This piece was written as an assignment for one of my graduate courses with the objective of discussing a problem facing annual school operations. The paper was received well by the evaluator, deals with a topic that is near and dear to me personally, and is currently affecting the learning opportunities of millions of children in the United States, so it felt relevant to post here. The topic first grabbed my interest last school year when I had a conversation with the librarian in my building to understand the depth of that role. We talked a bit about certification requirements and job duties, and then she enlightened me about the trend of public schools replacing certified teacher-librarians with uncertified staff and even volunteers. I was astounded and dismayed by the effects I assumed this would have on students who attend a school without a proper librarian, even more so after following up those feelings and assumptions with research and writing the work below.
“Google can bring you back 100,000 answers; a librarian can bring you back the right one,” said renowned fantasy writer, Neil Gaiman, on his experience with librarians. Naturally, many educators agree and have shown alarm at the fact that the number of certified public school librarians has steadily declined in the United States over the last twenty years. One might wonder what the fuss is about since digital cataloging systems have eliminated the need for students to flip through a musty card catalog, replacing what is often perceived to be the librarian’s main function. However, librarians serve as informational Swiss Army knives, teaching both students and colleagues about burgeoning technologies, curating book selections for students, and advertising the school as a community learning resource with programs like book fairs and family literacy nights. Given their importance to the learning process since the beginning of organized record keeping, and specifically to the American public school setting since its implementation in the New England colonies, libraries and librarians have proven to be keystones to student success. Their loss in many districts across the United States is a concern validated by downward trends in student reading performance where librarians are not present. Widening reading gaps have drawn enough attention to inspire community movements and even legislation in some states that would require a trained librarian to run each school’s library and preserve the posts of these invaluable educational resources.
Libraries have long served as cultural centers in human civilizations around the world, often the hub of important political decision making. This seems to have been the case dating back as far as 2,700 years to the first known library, that of Assyrian King Ashurbanipal, located in the cradle of civilization itself, the Fertile Crescent region of Northern Iraq. This and other libraries that followed served as collections of cuneiform tablets that preserved provincial tales and traditions until the founding of Egypt’s Library of Alexandria. Alexander the Great’s conquering of enormous swaths of land from Greece to Pakistan, including the ancient Fertile Crescent and Egypt, coupled with his insistence that generals provide detailed geographic descriptions of his territories, gifted the scholarly world with the first known multicultural resource center. Established by Ptolemy, who became the first Greek ruler of Egypt after the death of Alexander in 323 BCE, information traveled across the expanse of the Greek Empire for hundreds of years to become curated in the Library of Alexandria, which gave way to a period of scientific discovery and translations of literature across many cultures for the first time.
By founding The Library Company of Philadelphia in 1731, Benjamin Franklin embodied the same appreciation for the power of education as Ptolemy with the notable exception of Franklin’s intent to make “the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as gentlemen from other countries.” Franklin found success in book lending programs and implemented the idea in his Academy of Philadelphia, founded in 1751, which was renamed the University of Pennsylvania in 1791, one year after Franklin’s death. His Academy, however, did not host the first public library in the United States. That distinction goes to the town of Petersborough, New Hampshire which opened the first publicly funded library with the intent of serving all within the community, regardless of income, social status, or education level. Franklin’s progressive ideas on education were widely approved of and realized at the university level throughout New England, though it would be about 200 more years before the federal government began systematically implementing library systems for all public elementary and secondary schools.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th Centuries children’s access to books in their school was limited to periodic visits from traveling book wagons, a selection brought by a local library representative, or, in fortunate urban settings, trips to the local public library. Teachers were encouraged to host a personal collection of books within the classroom, assuming they had the means to compile such materials, but the subject matter and grade level could vary wildly from teacher to teacher. That began to change in the 1950s, especially when the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) was passed in 1958 to increase performance in science, math, and foreign languages so that the United States may edge out Russia as the authority in space exploration. That legislation provided certain educational materials to schools but did not necessarily require libraries or librarians to curate those materials. Sweeping improvements for public school libraries came with the passing of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965 which provided federal support for school districts to implement new library spaces, services, and materials thus setting up the format of libraries as media centers that schools utilize today.
While often fitting the trope of a bookish clerk in popular culture, librarians make a much greater impact on the school environment than stocking books. Just like teachers, librarians are held responsible for upholding certain beliefs and standards as stated in the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) statement of Common Beliefs. The AASL’s six Common Beliefs state that the library is unique and essential part of the learning environment, qualified librarians lead effective libraries, librarians prepare students for future academic and life responsibilities, reading is at the core of academic and personal growth, librarians teach students the power of their intellectual freedom, and librarians provide equitable access to and education supporting the use of information technology. Given that this role has become more integrated with their classroom teaching staffs over the decades since the ESEA was passed, it has not been difficult to see the impacts on students since the year 2000, when the number of United States public school librarians began falling into steep decline. Between 2000 and 2016 the number of full-time librarians in the United States dropped by 19%, more than 10,000 librarians, as the top 20 most affected districts served a student population that was 78% students of color. Due to districts turning to remote learning nationwide, rural areas and communities of color will experience even less access to resources than in previous years, thus exacerbating the learning gaps of the students who are most in need of assistance and would most benefit from regular interventions with a certified librarian.
One might jump to assume that a lack of funding is the culprit, and it certainly is in some districts, however, the drop in the number of librarians nationwide is largely an effect of schools reallocating their existing funds to hire an average of three instructional coordinator positions per full-time librarian lost. Another part of the problem is a thin field of applicants with which to replace retiring librarians. That pool is further thinned by the trend of universities removing master’s degree and library certification programs due to decreased enrollment. Studies conducted in 34 states have shown that regardless of race or socioeconomic status, students who attend a school with a full-time librarian perform at higher levels in reading and writing and are more likely to graduate high school. Librarians serve in a unique educational role within their school in that they develop a rapport with every student, they collaborate with every classroom teacher, and they can lead professional development sessions in technology and strategies to improve student success in reading and writing. By the nature of the job’s responsibilities, librarians are a “built-in” resource added to the team of literacy, curriculum, technology, and speech specialists who often support teachers in meeting students’ needs, so part of the solution to the loss of librarians lies in school administrators acknowledging their full-time librarian’s role in enhancing readership in their school and advocating for the importance of a well-trained professional librarian. Advocacy beginning with building administrators, school boards, and state leaders can work to bolster the role of librarians in schools on a national level and draw more interest in library studies programs as demand increases.
The very first community movements to educate began in the American colonies and were based upon reading. Schoolmasters often curated small libraries of essentials accompanying the Bible. New York was the first state to earmark tax dollars for school library books in 1835, but states west of New England were slower to enact such measures. Long before the internet or desktop computers, the only additional public library access in many rural and underserved communities was the Bookmobile, or the Library Wagon as it was known as an extension of Maryland’s Washington County Free Library in 1905. Librarians even took up education on political issues. The Library in Action of Queens, New York was a mobile library program that took on social justice issues of the 1960s, leading by example by hiring an interracial staff and including the book Black Nationalism: The Search for an Identity in America in their staff training. Storm Reyes recalled the Bookmobile’s impact on her education as a Native American child working in fields full-time from the age of eight in a StoryCorps interview, stating, “When I was twelve, a Bookmobile came to the fields, and you have to understand that I wasn’t allowed to have books because books are heavy, and when you’re moving a lot you have to keep things just as minimal as possible.” Storm described her awe at getting to borrow books, and the inspiration she felt when the Bookmobile librarian told her that “the more you know about something, the less you will fear it.” Sparked by hope and fueled by knowledge, Storm left the fields to seek something greater for herself. She became a librarian. Bookmobiles were great for reaching those with limited access to collections of reading material, but in recent years they have become costly to maintain and fuel with fewer avenues of funding available, so communities are brainstorming alternative methods of enhancing book access.
As the age of the Bookmobile sputters to a halt, Little Free Library (LFL) has come to the rescue and provided communities with a free book exchange option since 2009. According to their website, over 100,000 LFL have been installed in all 50 states and over 100 countries, and you may find them in unexpected places. LFL have been spotted at the Library of Congress, on boat docks, at campgrounds, on bicycles, and at beaches just to name a few choice locales. Despite its global reach, critics have questioned whether LFL are serving marginalized communities or if they are simply virtue signaling in wealthy neighborhoods. In response to the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in May 2020, LFL announced its Read in Color initiative, through which the organization will provide books by racially diverse authors to specific locations, starting in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. Also on the Read in Color agenda is a plan to install new exchanges in areas of need with recommended reading lists provided by advisers from varied backgrounds. Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, one diverse and rural community has noticed the impact of LFL. When schools, libraries, and bookstores closed in March, communities in Albuquerque, New Mexico relied on LFL for a rotation of reading materials and even an exchange of essential household items like hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and canned goods. While their efforts to reach so-called “book deserts” and enhance people’s access to materials encourage leisure reading, Little Free Libraries cannot replace the expertise of a certified librarian teaching students strategies of information retrieval.
The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has been widely criticized for several reasons since its enactment in 2002, namely in the assertion that it has strong-armed teachers into teaching to a test, in reference to state administered standardized tests by which schools were assessed. Concern has also been raised over whether budgets for library and media center resources, including librarians themselves, would fall into jeopardy for schools who were deemed unfit by NCLB standards and penalized with reduced allocations of funds. That is not an outlandish possibility, however, that decision would fall on school boards or administrators and so the loss of library resources would not necessarily be attributed directly to the law. In fact, NCLB held schools responsible for great gains in reading and technology education by launching many programs to assist readers of all ages, including one program titled Improving Literacy Through School Libraries. So, if the law touted the abilities of certified teacher-librarians and their vital role in accomplishing the goals of the law, where was the problem?
The issue with NCLB that has borne out over time is that the law did not mandate that libraries and media centers be operated by certified teacher-librarians. As a result, many schools received grants to improve their media centers, implemented their innovative technology, let their skilled certified librarians go or did not replace them with certified librarians upon retirement, then hired curriculum and technology specialists to address teacher concerns with test content and learning their digital toolbox (Riggi, 2004, p.41). By NCLB and its successor, 2015’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), lacking librarian requirements in schools, the responsibility flows downstream to states, who often pass those staffing decisions to the district or school administrators. The glaring problem with that equation is that students have access to wonderful technologies in their media center, but the school does not have an expert in that field to advise the best use of their tools. Without federal mandates requiring certified librarians in every school, teachers are less motivated to move to library studies, and college students are less likely to seek out or find access to library studies programs. These factors drive down enrollment in programs that teach those skills, thus causing many universities to drop library studies programs altogether. While the direct effects of NCLB on school librarians is difficult to know, the law certainly raised awareness of the significant role certified librarians play in the public school setting, which was part of its intent despite how ineptly some feel it was written and enforced.
With a lack of federal pressure on schools to hire certified librarians to operate media centers, teach students the art of information gathering, and teach staff about useful classroom technologies, the decision of what role that position plays and who should fill it often falls at the feet of administrators who are not well-versed in the wide-ranging capabilities of a properly certified librarian. There is legislation on the table in some of the 28 states that do not currently require a certified librarian at every public school, including Michigan and New York, that strives to preserve librarianship in schools. While 22 states have enacted laws requiring that a certified librarian serve at all elementary and secondary schools, some of those with high rural populations have student enrollment requirements for librarian services, and others include stipulations that librarians serve multiple schools with low student enrollment.
Michigan has served as an example of why state legislation is crucial to preserving librarians in public schools and improving student achievement. According to the Michigan Education Association, the state has experienced a loss of librarians at a clip of four times the national average since 2003. Currently, 8% of Michigan public schools employ a certified librarian, and the state’s reaction to plummeting reading scores was to pass a law stating that students must be able to read to pass third grade. To bridge the gap, some have called for loosening of state requirements for public school librarians. Karen Lemmons, a 24-year librarian in Detroit Public Schools (DPSCD) and one of only two full-time certified librarians in DPSCD (both at secondary schools), told Chalkbeat, “I tell administrators, ‘You won’t ever see me shelving books,’ because they say, ‘Oh, we can get a volunteer to do that.’” Instead, administrators will see Lemmons teaching courses in journalism and information technology or coaching the school’s robotics team. She expressed a common feeling among librarians in many states as schools have increasingly staffed their media centers with volunteers, paraprofessionals, or other uncertified staff in lieu of a certified librarian. This is certainly a crisis for Michigan students and educators, but there is hope for the passage of three bills working in concert that would require schools to employ a certified librarian at every public school. Unfortunately for Michiganders, progress has been slow to non-existent as the bills still sit in the Republican-controlled state House of Representatives, but advocacy for librarianship is on the rise in states reviewing their schools’ staffing of libraries.
American children’s author and illustrator, Jarrett Krosoczka, is quoted as saying, “The library is the heart of a school, and without a librarian, it is but an empty shell.” Educators have long echoed this sentiment, and now data has unequivocally shown that public school students improve their reading, writing, technology skills, and information processing abilities when taught in library media centers operated by certified teacher-librarians. The causes of librarian loss vary across the country from changes in school leadership and philosophy to lack of requirements for librarians to limited access to certified librarians, so it is up to states, districts, and building administrators to advocate for librarians in their curriculum and professional development strategies. States without public school librarian requirements would be wise to look at Michigan public schools’ failing readership as a case study in student performance when less than 10% of schools employ a certified librarian. Michigan’s example should serve as inspiration for other states to mitigate their own declines in reading performance by advocating for the power of librarians to reach children’s minds and hearts with stories that connect to theirs and spark a lifelong quest to discover their unique role in the world around them.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS & REFERENCES (that are not linked within the text)
Riggi, W. (2004). No Child Left Behind: Implications for School Library Media Centers and Teacher-Librarians. Current Studies in Librarianship, 28(1/2), 39-50. Retrieved through EBSCO November 28, 2020.
Special thank you to Koby Levin and Chalkbeat for use of their photograph of Detroit librarian Karen Lemmons as my thumbnail! I do not know what she was saying at the time of the photo, but Ms. Lemmons’ expression struck me as indicative of the frustration and loss that many educators are feeling right now while they face numerous unprecedented challenges.
Find out what the school librarian requirements are in your state here.
Neil Gaiman and Jarrett Krosoczka quotes here.
Swiss Army Librarian graphic composed from the following sources:
Dumb and Dumber still frame: New Line Cinema, 1994