Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Put your faith in books and a mind of your own

I'm a bit suspicious of these new education funding statistics: Half of Canadian schools spend less than the cost of a set of encyclopedias on library books and magazines for students annually, a new survey suggests. Statistics Canada said Wednesday the median spending on school library collections totals about $2,000 a year. That means half the schools surveyed spent above that level, but half also spent less. “Given current costs, this would cover the purchase of one encyclopedia series,” the government agency said. The relatively low median, Statscan also said, “may limit the ability of school libraries to maintain collections that meet student needs in an information-based environment.” What are school libraries doing buying physical, hard-copy encyclopedias nowadays? They're expensive, easily damaged, restricted to one user per volume at a time, and out-of-date by the time they're printed. Moreover, they're conducive only to building poor academic habits that have to be unlearned in later years of high school or when starting university. (I never had the problem of thinking that shallow reference works were sufficient sources for papers in even first-year classes, but evidently enough students do that such warnings against it had to be issued.) It's a bad metric, to consider spending in terms of enyclopedia sets. Was the CD-ROM encyclopedia craze of the 1990s lost on Statscan entirely? Even Google and Wikipedia put together work just as well, if requiring a bit more in the way of caution and secondary fact-checking. What's important is to teach good research and writing habits, not to give kids the idea that expensive new books are some kind of magic. In total, schools with libraries – about 93.3 per cent of all schools in the country had libraries – spent a total of $56.2-million on adding books, magazines and audio-visual and electronic materials to their collections in 2003-2004. By province, Saskatchewan and Alberta led the way with annual median spending totalling $3,600 and $3,000 respectively. Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia ranked at the bottom of the list of provincial spending, with annual median expenditures of $1,000 and $1,400, respectively. Again, this seems like bad math. These rankings are for spending by school, not spending on a per-capita basis. Might perhaps smaller schools spend less because they have fewer students to serve? Also unacknowledged is that you can buy quite a few books for even $1000 a year. Maybe not multiple copies of the hot new kidlit bestsellers every year, but the accumulated spending certainly adds up. If you're not buying massive series that become outdated on a joint basis like encyclopedias, annual replacement of works on every topic isn't necessary. What's more, this seems to ignore the role that public libraries play. No grade school or high school library can compare their collections to even a modestly-funded municipal library system, and that shouldn't be discounted. It's even played up, at times; the Ruth E. Dickinson branch of the Ottawa Public Library, for instance, is part of a larger complex that's connected to John McCrae Secondary School, and the school library - such as it is - is operated as a minor adjunct to the main library collection, with a common borrowing card. Another branch, Beaverbrook, is only a parking lot's distance away from another high school, Earl of March; Centrepointe is similarly about a five-minute walk past a Nortel campus from yet another, Sir Guy Carleton. That's the kind of cooperation that solves a problem, by increasing the circulation of an existing body of works, rather than needlessly duplicating spending on in-school collections that'll be seen as comparatively second-rate regardless.

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