Letter to the Editor: Democratic Role of Libraries

To the Editor:

I am writing to express my deep concern at the City Council’s plan to cut funding for our local libraries in order to fund a Bikeshare program.

I am a teacher at T.C. Williams High School, where many of our students come from families without print rich environments, a quiet place to work and study, or any access to the internet. As of October, 2012, 56 percent of all students in the Alexandria City Public School system received free and reduced lunch. These students, who are the majority in our city, will feel these cuts the deepest.

To me, libraries are one of the most obvious signs of democracy in our country. Anyone can come in, borrow a book, use technology, study and learn. For the 56 percent of students in Alexandria, public libraries are sometimes the only places where the learning environment provided by school libraries between 8 a.m. and 4:15 p.m. can continue. Closing our libraries or reducing hours directly violates this notion of equity and democracy, especially in terms of education. Keeping our libraries open and extending our hours is not only the right thing to do morally and ethically, it is the right thing to do democratically.

In the past few years, our school system has done much to increase rigor in our classes and to encourage enrollment of traditionally underperforming groups in advanced level classes. Numbers of students in what are called “gap groups” enrolling in these classes has risen markedly. And our graduation rates are steadily increasing. For many of these students, the public libraries are essential not only to keeping up with their peers academically, but actively competing with them.

Many of these students will be the first in their families to even dream of going to college. For a student today to be accepted to college, he or she must do well in advanced classes, be part of a club or sport and show involvement in other ways in the community. And that has nothing to do with the extra effort needed to compete for academic or sports scholarships. The attention needed to meet these requirements is difficult for any student, but the burden falls unfairly heavily on that 56 percent of students who may not have home environments that make this competition fair. As a city, we must work with the school system to provide the best opportunities at our disposal for academic success and good citizenship for all students. We simply need to see the public libraries as extensions of the learning environments accessible to students at the school libraries. Yes, we have other programs that provide quiet, media rich environments for pockets of this 56 percent, but the libraries are the most obvious and least expensive way to level the academic playing field for students. Unlike specialized programs, we don’t need training or space. And we have the necessary staff if we choose to use them. If we reduce or eliminate access to public libraries, we have sent the message to over half of the students in Alexandria that information is only important and accessible at the schools and only between school hours.

We are a country obsessed with school reform, but when we even think about restricting or eliminating access to public institutions, we are contradicting ourselves by saying that we want all students to perform at the highest levels, but we will not provide the easiest of civic supports to allow them to do so.

I strongly encourage the City Council to reconsider its funding allocations for our public libraries. It is our moral, civic and democratic duty to ensure that all children in our school system have the tools they need to thrive and succeed in the world today.

Lytle Brent

English Teacher

T.C. Williams High School

Member, Alexandria Library Company