I wrote about the school librarian as an endangered species a few years ago. Has the trend started to change?
In 2000, America’s public school faculties had more than 54, 000 librarians and media specialists. By 2015, that number had declined to fewer than 44,000, a drop of about 20%. About half of that decline has happened since the 2008 recession.
The loss of school library positions eased somewhat in academic years 2012/13 and 2013/14, but then returned to the post-recession rate. Meanwhile, student enrollment has grown by 7%.
Some districts have an even greater disparity. Denver, for example, saw a 25% increase in student enrollment at the same time it reduced the number of its school librarians by 60%.
In general, schools that serve minorities and the less affluent have borne the brunt of the cuts. The schools, in other words, that have the most challenges with low reading scores and difficulties with information technology have shed the very people best prepared to help the efforts of classroom teachers. Some districts have had second thoughts.
Some reasons for the decline of school librarians
In part, funding issues have caused this sharp decline, especially since the recession, but they hardly account for all of it. Over the same time, schools hired 11% more counselors, 19% more instructional aides, and 28% more administrators.
Many districts are implementing various programs that demand a high level of technological expertise. Librarians have that expertise. Administrators who recognize that fact rely on their librarians to help the programs succeed. Administrators who think librarians only take care of books cut their positions as nonessential.
While schools cut librarian positions, they have added instructional coordinators. On average, the number of new instructional coordinator positions is about three times the number of lost library positions. Librarians have the training to do this kind of work. Quite often, however, their role in a school is to provide planning time for teachers. With a full schedule of classes in the library, they lack the time and flexibility to help teachers in other ways.
Also, for many years, people who know nothing about libraries and can’t be bothered to find out think that computers have made libraries and librarians unnecessary. Everything’s online, they say. So who’s supposed to help students find it? We have computers in the media center, they say. Who’s supposed to maintain them and teach how to use them?
Superintendents and principals have turned over at a high rate in recent years. In 2014, for example, superintendents who left their positions had been there only 4.5 years on average. Experts say that it takes a superintendent eight or nine years to implement new programs successfully. At about the same time, school principals in the largest urban districts had more than a 20% turnover rate.
This turnover can affect librarian positions. Sometimes, a new superintendent or principal will give school librarians strong support. But what about the next one?
Signs of changing times for school librarians?
According to Steven Yates, president of the American Association of School Librarians, some districts that have reduced or eliminated librarian positions want to reinstate them. They realize that they have lost not only the people who can curate the collections They have also lost the people who can help students understand how to recognize credible sources of information and cite them correctly.
Yates observes that administrators are discovering that computers mean they need more, not fewer, qualified professionals. More than one research project has determined that reading scores and graduation rates drop when a school loses its librarian and rise when a school gains one.
Some schools use site-based management, which means that the principal makes staffing decisions, including whether to maintain a school librarian. In Oakland, California, site-based management eventually resulted in no certified school librarian working in any of Oakland’s schools.
Oakland, among other school districts, has begun to return to centralized funding and administration. In part, they have done so to restore functioning school libraries run by certified school librarians.
A new approach to certification in Michigan
In Michigan, only 8% of public-school buildings have at least one full-time media specialist. Some don’t even have a part-time share of a librarian. The state intends to boost investment in its public schools. Under the new Every Student Succeeds Act, indicators of school quality and student success include access to certified school librarians.
Currently, a school librarian must have a 36-credit master’s in library science in addition to a teaching certificate. The shortage in school librarians has prompted the state to change certification rules. Wayne State University, in Detroit, has begun a 15-credit certification program. That way, existing classroom teachers, who might already have a master’s degree, can gain library certification more quickly.
It remains to be seen if students going through this program will have the same skills as someone with a master’s in library science. Given the damage done over the past several years by neglect of libraries and librarians, it seems an experiment worth conducting.
Changing times: school librarian staffing status / Debra E. Kachel and Keith Curry Lance,Teacher Librarian. April 2018
Schools see steep drop in librarians, new analysis finds / Sarah D. Sparks and Alex Harwin, Education Week. May 25, 2018
Wayne State to roll out fast-track librarian certificate amid shortage, student demand / Kurt Nagl, Crain’s Detroit Business. February 19, 2019
Elementary school library. Some rights reserved by bestlibrarian
School librarian. Source unknown
High school library. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Library sign. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons