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In Praise of Librarians

February 16, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments


Today’s New York Times has a great front-page feature article by Motoko Rich on school libraries, starring Stephanie Rosalia, the librarian at P.S. 225 in the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn. The good news is that she is doing fabulous work. The bad news is that school librarians are among the first to go in budget cuts.

Ms. Rosalia sounds like a gem. My favorite line from her is, “We are teaching them how to think. But sometimes the Board of Ed seems to want them to learn how to fill in little bubbles.”

The article opens with an example of the kind of teaching (yes, teaching) that Ms. Rosalia does:

It was the “aha!” moment that Stephanie Rosalia was hoping for.

A group of fifth graders huddled around laptop computers in the school library overseen by Ms. Rosalia and scanned allaboutexplorers.com, a Web site that, unbeknownst to the children, was intentionally peppered with false facts.

Ms. Rosalia, the school librarian at Public School 225, a combined elementary and middle school in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, urged caution. “Don’t answer your questions with the first piece of information that you find,” she warned.

Most of the students ignored her, as she knew they would. But Nozimakon Omonullaeva, 11, noticed something odd on a page about Christopher Columbus.

“It says the Indians enjoyed the cellphones and computers brought by Columbus!” Nozimakon exclaimed, pointing at the screen. “That’s wrong.”

It was an essential discovery in a lesson about the reliability — or lack thereof — of information on the Internet, one of many Ms. Rosalia teaches in her role as a new kind of school librarian.

We learn that “In New York City, Ms. Rosalia is a relative rarity. Only about one-third of the city’s public schools have certified librarians, and elementary schools are not required to have them at all. … In the school, just a block from a bustling stretch of Brighton Beach Avenue with its overflowing fruit stands and Russian bakeries, Ms. Rosalia faces special challenges. More than 40 percent of the students are recent immigrants. Language barriers force her to tailor her book collection to readers who may be in seventh grade but still read at a second-grade level.”

See also the 5 1/2 minute video online that accompanies the article.

As for the website allaboutexplorers.com that Ms. Rosalia uses, I took a look. You should too. I love its subtitle: “Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about every explorer who ever lived…and more!” The link on the homepage to About This Site takes you to a page with the passage below:

All About Explorers was developed by a group of teachers as a means of teaching students about the Internet. Although the Internet can be a tremendous resource for gathering information about a topic, we found that students often did not have the skills to discern useful information from worthless data.

So we set out to develop a series of lessons for elementary age students in which we would demonstrate that just because it is out there for the searching does not mean it is worthwhile.

A typical novice strategy for searching the Internet is to type the topic into the address bar. For example, if you are researching Christopher Columbus, you naturally would look first at http://www.columbus.com. Unfortunately, as you will see if you click on this link, that is not helpful. Neither is http://www.columbus.org, which takes you to the Columbus, OH, Chamber of Commerce.

There are many less benign examples of site names that do not relate to the topic they appear to be about. While we could use many of the existing sites that make this point for us, we did not want to run the risk of finding out in a year or two that the site had new, undesirable content. The only way we could guarantee this would be to create our own site in which we could control the content ourselves. The result is what you are exploring right now.

The picture at the top? I couldn’t resist. It shows Shirley Jones and Robert Preston, of course, as the librarian Marian Paroo and the scoundrel Harold Hill in the musical The Music Man. From the song Marian the Librarian come those words every librarian longs to hear (with the name changed as appropriate):

What can I say, my dear, to make it clear
I need you badly, badly, Madam Librarian…Marian

I should explain that this song was a part of my childhood. I grew up with Broadway musicals. My parents would see them, buy the cast album, and the next day my father would be playing it on the hi-fi in the living room. When we got older, we would go to musicals with them. But also, there was the summer camp I attended in the Berkshires from the age of 5 to 13. One of the activities for all but the youngest campers was to prepare and perform some musical. Each week, a different age group would mount a production. And one year, my age group did The Music Man. I didn’t get to be Harold. I was in the barbershop quartet, whose highlight was the singing of Lida Rose. (“Ding dong ding, I can hear those wedding bells chime. Ding dong ding, at the least suggestion I’ll pop the question.”) But I always wanted to be Harold, so I could sing, “I love you madly, madly, Madam Librarian…Marian.”

Categories: Books, Culture, Education, Music
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