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Pick Up the Phone

September 27, 2002

A librarian friend of mine, who is active in state politics about library matters, was interrupted by a former legislator during a discussion of recent state cuts in library funding.

My friend was making the case for why the library cuts were short-sighted and damaging even to Governor Owens’s own priorities.

The former legislator jumped in, “What’s wrong with you, Jamie, is that you don’t understand that the facts don’t matter.”

Good heavens! What does matter? you ask.

Phone calls … the number of phone calls a legislator receives from people about an issue. Or so he said.

Don’t be too discouraged by this news. It makes your life easier if you want to get legislative support for something but your arguments are weak. Just pick up the phone.

Facts may not matter to some politicians, but I know they matter to many. And they matter a lot to people charged with running things.

Facts help you make decisions. Personally, I would argue that the fact of a high percentage of SUVs on Colorado’s roads is good reason for cutting back road construction and repair … at least a few miles of it, enough to send a few million back into the state library programs that were recently cut. But there’s a correlation between new highways and development, and developers have phones. There’s also a strong correlation between good school libraries and student achievement … so strong that I would think that any “Education” politician would jump on it.

I just read a compelling depiction of the state of school libraries: Half of Colorado’s school library books are more than 15 years old.

What’s happened in the last 15 years that might be missed? DNA was first used in a court to convict someone of a crime (1987). The Berlin Wall fell (1989). The Soviet Union collapsed (1991). The World Trade Center was bombed for the first time (1993). The Oklahoma City bombing (1995). Sheep cloned (1997). Y2K (2000).

So, what’s going on? In 1994, Colorado schools spent $17.36 per student on library books; in 2001, only $12.55. Needless to say, the price of books did not drop in that time.

The average price of books purchased for school libraries in 2001 was $18.78. Do the math: Colorado schools added just two-thirds of a book per pupil to their collections.

Keith Lance and others at the Library Research Service in Denver studied a vast amount of data and discovered, among other things, the following correlations between student success and school libraries:

CSAP reading test scores (Colorado Student Assessment Program) increase with increases in print volumes per student, magazine subscriptions per student, school library expenditures per student.

Other positive correlations include total library hours, total library staff, licensed database access, Internet access. Test scores also rise as school librarians and teachers work together, and they rise with more in-service training of teachers by the librarians.

Most interesting, these results are not explained by school differences such as school district expenditures per student, teacher/student ratios, years of teacher experience; neither are they explained by community differences such as adult educational attainment, poverty, or racial/ethnic demographics.

It’s the library. That’s a fact.

Another fact is that public library usage goes up when times are hard. Library use increases during recessionary times, and yet it is during those times that library funding often gets cut.

I fear for education programs when the next round of state funding cuts is announced after this year’s elections. You may have to pick up the phone.

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