In July, the study “SLIDE: The School Librarian Investigation—Decline or Evolution?” confirmed that the number of school librarians in the U.S. continues to decline. Between 2010 and 2019 nearly 20% of full-time school librarian positions were eliminated, according to the research, which was funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and led by project director Debra Kachel of Antioch University Seattle and principal investigator Keith Curry Lance of the RSL Research Group. Though the statistic is concerning, it’s “old news,” according to Lance. “What this study helped to look at in a more granular way is not just the fact that we’re losing a lot of librarians, but who’s losing their librarians. And the answer is the students who can least afford to be losing them.”

In analyzing National Center for Education Statistics data from almost 13,000 school districts for the 2018–2019 school year, SLIDE revealed that three out of 10 districts had no librarians in any of their schools; more than 4.4 million students in high-poverty districts (where more than 50% of students qualify for the federal free and reduced-cost meals program) had no librarians; and nearly 4.8 million students in majority-nonwhite districts were without school librarians. To more effectively illustrate the study’s findings, Kachel and Lance brought a web designer onto their team. “He has created some wonderful tools that are finally making the NCES data—all the way down to the district level—really usable to people who come to our website,” Kachel says. “They can also look at the different demographics and district characteristics. I think there’s a lot of data there that will help our school librarians put together information that they can use for advocacy and other purposes.”

Referring to the State Profile data tool on the SLIDE site, Lance points to his home state of Colorado as an example of an area that yielded some striking findings. “In Colorado, more than half our districts no longer have librarians,” he says. “Colorado’s map is dramatic in the time-lapse progression view.”

Kachel says some of the findings were eye-opening. “It’s not the districts that spend the least amount of money per student that have the worst librarian staffing,” she notes. “They actually had better staffing than districts that were spending in the midrange per pupil. That sort of surprised me. And when you combine that with looking at the number of administrators and instructional coordinators that are being hired instead of school librarians—that whole idea of ‘we don’t have librarians because we can’t afford them’ just doesn’t hold water. With this project, we finally had hard data to show that.”

In line with Colorado’s trend, other states in the Mountain West and Pacific West also show big drops in the number of school librarians over the past decade. “Geography is a huge problem,” Lance says. He recalls his experience working with Colorado’s state library agency, noting, “Most librarians are interested in jobs in the city, not in more rural, isolated areas. It’s extra challenging to synchronize supply and demand.”

According to Lance, the states that are doing the best and have historically done the best in terms of school librarian staffing are “almost all east of the Mississippi River, and most of them east of the Alleghenies. The South does remarkably well, and we know a big reason why: most of the Southern states have legal mandates for a school librarian in every school or at least every district.”

Another factor that proved statistically important, Lance points out, is how many universities within a state have programs to prepare school librarians. “Several states have no school library training at all.” he says. “They have to do a distance program or go to another state. It’s a pipeline issue: it’s a lot easier to come up with school librarians if you’re actually bothering to train them.”

Lance adds that there is also a “huge chicken-and-egg issue” with the stability of school librarian employment. “What’s the real problem: do we not have jobs for librarians because we’re not training enough librarians, or are we not training enough librarians because there aren’t enough jobs for them? It’s a circular argument.”

A couple of the SLIDE findings really stood out for Kachel when she read the report. “The majority-Hispanic school districts are really hard hit,” she says. “They are twice as likely not to have school librarians as districts that are majority non-Hispanic. The other thing that stood out is charter schools. Only one out of 10 charter schools has a school librarian.”

Lance notes, “Obviously from the standpoint of school librarianship as a profession, it’s concerning” to see the declines over the past decade. But the fact that “three out of 10 districts in this country have no librarian—that’s shocking to me.”

In the course of their research, Lance says that he and Kachel looked back further to see how many districts haven’t had a librarian from 2015–2016 up to now, and it’s almost 25%. “What that says to me is that, very sadly, from the standpoint of far too many districts, schools, parents, and students, a school librarian has become a luxury item. But it’s definitely something that should be available to all.”

That point reminds Kachel of another aspect of the latest research. “One of the things that was very disheartening to me is the statistic that once a district eliminates all school librarians, only one out of 10 in the time period we studied reinstated a school librarian,” she says. “It’s pretty much once gone, forgotten.”

Discovering the thought process and various procedures behind school library staffing decisions is the crux of the next phase of the SLIDE study. During the second year of SLIDE’s projected three-year duration, Kachel and Lance plan to interview various administrators and other decision makers about staffing issues. The effort has begun, but the pandemic is affecting this work. “Trying to secure interviews with administrators is very difficult,” Kachel says. “When we approach them, we get, ‘Everything’s so chaotic, I can’t do this right now.’ ”

Ideally, Kachel and Lance will interview 100 subjects, equally divided into three categories: those from districts that have gained librarians, those from districts that have lost some, and those from districts that have eliminated librarians altogether. “I’m very keen to see what we can learn,” Lance says. “For the most part, efforts to defend and support school librarians and their jobs have focused on the places where the jobs are presently endangered. The problem, to me, is once that job does disappear, then what happens? Everyone moves on to the next place where the librarians are endangered. One of my questions is, what about all these places that don’t have librarians anymore?”

Of the leaders from districts that don’t have librarians anymore, Lance says, “I want to ask, to put it colloquially, ‘What’s going on there? How do you get by without a school librarian? Is anybody doing any part of that job? Do you think everybody’s doing that job now? Are you trying to lean on your public library more?’ There are all kinds of scenarios that people might give you in answer to that ‘so what are you doing now’ question. But that question has not been asked a lot. And it definitely hasn’t been asked nationwide on a systematic basis, which we hope to be able to do.”

As the study has progressed, Lance has had some additional realizations about putting the findings in context. “I’ve become more and more conscious of what an organic thing a school is and how that affects what a school librarian can do,” he says. “In order for a school librarian to do the best job they can do, they have to have a certain kind of a climate to work in. There’s all this structural stuff in the day-to-day life of the school that has to be right in order for things to work.”

Lance mentions the way that colleague Leslie Maniotes, in her books and workshops on guided inquiry design, explores how these various elements must come together. “Leslie really brings home to school districts the point, ‘I’m not just asking you to hire a librarian. You’ve got to create a whole climate for your school that will enable the librarian and the ed tech person and the teachers to work together in a way that helps kids learn how to ask their own questions, how to develop strategies for finding information to address [those questions], and how to use that information to produce something.”

In Lance’s view, the professional isolation of school librarians is also a huge part of the problem. “If you’re lucky, the school librarian knows what their job is and what they ought to be doing,” he says. “The chances of their administrator who is supervising them fully understanding what they should expect from that librarian and what they should do are probably not great. With so many places with no librarian, we are at risk of having a substantial part of a generation of administrators who don’t know what a school librarian is—it sounds like something from the 1970s to them.”

Referring to the forthcoming interviews with administrators, Lance adds, “If we can get them to talk in any consequential detail about how they function without a librarian, that could be really valuable information not only for them to share with each other, but definitely for the school library community to take on board. Because otherwise, we’re just defending an ever-shrinking profession. We’ve got to deal with all those have-nots in that growing group.”

As they launch into the next phase of the study, both Lance and Kachel reiterate that the real issue at hand is equity. Of the 13,000 districts in the NCES data from 2015 to 2019, nearly equal numbers of districts lost some librarians, lost all librarians, or gained some librarians. But the bottom line, according to Kachel, is that “the gap between the have and have-not schools is getting wider and wider each year.”

Kachel notes that she and Lance spent several years trying to obtain funding for this study before they received their IMLS grant. She explains their reasons for sticking with it: “No one has ever asked school decision makers, ‘What is it that you’re really looking for in terms of providing information and technology services to your kids? If it’s not a school librarian, what is it that you’re looking for? And how are you finding personnel to staff what you’re looking for?’ We hope we can finally get some answers about the realities of K–12 education right now and what the expectations are for information and technology services. Because looking at the NCES data, whatever we’re doing right now is not working. We are losing librarians every single year. Something has to change, something has to be different—and we really hope this project is going to shine a light on that.”