Concerned about aging, poorly stocked high school libraries, Baltimore County school officials plan to spend $10 million over the next three years to beef up the book collections and bring them closer to compliance with state standards.
At present, 21 of the school system's 23 high school libraries contain books and other items that are considered outdated by county standards, said Della Curtis, school system coordinator of library information services.
And Baltimore County spends far less on libraries than the statewide average, according to information compiled by the Maryland State Department of Education.
To begin remedying this situation, county schools Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione has proposed spending $3.3 million next year to jump-start a buying spree that he hopes will outfit libraries with new research materials, history books, science textbooks and novels.
But, at a time when computers and the Internet command much of the attention, the process of rebuilding school library book collections will take time, said Beth Shapiro, library media specialist at Overlea High School.
"We have started to address the problem," she said, "but it will take at least three years before our libraries will be competitive again."
At Overlea, few students bother checking books out of their school library -- and a tour of the library shows why. About half of the school's nonfiction titles, including science, technology and geography texts, were copyrighted in the 1960s.
"Books like this, kids just don't associate with," said Shapiro, flipping through a 1944 novel titled "Yankee Stranger."
"There's no appeal for students to even want to read when they see a book like this," Shapiro said. "Some of them think no one cares enough to buy the school new books."
At a recent hearing on the school system's proposed $742.5 million budget, which is up for a vote by the Board of Education Feb. 22, school librarians were passionate in their support of more funding.
Nine of the county's high school libraries contain 7,200 books or fewer. To meet state standards for collection size, high school libraries must have at least 18,000 items, including books, computer software, periodicals and music recordings.
In terms of per-student funding, the county also lags, according to the Maryland State Department of Education.
In 1997, for example, high school library funding averaged $12.24 per student statewide. In Baltimore County, it was $2.77.
Librarians say Marchione's pitch for new reading materials signals a renewed emphasis on book-based learning.
In recent years, schools have foregone book purchases for libraries, opting instead to pick up new computers to run encyclopedia CD-ROMs and to provide Internet access, said Shapiro, the Overlea media specialist. As a result, book collections suffered.
"People felt that the Internet would take care of it all," she said, scanning Overlea's sparse library shelves. "They thought all this could be replaced and made electronic."
More recently, however, school librarians have been training students to use computers and the Internet at the start of a research project only, she said. As students narrow their topics, librarians encourage them to read books and periodicals for access to the most recent information.
They have their work cut out for them. At Overlea, students don't think of the library as a good source of information. Although they enjoy the new iMac computers in the library's research laboratory, the book collection is pathetic, they say.
Dana Thompson, 17, an Overlea senior, was once shelving books as part of her job as a library aide and stumbled upon a book her mother had checked out as a student at the school in the 1970s.
"I've used the library once [to research a school paper] in the four years I've been here," said Thompson. "I use the public library or the Internet."