a master’s degree or diploma in teacher librarianship.

      Forgive me for being late to the celebration. I got sidetracked by the provincial election and the pandemic, so this column is a belated tribute to those who run the hearts and souls of our public schools and teach students how to find accurate information and how to use it.

      Teacher-librarians do far more than manage school libraries. They work collaboratively with classroom teachers, teach information literacy and the informed and ethical use of information from both print and digital resources, and promote a love of reading. Their role is constantly evolving and adapting to change. They’re the ones who keep up with educational technology and how to access and assess information.

      Lessons from the U.S.

      There’s nothing new about politicians bending the truth, but Trump blew past any norms of decency long ago. He spouts outright lies and conspiracy theories to cheering and approving supporters. When he doesn’t like the truth, he calls it fake. When he doesn’t like someone, he lies about them and calls them names. When he doesn’t like how people vote, he claims their votes are fraudulent. His election-night speech was worthy of a deranged and delusional tin-pot dictator. He belligerently undermines democratic institutions and stokes hatred and division. And Americans, whose public education system has been eroding since the days of Ronald Reagan, not only let him do it but tens of millions of them voted to let him do it for four more years.

      While traditional mainstream media have always had biases and agendas (some overt and some nuanced), most established and reputable news organizations attempt to be factual and balanced while reporting on events and hire professional journalists who are trained to report as objectively as possible.

      West Vancouver Schools

      The decline and contractions of traditional news-media outlets have opened the field to smaller and independent online publications. Some are good and allow diverse voices and views to be heard that may not otherwise be noticed through large, corporate- or state-owned media companies. Others may deliberately spread misinformation. Some thrive in the dark underbelly of the Internet, stoking the fires of hate, racism, homophobia, misogyny, and violence. If we don’t know how to tell them apart, and determine what is true and what is toxic trash, we’re in trouble.

      Misinformation is a threat to our health and safety

      The Internet and social media have disseminated threats to our health before, with antivaccination groups spreading flawed and inflammatory information that has led to measles outbreaks among unvaccinated children and youth. This is a preventable public health problem, and education is the cure for what ails us.

      And then there was COVID-19.

      Since the early days of the pandemic, I’ve been cringing at social-media posts by people I know and respected (note the past tense), arguing that public health orders to control the spread of COVID-19 are infringing on our precious freedoms. We’ve been subjected to “freedom” rallies and people who think being asked to wear a cloth mask in stores or on ferries, to protect others from a deadly virus, is an affront worth fighting about.

      I’m seeing people who should know better in community Facebook groups quoting fringe ultraconservative groups like the “Association of American Physicians and Surgeons” (which opposes evidenced-based medicine, abortion, and gun control, and says that being gay shortens life expectancy) and political documents like the “Barrington Declaration” (which calls for a scientifically unsupported, risk-based, herd-immunity approach to COVID-19) as valid arguments for refusing to wear masks in public spaces. Good grief.

      If high-quality, universally accessible public education is the cornerstone of democracy, which I believe it is, school librarians are the footing of that cornerstone, are more essential than ever, and belong in every public school. They’re the experts when it comes to determining which sources are credible and which are not, and who can teach students to know the difference.

      There are fewer of them than there were two decades ago, unfortunately, after years of budget-cutting by B.C. school boards. That was due to years of government funding shortfalls under the B.C. Liberals, in which inflationary cost increases outpaced funding increases, forcing school boards to trim their budgets again and again.

      Teacher-librarians fall into what’s called “nonenrolling” staffing: they don’t have enrolled students, so reducing their numbers doesn’t affect class sizes, which have been protected through legislation and collective agreements. They’re lumped in with other nonenrolling staff, like counsellors, special-education resource teachers, and those who teach English-language learners (ELL).

      West Vancoouver Schools

      While school boards could only cut so many classroom (“enrolling”) teachers due to class size limits, nonenrolling teachers didn’t enjoy the same protections and were disproportionately hit by staffing reductions.

      During the B.C. Liberals’ reign of error, most districts cut their school librarian staffing allocations, some doing away with them all together. That must be reversed.

      Looking to school librarians to save democracy

      What has played out during the past several years, and this week’s U.S. election, makes my head spin. Trump may be on his way out, but millions of Americans voted for him and believe he’s fit to be the leader of the free world. The factors that created and supported the Trump presidency aren’t going away, and we’d be naïve to think they don’t have an impact in Canada.

      We need to protect our democratic processes by fighting misinformation, and that starts with teaching children and youth to be media-literate critical thinkers who know how to separate fact from fiction and reliable sources from dodgy ones.

      Many teachers do good work in classrooms on subjects like media literacy, but expecting them to keep up with the rapidly changing media and information landscape, with the same level of expertise as school librarians, is unrealistic. Teacher-librarians are a valuable resource for classroom teachers if they’re given the time and opportunity to do that.

      In my school days, when we needed information, we looked it up in an encyclopedia or checked out a few books on the topic. Now students have a world of information in the palms of their hands via smartphones. The explosive growth of information is exponential and dynamic. When the president of the United States is tweeting out lies in an attempt to stir social unrest and subvert democracy, we need to inoculate our kids by educating them. And no one is better equipped to teach kids to navigate that world effectively than their school librarian, if they’re lucky enough to have one. 

      When those in the highest public offices are a belligerent, vulgar disgrace, we need actual leaders and heroes to look to, and you don’t need to look further than your local school’s librarian to find one (assuming their job wasn’t cut under the B.C. Liberals).

      It might not be library month any more, but let’s celebrate and support school librarians year 'round, and especially at budget time. Our kids, our future, and our democracy depend on them.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.