December 12, 2012 in City

Councilman’s assault on library story time ludicrous

By The Spokesman-Review
 
On the Web: Find an archive of previous columns by Shawn Vestal at spokesman.com.

Story time? Really, Councilman Fagan?

The next time you hear the government-phobes launch the script about crushing taxes and runaway waste, remember Spokane City Councilman Mike Fagan and his insights into the city’s library system, offered during the passionate debate Monday night about the city’s budget.

Story time. That was one of Fagan’s examples of a world gone mad – of government overreach that must be reined in. Story time. Programs on genealogy. Monthly movie nights. All these nonessential services that the city’s library system is offering.

“This is one of the reasons why government in my mind has gotten out of control,” he said. “This is crazy. It has way gotten out of control.”

Out of control! Crazy! Completely, crazily lacking in control!

Among the observations and opinions offered during the debate over the new budget – no new taxes or spending, 92 fewer jobs, some possibly visionary restructuring, and generous raises for some of the mayor’s “Cabinet” – there were the usual reminders about how hard it is to really see government through the cloud of stereotypes and assumptions, to really view and weigh what might be good and bad about it, because of the glaring klieg lights of simplistic cliches.

These include: taxes are always going up, just absolutely suffocatingly, stranglingly up – even when they’re just absolutely not – and government takes that money and throws it out the car window as it speeds down the freeway.

It is this formulation – out-of-control government – that brings us to story time. At library branches around the city, librarians and volunteers read stories to toddlers and preschoolers. At some branches this occurs once a week for preschoolers and once for toddlers; at other branches, story times are held twice weekly for each group.

In addition, a part-time staffer does story times almost 50 times a month at day care centers around the city, focusing primarily on Head Start and low-income centers.

Fagan sees this as just one example of the “fluff” that afflicts our government. His vision of a library system’s core functions is this: “You manage and protect the materials, you check the materials in and out, and you allow access to the Internet.”

Fagan’s views on the library came during a council discussion Monday night about the possibility of using $15,000 to hire WorkSource employees to provide after-hours service at the library for job seekers. The measure to spend this money, at a time when the unemployment rate is 8 percent, failed by a vote of 4-3 – the same margin by which a budget approving more than five times that amount in administrative raises was approved.

Declining to help the unemployed is, perhaps, to be expected. More surprising is Fagan’s assault on story time.

It is factually out-of-control to identify story time as a problem, rather than what it truly is: a good thing that only seems small if you’re underinformed; a very, very inexpensive public service with the potential to pay very, very big dividends in early-childhood literacy; and a service with a tradition dating back decades.

“I’ve been a librarian for 20 years,” said Sally Chilson, youth services coordinator for the library system. “Story time has always been a huge part of my job.”

In fact, Spokane libraries have had some form of story time since 1905; a newspaper article in that year notes that a storyteller would be part of the services offered at the new Carnegie library. That’s correct: Reading to young children has been a fundamental part of library services – a core function, if you will – in Spokane for at least 107 years.

To be fair, Fagan also criticized other programs the libraries put on, from monthly movie nights to homework help to software classes. He might be happy to learn that the out-of-control library system’s budget for programs has dropped from $27,000 in 2008 to $9,000 in 2012. That includes $200 a year for the rights to show one movie a month; Fagan characterizes this as the library system operating as a movie theater. He might also be happy to learn that staffing levels in the system have also declined, though not drastically: from about 106 full-time equivalents three years ago to about 103 today.

Fagan’s animosity toward library services is unfortunately timely. A proposal to put a property tax increase for library services before voters is headed for the City Council; Fagan is part of the four-member majority that likely must crack if the proposal is to succeed. Library services have been hanging by a thread for years; two years ago, the closure of the East Central branch was averted only following a public outcry. Some steadier, more reliable source of funding is needed. How about letting citizens decide for themselves whether story time is out of control?

People who know what they’re talking about know this: What children learn in their very first years is crucial to their long-term success. Kids who are read to and exposed to books and stories early in life are better prepared to succeed when it’s time to go to school and read for themselves. Not all kids get that at home, and helping kids catch up is daunting. A student who isn’t reading at grade level by the third grade – the third grade – is already running a greater risk of eventually dropping out.

Story time is not fluff. It is not crazy. It is not out of control.

Saying so is a story in itself – a tall tale.

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