Why libraries?: They open doors to learning for kids

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Looking for the perfect answer to just about any question? Ask a librarian.

One of the nation's best-known librarians, former First Lady Laura Bush, provides a succinct answer to the question of why libraries are important: "Libraries allow children to ask questions about the world and find the answers. And the wonderful thing is that once a child learns to use a library, the doors to learning are always open."

Those sentiments were reinforced by an analysis published last month entitled "How Pennsylvania School Libraries Pay Off: Investments in Student Achievement and Academic Standards." The report looked at the relationship between availability of school libraries and students' performance on standardized tests, and it presents a strong argument for school libraries that are staffed by trained librarians, have flexible schedules and are stuffed with books, computers and video, audio and other reading material.

The report's key finding was that students in schools with libraries and librarians were more likely to score at the advanced level and less likely to score below the basic level on Pennsylvania System of School Assessment reading and writing exams. Improvement was most pronounced on the writing tests, and the competitive advantages from access to libraries was evident across racial, ethnic, economic and social groups.

The survey portion of the study had its genesis in the state Legislature, which commissioned it in 2010. Surveys were taken in the spring of 2011, with 78 percent of the state's school districts and 73 percent of school libraries participating. According to Mary Kay Biagini of the University of Pittsburgh, one of the study's analysts, the results were comparable to conclusions reached in studies undertaken in other states.

Unfortunately, 56 percent of public schools in the state didn't have a full-time school librarian in the 2011-12 academic year, and cost-cutting at the federal, state and local levels could further threaten school libraries.

Hopefully, this important report will give state lawmakers and local school directors the fortitude to resist cost-cutting measures that would reduce funding for school libraries.

None other than the late television icon Walter Cronkite summed it up perfectly: "Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation."

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