Henry and booksNow that I’m here in Austin, I’m reading the Austin American-Statesman instead of the New York Times at the breakfast table every morning (although I still catch the Times online). Sunday morning’s Statesman included a front-page story on the Texas capital’s school libraries, which are having big-time budget troubles.

The wake-up in this story comes at the beginning of the second paragraph, when Laura Heinauer, the writer, focuses on an East Austin school, Govalle Elementary, and says:

The average publication date of the… school’s computer science collection is 1989. The newest set of encyclopedias was published in 2001 – before some… kindergarteners were born.

Govalle librarian Laura Genet isn’t happy because her materials budget is so small that she can’t replace most of the old stuff in the library’s collection with anything new. She points to some mildewed reference books and says, “I can’t get rid of them… only because I don’t have anything to replace them with.” And Govalle, in a lower-income area, is eligible for grant funding; some other schools in medium-income areas receive as little as $2 per student in materials funding.

It’s a sad situation. The Austin Independent School District has devoted its library budget toward retaining certified librarians and made cuts in materials instead. The libraries remain in a holding pattern, waiting for materials money that only dribbles in, and the librarians are frustrated. Some librarians Heinauer interviewed mentioned a study conducted by Stephen Krashen of the University of Southern California, a well known literacy advocate. Krashen said that “money spent per student on libraries was a good predictor of performance on national standardized tests.”

This article (even though it refers to School Library Journal as “an organization”) takes a good look at how a community that wants to help its kids deals with the perpetual squeeze to provide enough literacy materials on too little cash. Students and families can tell a lot about what the society around it values by where it spends its money. There’s a great anecdote about a first-grade boy at Gullett Elementary:

… first-grader Jeremy Mock asked that for his birthday, his friends give him books that he could donate to the library.

The resulting donation of nine books, Gullett librarian Kay Gooch said, was equivalent to 15 percent of the school’s regular library budget.

I will be looking forward to learning more about public and school libraries in Texas, which is a totally new environment for me. It’s been really clear to me so far that there are plenty of people here who really care about making and keeping kids literate.