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Save the School Librarian

By Liz Shemeley

Save the School Librarian American schools are in fiscal crisis. We read about it in our local papers and our national trade journals, we witness the dire situations in our schools, we watch as budgets are slashed and the requirement to do more with less is becoming all but impossible to achieve. There is no doubt that we have all been impacted by this alarming trend, the roots of which began with the start of the economic recession in 2001 and continue with us today. Yet despite this, many states have, up to now, been able to fight off cuts in education and have resorted to desperate measures to prevent reductions in education funding. These measures, including relying on "rainy day funds" and raiding Education Trust Accounts to get them through these bleak economic times, cannot carry them any further. The fact remains that these dollars are all but gone, there are no more rabbits to be pulled out of hats and the cold, hard reality is that the state of K-12 education funding is at its worst in over a decade.

At the school library level, the further impact of these budget shortfalls is that in many cases, library budgets have been reduced, frozen or eliminated, media specialists and library aides are losing their jobs, and some school media centers are closing. Of those that remain open, many are being staffed by teachers and school personnel (even parents and volunteers), rather than by professional librarians. Additionally, some media specialists are now working "split-schools," in which they are required to split their time among two or three (or more) schools, often without the help of library support staff.

Consider the following:

  • According to School Library Journal (Ishizuka, Kathy. "School Libraries Struggle With Layoffs." February 2003), "the American Library Association confirms that an increasing number of school librarians have been axed over the last year."
  • The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) recently reported that 27 states are facing a total of $21.5 billion in budget shortfalls for FY 2003-2004 and at least 21 states are considering cuts in public education. (State Budget Update. April 2003)
  • California, faced with a $35 billion budget shortfall, recently cut funding for school library materials by $11.6 million. (Flagg, Gordon. "California Governor Cuts $11.6 Million From School Libraries." American Libraries. May 2003)
  • The Nashoba (MA) Regional School District eliminated the media specialists in all six schools (with the exception of the high school), due to a $1 million budget shortfall. (Ishizuka, Kathy. "Cash-Strapped Media Centers Are Forced to Use Volunteers." School Library Journal. February 2003)
  • The San Diego (CA) Unified School District recently announced that it will send layoff notices to up to 40 school librarians. (Whelan, Debra. "San Diego Media Specialists Expect to Receive Layoff Notices." School Library Journal. March 2003)
  • The Springfield (IL) school district has closed media centers and eliminated 11 elementary school librarian positions and 15 library assistants. (Ishizuka. "School Libraries.")
  • This past year, Shawnee Mission (KS) School District cut two-thirds of their 2002-2003 library budget and put a freeze on orders for books and reference materials. (Kenney, Brian. "KS School District Expects Drastic School Library Cuts." School Library Journal. March 2003)
  • The Evansville (IN) school board recently eliminated 22 librarian positions in all elementary and middle schools for the 2003-2004 school year. The libraries will be staffed by aides. ("Evansville Eliminates School Librarians." American Library Association News Archive. February 10, 2003)
  • In April 2002, the Georgia legislature approved a budget that called for a $14 million cut in school library funding. ("Georgia Legislature Slashes School Library Funds." American Library Association News Archive. April 15, 2002).
  • The San Jose (CA) Unified School District eliminated 26 school media specialist positions for the upcoming school year. The libraries will now be staffed by technicians. (Eberhart, George M. "Recession, 2003: More Cutbacks and Closures." American Library Association News Archive. July 29, 2003).
  • In Wisconsin, the Milwaukee School District released 13 full-time librarians, and the Stevens Point School District cut half of their district's 14 librarian positions. (Eberhart. "More Cutbacks.")

With state budget shortfalls predicted at $53.5 billion for the fiscal year 2004 (NCLS. State Budget.), it seems unlikely that this alarming trend will reverse itself soon, despite the fact that research has shown time and time again that school library media programs have a positive impact on learning.

So, what options are available for librarians and media specialists who fear their jobs are on the chopping block? First of all, there is national support out there! School media specialists should know that national organizations such as the American Library Association (ALA) and the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) are not only aware of this alarming trend, but are putting measures in place to help stem the tide.

In June 2003, the ALA unanimously passed a resolution in support of school libraries and librarians. The resolution begins by recognizing the problem and reads, "WHEREAS, throughout the United States, school librarians and library support staff are being eliminated as a cost-saving measure to school districts that face diminishing funding..." and resolves with the directive that the council President and Executive Director convey to federal, state and local organizations "the urgent need to support and maintain school library programs and certified school librarians." (Fiels, Keith M. Secretary to the ALA Council. "ALA Resolution:  School Libraries and Librarians Are Crucial to Educational Success." www.ala.org)  The resolution additionally resolves that ALA will and should encourage state legislations to require adequate funding for and staffing of school libraries.

In tandem with ALA, the AASL has been hard at work developing the school library component of ALA's new initiative, the "@ your library®, The Campaign for America's Libraries," and will be launching their campaign on Saturday, October 25, 2003, at the AASL National Conference in Kansas City, MO. According to Harriet Selverstone, Chair, Special Committee for the "@ your library ® School Library Campaign," there are three messages they wish to impart:

  1. School Library Media Programs are critical to the learning experience.
  2. School Library Media Specialists are crucial to the teaching and learning process.
  3. School Library Media Centers are places of opportunity.

AASL has also developed the "@ your library® Toolkit for School Library Media Programs" with the purpose of providing school library media specialists with a collection of ready-to-use tools in order to conduct an advocacy campaign. Included in the kit will be the messages, ideas and values of media programs and specialists, as well as a marketing and communication plan, sample news releases and general ideas as to how to get out the positive message about the importance of school library media centers. (For additional information, refer to the AASL web site at http://www.ala.org/aasl.

Additionally, media specialists should be aware of important studies that have been done over the years which prove the correlation between strong school libraries and academic achievement. One well-known research study that has gained a lot of attention is the now-famous and oft-cited "1993 Colorado Study" (Lance, Keith Curry, Lynda Welborn, and Christine Hamilton-Pennell. The Impact of School Library Media Centers on Academic Achievement. Castle Rock, CO: Hi Willow Research and Publishing, 1993). The study, conducted in Colorado on school library media centers, found that students in schools with better-funded media centers and those in which library media specialists performed an instructional role achieved higher readings scores. This was true, regardless of the socio-economic backgrounds of the students themselves and the communities in which the schools resided.

The study was repeated in 1998 and 1999, this time in three states: Alaska, Pennsylvania and Colorado. Again, the findings held that students in schools with a strong library media program "learn more and score higher on standardized achievement tests than their peers in library-impoverished schools." (Hamilton-Pennell, Christine, Keith Curry Lance, Marcia J. Rodney, and Eugene Hainer. "Dick and Jane Go to the Head of the Class." School Library Journal. April 2000) In fact, scores on state tests improved by 10-15% for students in schools with strong libraries and qualified library personnel.

A similar study done in Texas once again revealed the positive impact of the school media center on standardized testing. This research proved that students attending schools staffed by librarians scored higher on the Texas statewide standardized test (TAAS; Texas Assessment of Academic Skills) than those in schools without librarians. Furthermore, the results of the study show that the librarian's impact is even greater in schools where there is also a library aide providing a support role to the school media specialist. (EGS Research and Consulting, Prepared for Texas State Library and Archives Commission. "Texas School Libraries: Standards Resources, Services and Students' Performance." April 2001)

Another research study done in Iowa (Iowa Area Education Agencies. "Make the Connection: Quality School Library Media Programs Impact Academic Achievement in Iowa." 2002) again makes the connection between academic performance and library media programs. In fact, Iowa reading test scores rose in direct correlation with the development of a school's library media program - the stronger the program, the higher the test scores.

Similarly, a study presented by Dr. James C. Baughman at a symposium sponsored by the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College in Boston ("School Libraries and MCAS Scores." October 26, 2000) also found a direct link between higher student MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) test scores and the presence of quality school media programs.

But it's not enough to simply be aware that the research exists; it is critical that this research and information be shared with parents, principals, superintendents and school boards. In an article written for School Library Journal (Hamilton-Pennell. "Dick and Jane."), the authors suggest the following five tactics to get the word out about the important role media specialists play in academic achievement and learning:

  1. Communicate: Share the results of these research studies with the community, local press and school officials at every opportunity.
  2. Build Partnerships: Speak to your state professional association representatives, and ask them to solicit state agency leaders to advocate for additional school library funding.
  3. Act Locally: Be more and directly involved with your teachers and students. Know the curriculum; get up to speed on technology.
  4. Collaborate: Teach information literacy. (Refer to Dr. Ross. J. Todd's keynote address to the International Association of School Libraries in Durban, South Africa, July 7-11, 2003, for an in-depth explanation of information literacy. www.iasl-slo.org/conference2003-virtualpap.html).
  5. Volunteer: Get involved with curriculum and standards committees. Insist that the library be included in all curricular decisions.

Dr. Ross J. Todd, Director of the Center for International Scholarship in School Libraries at Rutgers University, also advocates that media specialists engage in "evidence-based practice - the process of carefully documenting how school librarians make a difference in learning." (Todd, Ross J. "How to Prove You Boost Student Achievement."School Library Journal. April 2001) Todd encourages media specialists to begin documenting how they affect student learning by systematically focusing "on gathering meaningful evidence on the impact of your instructional role on student achievement."(Ross. "How to Prove.") He recommends simple strategies such as quick questionnaires given to the students at the end of each lesson plan, asking them to note what they learned and how the lesson improved their understanding of the topic.

Finally, if school librarians and media specialists fear that their jobs are in jeopardy, they should fight back. School media specialists should use every resource available, from grassroots to the state level, and begin letter-writing and phone campaigns justifying why their jobs should not be eliminated. Any documentation of evidence-based practice should be noted, and current research that proves a correlation between school libraries and student achievement should be documented. It is important to get parents, teachers, students and the local media involved. If possible, they should request permission at their upcoming school board meeting to make a formal presentation and make their case. (Refer to the AASL "@ your library® Toolkit for School Media Programs" for detailed information about how to conduct an advocacy program.)

And the reality is, this type of campaign works. Take, for example, the recent situation in the Kansas City (MO) School District, where, after a letter-writing and phone campaign to school board members, the school board not only reversed their decision to eliminate 24 of the district's 70 school librarian positions, but actually approved using a reserve fund to maintain them. (Minkel, Walter. "MO Librarians Fight Back." School Library Journal. August 2003)

Although the current trend of closing media centers and eliminating media specialists seems dire, there is hope. With the help of national professional organizations such as ALA and AASL, as well as with local and grassroots efforts, the word will get out that hard scientific facts prove the link between learning and media centers. In the end, the goal for all parties concerned is for libraries to stay open and be adequately funded, and for media specialists to keep their jobs. If this happens, ultimately the students will be the winners.


American Association of School Librarians (AASL): www.ala.org/aasl
American Library Association (ALA): www.ala.org
Internationation Association of School Librarianship: http://www.iasl-slo.org/index.html
National Conference of State Legislatures: www.ncsl.org


Lance, Keith Curry, Lynda Welborn, and Christine Hamilton-Pennell. The Impact of School Library Media Centers on Academic Achievement. 1993. Summarizes the findings of the first "Colorado Study." http://www.ericfacility.net/ericdigests/ed372759.html

Lance, Keith Curry "Proof of the Power: Recent Research on the Impact of School Library Media Programs on the Academic Achievement of U.S. Public School Students." 2001. Provides a summary of the "Second Colorado Study" as well as the research done in Pennsylvania and Alaska.  http://www.ericfacility.net/ericdigests/ed456861.html

EGS Research and Consulting, Prepared for Texas State Library and Archives Commission. "Texas School Libraries: Standards Resources, Services and Students' Performance." April 2001. The Texas study linking higher TAAS scores to schools with librarians. http://www.tsl.state.tx.us/ld/pubs/schlibsurvey/index.html

Iowa Area Education Agencies. "Make the Connection: Quality School Library Media Programs Impact Academic Achievement in Iowa." 2002. Research showing a correlation between media programs and student achievement.

Baughman, Dr. James C. "School Libraries and MCAS Scores." A paper presented at a symposium sponsored by the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Simmons College, October 26, 2000, regarding a link between higher MCAS scores and quality school media programs. http://web.simmons.edu/~baughman/mcas-school-libraries/Baughman%20Paper.pdf