Out with the old at school libraries

Balto. County budget includes $10.5 million to replace old volumes

April 15, 2000|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Della Curtis loves to show off her books, a private collection of tattered covers, broken spines and titles that hark back to a time when man had yet to walk on the moon.

Those books are now history -- off the shelves forever -- and Curtis, the Coordinator of Library Information Services for the Baltimore County school system, couldn't be happier.

"There really is a time when all good books must go to library heaven," said Curtis, who spearheaded a successful effort to add $10.5 million to next year's school budget to restock substandard school libraries. "We're not the Library of Congress. We can't keep rare book collections."

Armed with data that show that most of the county's school libraries are filled with books printed in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, librarians this week persuaded County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger to begin a book-buying campaign that could put 400,000 new books on library shelves within the next 12 months.

If the County Council approves the spending request, Baltimore County would become one of the first school systems in the nation to take on such a massive book replacement plan, said Curtis.

Her goal is to reverse years of neglect that have left all but two of the county's middle and high school libraries without adequate current research materials, according to a school-by-school survey conducted last fall.

"All the money will go to books and books only," said Curtis, who has witnessed orders for computer gear -- iMacs and CD-ROMS -- replace book orders in recent years.

"It's like we're talking out of both sides of our mouth," she said, referring to educators. "Of course we want our students to read, and read a lot, but we're not giving them the books they need to do that. It's almost like we don't value them or their reading."

Librarians, who handle books and student queries daily, have been aware of the poor condition of their collections for years but had been unable to squeeze more money for library improvements from school administrators intent on beefing up computer labs.

A recent survey of the county's elementary, middle and high school libraries, executed with the aid of computers and spread sheets, enabled librarians to make their case to the Baltimore County Board of Education, members of which solidly endorsed an overhaul.

According to that survey, not one of the county's 26 middle school libraries has a collection that is considered current: about 60 percent of the books in most middle school library collections are outdated.

Only five middle schools -- General John Stricker, Perry Hall, Pikesville, Ridgely, and Sparrows Point -- meet state standards for library collection size. Most middle school libraries have less than 10,350 items total, a count that includes computer programs and other items in addition to books.

Baltimore County's 23 high school libraries on average are in worse condition than those in middle schools. Only two high schools -- Pikesville and Woodlawn -- meet state standards for collection size; most have 12,420 items or less. The state recommends at least 14,401 items for a well-stocked library.

Only two high schools -- Carver Center for Arts and Technology and Western School of Technology -- have collections that librarians consider current. About 60 percent of the research materials -- science, social studies, mathematics and history texts -- at the county's other high school libraries were found to be outdated and even irrelevant.

Even schools such as Pikesville, which with 20,498 items has the largest library in the system, has trouble keeping up with new discoveries in areas such as science and mathematics, said Charlene Wicks, who heads the school's Library Department.

"Those are our weakest areas because the material gets dated so quickly," she said. "Plus, we can't purchase an entire new collection in one area because it would be too expensive."

At Old Court Middle School in Randallstown, John Novicki, the school's technology specialist and librarian, can't keep enough fiction on his shelves for all 1,105 pupils. They clamor for fresh titles daily, he said.

He said that when a recent shipment of new fiction arrived at the school, students crowded about the box, eager to peek at new titles and color photos and illustrations.

While helping students find books for history or science reports, Novicki has stumbled upon some finds: a science book about life on Mars with pictures of creepy creatures; a history book about President Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty.

"That's history, but it's doesn't give an accurate picture of what is happening today," said Novicki. He estimates that about 2,500 of the library's 5,865 books are current.

Faced with such challenges, librarians are eager to take advantage of the extra funding.

"Education in general has had its peaks and valleys as far as funding goes, and now that the economy is good, people are looking at our schools again and at our library collections," said Wicks. "We intend to take advantage of this swing."

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