School librarians, like those in many other professions, were hit hard by the Great Recession of 2008, which prompted budget cutting at the school district and state level. Unfortunately, the profession of school librarian is also one of the fields that has not recovered as the financial landscape has improved in recent years. According to a new Education Week Research Center analysis of data from the federal Common Core of Data (not related to Common Core State Standards), U.S. public school districts have lost nearly 20% of their librarians and media specialists since 2000. The numbers dropped from 54,000 in 2000 to fewer than 44,000 in 2015.
The main approach taken by school librarians to combat, and hopefully reverse, this decline is advocacy. Last June, Follett, the nation’s largest provider of educational materials and tech tools for K–12 schools in the U.S., and library advocacy political action committee EveryLibrary announced they were teaming up to support school libraries and librarians. With funding provided by Follett, the initial advocacy push included the launch of the activist website Save School Librarians and preparation for action plans in six states—Florida, Illinois, Montana, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Washington—that were spotlighted because they have districts facing funding cuts that threaten school libraries and school librarian positions.
A year later, John Chrastka, executive director of EveryLibrary, has provided a progress report on how this activist movement is doing. (For insights on this issue from Nader Qaimari, president of Follett School Solutions, see “The Importance of School Librarians.”) He explains that, to date, EveryLibrary has made significant inroads in advocacy work on three levels.
1. “We’ve been talking to people across the country about the importance of having school librarians staffing the largest classroom of the school: the library,” Chrastka says. The message has been spread via Save School Librarians, the EveryLibrary Facebook page, and other advertising.
“We’ve made a direct request of Americans who care to sign up to support school libraries and school librarians, and we’ve had almost 25,000 people who’ve signed up around the country to take an action,” Chrastka notes. Though these individuals may not have anything happening in their state or district today, or for the past 12 months, he adds that “as things progress with federal funding in their state and even in their home district, we’ve got their contact information and we’ll keep in touch with them.”
2. At the school and district level, Chrastka says, “we’ve done 19 direct actions between August 2017 and May 2018 where we have helped to contact school boards and superintendents regarding the jobs of the school librarians and the budgets for school library programs.” So far that amounts to roughly 7,400 people who have taken an action across those 19 different district- or school-level situations. “If you get 50 people in some of these districts, that’s huge,” he notes. “The numbers are impactful even though we don’t have a million people yet.”
3. In a third scenario, Save School Librarians has worked on the “policy side of things with the state school library associations,” Chrastka says. “Last August, we were gearing up for work in four of them in a big way, and we’ve made progress across the board.”
Taking a closer look, Chrastka points to the specific efforts in each of the first six targeted states. In Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Washington, in particular, EveryLibrary assisted in helping the state library associations gain traction at the legislative level. He stressed that big wins don’t happen overnight. “With any of the bills to add school librarians back, it’s a long game,” he says. “It’s multi-session.” At every stage, he says, “these efforts are all about building political power.”
Nevada has a biennial legislative session, which is next scheduled to meet in 2019. As 2017 drew to a close, EveryLibrary worked with Nevada Library Association and the Clark County School Librarians Association, its partner, to help introduce SB 143, which would require all public schools to have libraries and librarians. “We supported them with direct actions and had folks contact state legislature,” Chrastka says. The bill received several cosponsors but did not advance out of committee. The goal is to reintroduce it and move it forward next year.
In Pennsylvania, EveryLibrary is working with the Pennsylvania Library Association to get action on HB 740, which would provide for at least one certified librarian in every public school in the commonwealth. This is the first year that the bill has been introduced, and it has 40 cosponsors. Hopes are that the bill will get a hearing before the end of the year.
In Washington State, prior to this year’s legislative session, school library budgets were bundled with the rest of the state’s school budget, according to Chrastka. “What the Washington Library Association did, which we supported by asking people to contact their state legislators, was a masterful job of getting the school library budget to be broken out as a line item so there is not only visibility, there’s accountability,” he says. “That’s very significant. The next step is to take a look at which district libraries have fallen short and to then do district level support.”
In Montana, the school library division of the Montana Library Association has completed a workforce study of school librarians that it is currently evaluating. “That’s a key element in the process,” Chrastka says. “If you don’t know how many people are actually at work, you can’t make reasonable statements about how many people should be at work.”
In Illinois, EveryLibrary continued to assist the Association of Illinois School Library Educators. This organization, formerly known as the Illinois School Library Media Association, recently voted to change its name, and the new moniker becomes official in July. The focus of late has been on “school and district initiatives paying particular attention to Chicago,” Chrastka says. “Because as Chicago goes, so goes the rest of the country.”
And rounding out the six, Chrastka reports, in Florida, the Florida Association of Media Educators is “still trying to align internal resources to make their operation happen.”
Building on Early Wins
Outside of the six targeted states that were part of the Follett announcement, EveryLibrary can point to two big successes where school librarian positions were actually restored. About two years ago, when New Jersey school librarian Elissa Malespina learned that the South Orange/Maplewood school district—where she lives and where her son attends school—was going to eliminate one of two middle school librarian positions as well as one of two high school librarian positions, she knew she had to take action. With the proposed cuts, she says, “they were going to have one high school librarian for 1,900 students, and one middle school librarian expected to travel between two schools and also teach classes, so the library would never be open because no one would be there.”
Malespina went to work and gathered more than 700 community signatures on a Change.org petition to try to save the librarians’ jobs and then reached out to the group of “amazing” librarian friends she knows from her role as library president of the International Society for Technology in Education. “I told them, ‘I need help. How do I go about fighting this?’ ” Malespina says. One of those ISTE pals told her that she had recently met with Chrastka at EveryLibrary and that his group was about to expand its efforts into the school library realm.
Though Malespina’s 700 signatures were impressive, they didn’t have enough impact, and the librarian cuts went through anyway, in spring 2016. Not long after those cuts, Malespina noticed that the district was advertising for a dance teacher. She thought such a move made no sense, and she became even more frustrated. “I needed a way to organize to fight that,” she says. And that’s when Malespina teamed with EveryLibrary.
“What’s different about this campaign, as opposed to a Change.org petition, is that literally every time someone signs it, it goes to whomever I designate it should go to,” Malespina explained. As a result, as each of the roughly 400 signatures were added to the new EveryLibrary petition, every school board member and the superintendent received notices via email. “It made their email system almost crash,” Malespina says.
Because of these emails, the board was seeing pressure, and they could no longer justify their claim that they had to cut librarians because of budget issues. They reversed their decision and hired back the middle school librarian. But the fight wasn’t over, because the district was still down one high school librarian, and library budgets needed to be restored as well. Malespina notes that EveryLibrary helped her keep up the pressure, and after nearly two years—and the arrival of a new superintendent who values libraries and librarians—the district hired a second high school librarian and restored budget funds in January 2018.
Malespina is continuing to rally support in the South Orange/Maplewood district to hire another full-time certified high school librarian and restore the position of tech supervisor—the person who helps ensure that the librarians and educators receive professional development in the latest technology. In the wake of her positive experience, Malespina has additionally partnered with Chrastka to create a series of webinars that instruct school librarians on how to advocate for themselves, which are available at the Save School Librarians website.
In an effort similar to that of the one in New Jersey, EveryLibrary helped Melissa Bowman, teacher-librarian at Tamalpais High School in California, to organize a campaign to save her job and those of two others in the Tamalpais Union High School District in Marin County that were slated for elimination. Bowman and the teacher-librarians at Redwood and Drake High Schools had been given preliminary layoff notices. But on April 17, the district’s board of trustees voted to make cuts in other areas rather than eliminating the library positions.
West Virginia Balks
Though EveryLibrary has met with an overall positive response, in one recent case, the organization’s approach to trying to save school librarians was not welcomed. In May, the Cabell County Schools district in Huntington, W.Va., announced that it had eliminated the positions of all six of its elementary school library media specialists and would be reassigning the librarians to roles as classroom teachers instead. Upon learning of this news, Save School Librarians took action with its petition platform.
Some of the board members related their frustration at being targeted by the campaign to a couple of account managers from Follett. And, according to Britten Follett, senior v-p of marketing strategy and classroom initiatives at Follett School Solutions, the superintendent of the district contacted its Follett sales reps and threatened to end its business with Follett if the company continued to support EveryLibrary.
“As a company, we believe in this mission, and we believe that libraries are critical to a future-ready school,” Britten Follett says. “If this district chose to do away with librarians that’s their prerogative, but the mission of EveryLibrary is to make sure that they understand the things they could be losing as a result of that. We’re standing by our financial support of EveryLibrary.”
Nader Qaimari, president of Follett School Solutions, has called and emailed the superintendent and assistant superintendent of Cabell County Schools offering to discuss the matter and reiterating that Follett supports EveryLibrary, is the primary funder of the Save School Librarians initiative from an advocacy campaign standpoint, and will continue to act in that capacity. As of press time, he had not received a reply from the school district.
Though losing business is never a desired outcome, Britten Follett says that it would be a mistake to “kowtow to sales in that capacity, rather than stand by what we firmly believe in, the role of the librarian.” She adds, “We certainly didn’t tell EveryLibrary to do this campaign, but we are a financial supporter for whatever they need.”
This backlash, Britten Follett says, “showcased that we have a long way to go with our Future Ready Librarians initiative,” for which the goal is to educate administrators about the role of the school librarian. “We’ve seen a huge wave of increased knowledge over the past 18 months, about what a good school librarian should be doing,” she says. “People are using some of the verbiage in the Future Ready Library framework to have conversations with their principals and superintendents. But in this West Virginia case, we haven’t reached the superintendent yet.”
Future Shifts in Advocacy
“It’s never easy to hold the line on cuts,” Chrastka at EveryLibrary says. “That is the majority of what we’re doing, when there is a crisis in a district that says don’t cut the school librarians because... That’s where we come in. But it’s very difficult right now given the level of resources that we have as an organization.”
Though he believes EveryLibrary is making great progress, Chrastka notes that the effort it takes to restore a school librarian “first and foremost has to start with the superintendent, principal, and board understanding that there’s a negative: a negative for their student outcomes, a negative for the faculty support that comes from the school librarian, a negative for independent learning, a negative for learning outside of classroom time.” He adds, “Improving a negative is very hard.” He says that it takes “a mindshare and a perspective shift on the part of the leadership in those districts and schools before they are going to be receptive to an answer.”
To that end, Chrastka believes that the big shift that needs to happen in advocacy is to restore school librarians as opposed to saving the librarians who are already there. “We know from the latest research that we’ve got a lot more restoration to do than we had originally thought,” he says, “and we have to be able to align resources from the publishing, ed tech, and library vendor community to do that.”