By Gina Macris
Rhode Island Library Report
WARWICK – (Nov. 2, 2012) –Sixteen year-old Assane Wade of Cranston, who has helped boost youth services at his local library, personifies the hope that Rhode Island’s librarians have for all young people who come through their doors.
The teenager spoke to some 70 librarians at the Community College of Rhode Island during the fall conference of the Cornucopia of Rhode Island, an organization dedicated to providing better services to Rhode Islanders of color.
As the morning wore on, it became clear that librarians already know many ways they can improve their communities and help ensure bright futures for youth like Assane Wade.
But they held back on expressing their frustrations at a crippling shortage of money until the conference was nearing its end.
Wade, who is African-American, and Stephanie Blankenship, a youth services librarian, has drawn teens and pre-teens into the Auburn branch of the Cranston Public Library on Friday afternoons to have fun playing traditional board and electronic games.
A student at Cranston West High School, Wade also has recruited some of the regulars at the Friday afternoon “Bored Games” to become fellow volunteers in the service of Blankenship, who in turn serves as a mentor to them all.
Blankenship told the conference that getting students into the library gives librarians “another opportunity to speak about colleges and jobs.” She also runs an after-school homework help program three days a week.
Wade said he once considered a career in hospitality, but now he wants to get an undergraduate degree in English and ultimately study library science to become a librarian.
“Things are looking up because of the library,” said Wade.
Barbara K. Stripling, the keynote speaker at the conference said of Wade: “I want everyone we touch to be an Assane.”
SCHOOLS ALONE NOT TO BLAME FOR EDUCATION SHORTFALLS
STRIPLING, president-elect of the American Library Association, who worked many years as the head of school libraries in New York City before she became an assistant professor of library practice at Syracuse University.
“Libraries are not just about books or information,” she said, “but about empowerment.”
Cheryl McCarthy, professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Rhode Island, said “It is a national catastrophe when 50 percent of African American males are not graduating from high school.”
"LIBRARIES ARE NOT JUST ABOUT BOOKS OR INFORMATION, BUT ABOUT EMPOWERMENT."
-- Barbara K. Stripling, president-
elect, American Library
While African American men make up 14 percent of the adult population they represent 40 percent of the population in prisons, said McCarthy,
At CCRI, about 73 percent of first-time students need at least one remedial course and 40 percent leave school after the first year.
“We can blame the schools,” for this failure, “but that would be false,” said McCarthy. “We are failing them too. It takes a community to educate a child.”
She said that many of Blankenship’s practices at the Auburn library are the same ones advocated by a recent national library summit in North Carolina, which served as a call to action for libraries to address illiteracy among young African-American males. (Download the report here: http://bridgetolit.web.unc.edu/?page_id=12 )
McCARTHY AND OTHER SPEAKERS called for greater collaboration between libraries and schools to support foundering students in Rhode Island.
“Libraries can be change stations,” said Andrew P. Jackson, executive director of the Langston Hughes Community Library and Cultural Center in Queens, and a consultant with broad reach who helped found the Cornucopia of Rhode Island seven years ago.
“We have accepted responsibility for making a difference in the lives of people in the community from the cradle to the grave,” he said.
“In many places, reading is not part of the lexicon. The library is considered a part of the government . .. . not a user-friendly place. “
The Langston Hughes library strives to change that image, he said. Its homework assistance program started 43 years ago.
“We can’t wait for people to come in,” he said. “We reach out to the schools,” he said.
Jackson said the Langston Hughes Library arranges “read-ins” that bring adults from the community to read to children in the schools. In the evenings, read-ins are tailored to adults.
The library also hosts cultural and community celebrations throughout the year.
Stripling, the president-elect of the national library association, McCarthy, the URI professor, and others emphasized that libraries’ mission includes efforts to close the digital divide – the lack of access in poor neighborhoods to the computer technology that many consider a basic need of daily life.
McCarthy said that in many places, people can’t apply for a job unless they go to the library, because virtually all applications are handled online and people don’t have computers in their homes.
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM: A CRIPPLING LACK OF MONEY
THEN THE GROUP HEARD from librarians in urban schools, who, in effect, pointed out there was an elephant in the room.
Peter Quesnel said, “I love people to make statements about how they value what libraries do,” he said, “but we’re labeled a failing school.”
He is the librarian at the Juanita Sanchez Educational High School Complex in Providence and has an annual budget of $2,000 to maintain collections for a student body of 800. That’s not even enough for subscriptions to digital databases students need to practice research skills, he said.
Debbie Fisher, librarian at Central Falls High School, said, “It’s hard to talk about equity.”
Her school library has not had any annual budget for the past nine years, she said.
"IT'S HARD TO TALK ABOUT
-- Debbie Fisher, Central Falls
High School librarian
Although the library received an outside grant for new computers and other upgrades in 2005, Fisher said the machines are not available for students who come to the library to do research but are used in a computer lab.
The Martin Middle School library in East Providence also has had no budget for nine years, said librarian Christopher Zanghi.
East Providence closed two public library branches in 2012, and the General Assembly chose to spend money on a playground in the city rather than restore library funding, Zanghi said.
McCarthy, responding to Quesnel in particular, said “I know you don’t have the resources but you make that connection” with students.
“I wish there were power brokers here so we could talk about it,” said McCarthy.
In some cases, volunteer efforts have tried to fill gaps.
The Rev. Alvin T. Riley, pastor of the Mt. Zion AME Church in Newport, said, “Nowadays we don’t want to hear ‘volunteer,’ but that’s where it’s at.”
The church has sponsored a tutoring program for youth that got much of its energy from the volunteer efforts of parishioner Donna Gilton, a professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Studies at URI and vice president of the Cornucopia of Rhode Island.
Another Cornucopia official, Dhana Whiteing, regional librarian of the Providence Community Library, has volunteered in a literacy program for prisoners at the Adult Correctional Institutions.
TEENS AND PRE-TEENS TURN OUT TO SAVE THEIR LIBRARY BRANCH
But volunteers can only reach so far. The group agreed that libraries need to step out of their traditional roles and become advocates if they are to survive.
Jackson said the Langston Hughes library maintains a relationship with local and state elected officials that runs year-round, not just at budget time.
In Queens, the elected officials have library cards, receive the Langston Hughes library newsletter, and are called upon to give greetings at library cultural events.
“They bring their business to the library. They meet with their constituents in the library,” he said.
“We’ve been so passive as a profession and unrespected,” Jackson said.
“Too many elected officials look at libraries as a luxury,” he said.
Librarians have been “doing something with nothing” for so long that “they think we don’t need the money.”
“They look at us like we’re trying to save our jobs,” he said.
Jackson advised the librarians to “get the communities to go into see elected officials and explain why libraries are important,”
In Cranston, Blankenship has done just that with her teenage patrons.
“When there is a budget hearing at City Hall, we tell our patrons to go,” she said.
When the Auburn branch was threatened, she recalled, eight teenagers and pre-teens went to the budget hearing and waited hours to deliver their message: “Don’t close the library. I need somewhere to do my homework.”