American schools—particularly those serving black and Latino students—have seen a precipitous drop in their school librarians since the Great Recession.
The nation’s public school districts have lost 20 percent of their librarians and media specialists since 2000, from more than 54,000 to less than 44,000 in 2015, according to an Education Week Research Center analysis of federal data. Many districts lost librarians even as student populations grew by 7 percent nationwide. For example, over the past decade in Denver public schools, student enrollment increased by 24 percent, but the number of librarians decreased by 56 percent.
The most dramatic drop came after the 2008 recession, and the federal data suggests that cash-strapped districts may have shifted from library services to other support staff. Over the same period when school librarians’ ranks dropped, schools nationwide saw an 11 percent increase in counselors, a 19 percent increase in instructional aides, and a 28 percent increase in school administrators.
“When we’ve talked to districts that have chosen to put resources elsewhere, we really do see more than one who have then come back and wanted to reinstate [the librarian],” said Steven Yates, the president of the American Association of School Librarians. “Not only do you lose the person curating the resources for informational and pleasure reading, but you lose the person who can work with the students on the ethical side—how do you cite? How do you determine a credible source of information?”
And while many districts have invested in technology upgrades such as a laptop or device for every student and media centers, “Sometimes administrators think if you can put in computers [in a media center], that would take the need away for a qualified librarian, but we’ve found that’s not what happens,” Yates said. “In a 1 to 1, you end up needing more support from qualified professionals.”
Chicago public schools have gone from more than 450 librarians staffing libraries and media centers at more than 600 schools to fewer than 150 in a four-year period, according to South Side high school librarian Sara Sayigh, whose positions at the historic DuSable High School and later the Bronzeville Scholastic Institute and Daniel Hale Williams Prep School of Medicine have been cut four times in the last 14 years.
“It’s been awful,” she said. “Principals have had to figure out how to keep a full [teaching] staff when the pot kept decreasing, so any person who wasn’t in the classroom every minute of the day—particularly in high school—could be cut,” Sayigh added. “The librarians, we have master’s degrees and very often we were among the first people who were dropped.”
While Sayigh was repeatedly reinstated after budget changes and parent and student protests, she left for good in September, after the last time her position was eliminated.
Minority Districts Hit Hardest
The federal data show districts serving students of color have been the hardest hit. Districts which have not lost a librarian since 2005 are 75 percent white, while the 20 districts that have lost the most librarians had on average 78 percent minority student populations.
Hover over a dot to see statistics for the 20 districts with the biggest reductions in numbers of librarians over the past decade.
In Los Angeles Unified, which has lost nearly half of its school librarians in the last decade, library advocates plan to protest with teacher groups at a rally May 24.
“Each year we seem to be losing a few more libraries,” said John Hamrick, a teacher-librarian at North Hollywood High School in Los Angeles, adding that less-affluent neighborhoods have borne the brunt of the purge. “It is ironic that in schools that are most challenged with low reading scores, schools that struggle with information technology, teacher-librarians who have expertise in these areas are being displaced.”
The evidence is building that the loss of school librarians could put schools at a disadvantage academically. For example, two studies of national and Colorado-specific data suggested that losing a school librarian was associated with lower 4th grade reading scores while gaining one was associated with higher scores. A meta-analysis of 34 statewide studies also suggested that schools with high-quality library programs had higher reading test scores and, for high schools, graduation rates.
Sayigh argued that while academic performance is important, there has been less research on social and emotional supports that librarians can provide; she recalled running popular book clubs for students and teachers, but also provided a safe, watched area for students who tended to be the object of bullying.
“I don’t think people even know how much they lose when they lose their librarian,” she said. “They may lose the only person who keeps up with what the students are reading, and who acts as an unbiased advocate for the students because I never had to grade them.”
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Sarah Sparks,Alex Harwin