Amid the book banning and curriculum restrictions of recent years, school librarians have been under fire like never before. These newer stresses are yet another blow to a profession that has been experiencing a decline in its ranks for more than a decade now—20% since 2009–2010, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
This phenomenon has been examined in the three-year study “SLIDE: The School Librarian Investigation—Decline or Evolution?” funded by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. A report on the third and final phase of the study was released in August and sheds new light on how administrators determine school librarian employment. We spoke with project director Debra Kachel, a retired school librarian and affiliate faculty member at Antioch University Seattle, and principal investigator Keith Curry Lance of RSL Research Group, about some of their study’s key findings.
Work on SLIDE began in fall 2020, with the first two years focusing on the profound inequities in students’ access to school librarians related to geography, ethnicity, poverty, and race. Those who are losing librarians “are the students who can least afford to be losing them,” Lance told PW in 2021.
For phase three, the SLIDE team interviewed 49 school leaders, largely superintendents or district-level administrators, from 29 states and Washington, D.C., about the various factors that influenced their school librarian staffing decisions. Twenty-eight of those interviewed detailed why they added or restored school library positions, while 26 explained why they cut, reduced, combined, or reclassified school librarian positions (five school leaders discussed more than one decision they made regarding school librarian staffing). Among the top reasons given by those adding librarians were changes in priorities, more standalone instruction by librarians and collaboration with teachers, changes in administration, and new funding. Leaders in the study group who cut librarians cited budget constraints, changes in priorities, enrollment decreases, difficulty finding candidates, and librarians being deemed obsolete as reasons for their actions.
“The one thing about these latest results that validated what I had always thought,” Kachel says, “was that the change in administrators and the change in priorities was a big factor in whether leaders added or cut school librarians.”
Lance adds, “It pretty much comes down to whether or not the administrator in question ‘gets’ and values school librarians.”
What does a school librarian do?
Not all administrators are aware that the role of the school librarian has evolved well beyond the stereotype of a person who checks out books and babysits kids when they come to the library. Today’s school librarians (also called teacher librarians or school and library media specialists) curate and manage collections of physical and digital materials, provide technological expertise, offer reading motivation and encouragement, teach information literacy, and partner with teachers on curriculum projects, among many other things.
The impact of school librarians on student outcomes has been studied for decades, and a body of research shows that K–12 students in schools with full-time certified librarians score significantly higher on reading and math tests and have a better graduation rate than students without access to full-time librarians. “What we did hear from administrators who added librarians and from the administrators who cut them is that they all wanted to see value outcomes and results from school library programs,” Kachel says. “Where they saw that, they were more receptive to maintaining and adding school librarians, and where they did not see that, they were more receptive to cutting.”
However, as educators have adapted to evolving instruction settings (remote, hybrid, etc.), the school librarian’s responsibilities have sometimes been integrated into other positions like educational technologist or instructional coach. As a result, the school librarian’s role can seem blurry to the administrators who decide their fate. “Some administrators basically fessed up to us,” Lance says. “They understand that they need a school librarian, but they don’t want to call them that, because it just sounds old-fashioned. We had eight or 10 people, among the ones who cut librarians, who flat-out admitted, ‘We don’t have librarians because they’re outdated.’ ”
Kachel adds, “There were six people who actually said that librarians were obsolete.”
Lance concedes that school librarians are, of course, not the only educators involved in teaching information-related topics. “It’s a package deal,” he says. “It’s not a separate little piece you can put in the library and have a librarian teach. Teachers, tech people, librarians, and other kinds of specialists need to work together to teach those things. Over the last generation or so the whole employment spectrum in public schools has gotten so much more complex.”
When speaking with administrators who added school librarian positions, “one of the themes we ran across was meeting their state mandates,” Lance says. “Something in the neighborhood of 15 states have mandates that there be school librarians. Some new administrators came in, or incumbent administration reviewed their status with their state, and were like, ‘Oops, we’re not meeting this mandate about school librarians. If we have the opportunity, let’s do something about that.’ ”
Some of the troubling trends previously identified in earlier phases of the SLIDE study have continued. During the 2021–2022 academic year, 35% of all local school districts in the U.S.—7.1 million students—did not have a school librarian, according to data from NCES. And 57% of those districts with no librarian in 2021–2022 were majority-minority districts. Many other districts are making do with inadequate librarian staffing. One case in point is Philadelphia, where the entire public school district of nearly 114,000 students has just one full-time equivalent school librarian.
Kachel and Lance both stress that their latest data and analysis reflect great volatility in school librarian staffing in the wake of the disruptions caused by the pandemic. From the 2020–2021 school year to 2021–2022, 15.4% of districts added librarians while 15.9% of districts reduced or eliminated all librarians, and 31.8% of districts had no librarian in either year. “We interviewed a group of decision makers who felt very strongly about keeping school librarians, and we interviewed a group of decision makers who felt very strongly they don’t need them,” Kachel says. “There is such a dichotomy here. It just begs for us to keep looking at these numbers.”
The path forward
“One of the things that I think about in terms of future research,” Kachel says, “is, now that we know 35% of all school districts no longer have even one school librarian, how are our young administrators going to have any kind of working knowledge of a school library and a school librarian if they have not had that in their working experience? And not only that—we now have a whole generation of students who have graduated from high school who from K to 12 never experienced a school librarian and a library. And so, as they become taxpaying citizens, and are asked to pony up money to add school librarians to schools, or to even contribute to public libraries, I’m sure that they’re saying, ‘Why? I never had that.’ ”
Ultimately, Kachel says, “what we heard from these administrators is that they are really trying to respond to student needs, and the student needs now are so diverse. Kids come to school without clothes, without having eaten. They have dental issues and eyesight issues and safety issues at home.”
School librarians are not just providing education anymore. “We provide all kinds of social services,” she adds. “And I think administrators in schools are struggling in trying to find the money it takes to address all those needs. And unfortunately, school libraries and librarians are shuffled to the bottom.”
Though the SLIDE study and its attendant grant funding have come to an end, Kachel and Lance would like their work on this subject to keep moving ahead. “Personally, my goal is to try to raise approximately $4,000 every year to keep our data tools on the website [libslide.org] up to date, and each year the NCES adds a new annual data set.”
Lance agrees. “We’ve got absolutely fantastic interactive data tools on our website that do amazingly impressive things,” he says. “They couldn’t be more user-friendly, but the data those tools provide access to is in constant need of updating, or they will sadly become obsolete.”
On a positive note, Kachel sees signs of a school librarian employment rebound as more parents, students, and other stakeholders recognize the value of a professionally staffed school library. “I believe in the pendulum swinging—and I really think the pendulum is starting to hit the wall,” she says. “We are approaching a time in our history when citizens are going to stand up and say, ‘Enough. We want something better.’ ”