K-12 libraries: How the national library endowment will help

Kerri Smith became a school librarian after seeing how the right books could bring a Columbine survivor out of his shell.

Photo: Kerri Smith became a school librarian after seeing how the right books and talk could bring a survivor of the Columbine massacre out of his shell.

Our best school librarians won’t just instill in students a love of books and learning. They will also strive to cultivate a work ethic, curiosity, persistence,  empathy, and an appreciation of harmony at home and on the job. The librarians won’t always succeed. But it is only right that we give them the resources to try.

With that in mind, the endowment will help develop a whole generation of digitally savvy school librarians—as many as possible from poor and working-class families—who can truly connect with their students in rural areas, factory towns, and depressed urban neighborhoods. The librarians’ tech prowess will itself serve as one form of connection. “Develop” can mean anything from the availability of work-study scholarships to courses in areas ranging from psychology and bibliotherapy to digital-era outreach. The same programs could also help present and future public librarians working with young people. But gung-ho school libraries are key, since they are in the same buildings as the students and, in fact, school libraries make up four-fifths of all U.S. libraries.

Just how can school librarians connect with students, especially at-risk ones, to improve them as both young scholars and people? Here is an example involving paper books, although, as you’ll see in time, ebooks and other tech could have helped as well:

The Columbine massacre had traumatized one of Kerri Smith’s high school students. He wore a black trench coat, he apparently did not bathe,  his grades were slipping, and he seldom spoke. “I couldn’t get anything out of this kid…I was desperate,” she recalled 26 minutes into the video below. But everyday Ms. Smith saw him read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, and, as a lover of fantasy, she decided to do the same and talk about the books with the boy. The result? His marks shot up, and the next year he became her classroom aide and helped teach a class. Along with similar cases, that was why Ms. Smith decided to become not just a teacher, which she already was, but also a school librarian. The old cliche holds true: books can transform children’s lives. By themselves, however, as Ms. Smith’s experience shows, books and other collection items are not always enough. We also need librarians, especially well-prepared school librarians for low-income areas where student may not benefit from the encouragement and role models that already bolster middle- and upper-class children.

Not every child lives through a Columbine nightmare. But millions of K-12 students suffer less dramatic forms of trauma in their own homes—impeding their academic performance, jeopardizing their health, and increasing the chances of their getting into fights. Properly prepared school librarians with both teaching and library credentials can befriend students like the Columbine survivor and stand a better chance of turning their lives around. And what better way than for books and other library  items and services to serve as tools to make the connections?

Books can also launch K-12 students and others on journeys of self-discovery. Near the end of Hillbilly Elegy, author J. D. Vance tells how he felt “weird” talking to a counselor about childhood traumas. But then “I did go to the library, and I learned that behavior I considered commonplace was the subject of pretty intense academic study.” He found that “four in every ten” blue-collar people “had faced multiple instances of childhood trauma” ranging from parental violence to alcoholism or drug abuse. Via printed books, ebooks and other online resources, school librarians can introduce at-risk students to a larger world so the children acquire a better sense of true normalcy. The operative word is “can,” since not all students will respond.

But within the realm of school libraries, here is what can often help at-risk students and others—in terms of connecting with them and in other ways:

–Realization that schools alone cannot with work miracles at a time when millions of parents must juggle multiple jobs (assuming they can find work in the first place) and when other issue exist such as the drug epidemic. Even the stress of poverty may itself impair students’ ability to learn.

–Using early childhood education, related outreach, family literacy programs, and other strategies to reach students at an early age and following though. The Columbine survivor, despite personal problems, had a head start on millions of others—he at least cared about books in the first place. Endowment-financed activities will promote books and reading among both students and parents.

–Awareness that existing resources will not suffice. Consider the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESEA). It can help in areas ranging from technological resources to professional development opportunities for school librarians. But it is not a substitute for the additional funding and other assistance that the endowment would make available. Furthermore, we must look ahead for the future when policymakers may roll back existing legislation even though ESEA is alive for now. Losses from past cutbacks still plague us. See statistics on employment of librarians, including school librarians. The number of full- and part-time school librarians fell from 80,000 in 2004 to a little fewer than 66,000 in 2014. The beauty of books and multimedia is that students can teach themselves to a great extent, but we will still need librarians to help them find and absorb the most relevant and authoritative materials, as well as mentor and inspire students, especially at-risk ones. It is folly to see technology as a full substitute. Beware of shortcuts. Creating successful school libraries is not like writing computer programs, where a few brilliant people may achieve better results than hundreds of good ones.

–Acknowledgement that conventional text is not always the optimal way to reach all students. Many students, especially boys, will respond better to ebooks than to paper books. Others may benefit from text to speech. Cell phones are a good way to reach receptive young people, but they are not a panacea as a platform for ebooks or audiobooks. Screens may be too small for some readers; they will prefer tablets or E Ink devices. The endowment will make more resources available for different platforms and foster ebook literacy. Encouragingly, brand-name tablets now sell for as little as $50 from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and while screen resolution could be better for ebooks, the tablets will be at least usable for many. Resolutions of even basic models will improve eventually.

–More electronic books and multimedia items and other content, via national collections, and in some cases more money for buying paper books. The new technology will facilitate sharing of digital content and at least help narrow the funding gaps between rich and poor schools. The average school library contained only around 13,500 books as of 2012, a fraction of the collection at a typical public library, which itself could be larger. Students will be more inclined to read if they can be led to, and then read, books matching their exact interests. More current books, which the new technology makes possible, will also help. In the ever-changing area of health and medicine, Dewey range 610-619, the average copyright date as of 2012 was 1996. Needless to say, more endowment-funded availability of content from dynamic databases could likewise help students stay current; not all authoritative information is free on the Internet.

As for physical books, there will still be a place for them. Kerri Smith was able to see the trench-coated student reading Wheel of Time day after day. What’s more, physical books can be discovered on the shelves without need for any electronic device.

That said, paper books should be viewed as gateways to electronic books. The chances of finding exactly the right book for the right child—in line with the Five Laws of Library Science—will be so much greater if the student can choose from a national collection. The Open eBook initiative for schools with children from low-income families is a good start but not sufficient. It depends on donated books from publishers and has started out with a collection of only 10,000 titles.

–Information literacy not only in a Web context but also a book context.

–Recruitment and retainment of the right people as school librarians—people who care about other people, not just technology and content. Beware of laying off dedicated, fully trained librarians to make way for replacements without the same qualifications. There is a place for gung-ho volunteers or, in support and training jobs, nonlibrarian techies. But that is not the same as forcing trained school librarians out of school libraries and closing the libraries or turning them into soulless “media centers” or book warehouses. In one school librarian’s words, she and peers teach students “how to learn to learn.” That should be the goal of every teacher, in every class, but school librarians are the true specialists in learning through research. Furthermore,  they can help faculty members in different areas coordinate lesson plans and know early on what content exists for teachers and students.

–Collaborations with social workers and others to improve home environments, while recognizing that all the professionals in the world cannot eliminate poverty if systematic changes don’t occur. As noted, poverty itself can impair learning.

–More socioeconomic diversity among school librarians. We need more “hillbilly” librarians and more from blue-collar homes, including households without books. No, we should not compromise standards. Rather, school librarians and others should strive to identify promising students early on and encourage them them to join the profession. Work-study scholarships from the endowment could make this possible. The successful graduates of these programs would be duly rewarded with salaries paid for entirely or partly by the endowment, just so they worked in low-income or depressed areas—ideally their hometowns.

–More racial, ethnic, and gender diversity if we want school librarians to be the very most effective role models. In 2010, just 6,160 of the 118,666 credentialed librarians (not the total number) were black and a mere 3,661 were Latinos; this includes  all kinds of librarians, not just school ones. Only 572 African-American male librarians were found among the credentialed. Does this mean that white female librarians cannot connect with male members of minorities? Of course not. But just as newspapers have learned that the presence of minority reporters improves news coverage, so it is that serious affirmative action could go a long way in the library world. Most Americans by mid century will be members of minorities, but the numbers have yet to reflect even today’s demographics. Here’s are the dismal findings from an 2017 ALA membership survey. Socioeconomic and gender diversity, not just race and ethnicity, should count in affirmative action programs. Four-fifths of librarians are female. The endowment will work to increase the number of both female and male school librarians but especially keep in mind the need to raise the percentage of the former. At the same time, we need to be realistic. Cultural norms are a barrier to the recruitment of more males, even though we should try. The inclusion of makerspaces in libraries, as well as more emphasis than now on books of special interest to boys, including those from blue-collar families, will help.

–More diversity in books and other content, which endowment grants to writers and perhaps publishers will encourage. In 2013, when  U.S. publishers released some 5,000 books for young children and teens, just 63 were by black authors and a mere 93 were about African-Americans.

–Long enough hours at school and public libraries, so children can use them as safe havens if home environments are too chaotic. Ideally transportation arrangements can be worked out.

Details: Parents want more cooperation between schools and public libraries, and not just in in regard to summer reading programs. When K-12 classes require certain books or other items, the material should be available from public libraries even if school libraries can’t oblige. Of course, with electronic resources and sufficient funding, the material can be everywhere. In a related vein, see a Pew report on parents, children, libraries and reading. “94% of parents say libraries are important for their children and 79% describe libraries as “very important.”

Credit: The Sioux Falls school system produced the oh-so-persuasive video featuring Kerri Smith and other librarians. Also see the video below, from Capstone Publishers, on the changing role of school librarians in the 21st century.

How both public and academic libraries will come out ahead

How the Hernandez family will benefit from two well-stocked national digital library systems and a digital library endowment is the title of a LibraryCity essay. It appears in shortened form in the January-February issue of Information Today and also as an updated version on LibraryEndowment.org.

The Hernandez scenario tells in detail how endowment-supported activities could help a fictitious family in San Antonio, Texas.

But the scenario lacks a point-by-point list of features and benefits that a national library endowment will offer public libraries. This post fixes that omission. Also, it covers academic libraries in depth as well. The points here apply even though we’ve changed the name of the proposed endowment from “National Digital Library Endowment” to simply “National Library Endowment.”

For both kinds of libraries, the foremost feature and benefit will be the endowment approach itself. All too often, foundations regard libraries simply as places for experimentation rather than as beneficiaries of long-term funding to help insulate them from political whims.

While libraries, culture, and knowledge are valuable in themselves, there are also solid business reasons for permanent ongoing funding of national collections and plenty else. Libraries need to be regarded as public services for us and our descendants, not mere experiments. They offer a significant return on investment. Many of the most successful investors in the stock market tend to think long term. And the same business people, in their philanthropic roles, should not shorten their time horizons for libraries. In fact, they should look beyond their lifetimes and think not just of names on buildings but also of content and of ways to disseminate, find and enjoy it, with or without brick and mortar. Names can go on virtual collections, not just physical ones.


The priorities of public and academic libraries overlap but are far from exactly the same, the reason the U.S. needs two separate but intertwined national digital library systems.

Public libraries cater to popular tastes and offer self-improvement opportunities and coping tools for the masses, such health or financial information available through books, multimedia, or reference desks. Taxes support them. Without recreational reading for average citizens, public libraries will die. Academic libraries, however, serve a different demographic group. They strive to play up the factual, insightful, important, and beautiful, not necessarily the most popular even though it can be. Basic coping tools, moreover, are not as important a component of the services of academic libraries, or at least are not the same kind.

A national library initiative will lack focus if it blurs distinctions between the two kinds of libraries. A John Grisham novel, for example, offers well-crafted entertainment. But it is not literature in the Flaubert sense. Similarly a pop psychology guide dear to public library users must not be confused with an academic tome. While a common digital catalog should exist for both public and academic systems at the national level, and while the two systems should share people and other resources, they should have different leaders with different priorities, especially at budget time. Here are point-by-point overviews of how endowment-supported activities will help the two kinds of libraries, with distinctions made between the two categories:


The public library system will include K-12 libraries, discussed in detail here. It will also include special libraries and museums interested in participating. Otherwise they can join the academic system. In fact, they can simultaneously be part of both systems. Same for community colleges.

Here are the features and benefits of the mix of the endowment and the public system:

–Use of matching grants to help preserve local control of local libraries. National funding  must not diminish local initiative. At the same time, the endowment should accommodate poorer districts without the opportunity to raise much money locally.

–Governance of the public system by people focused foremost on public library and K-12 issues. The Harvard-originated Digital Public Library of American does not have one current K-12 educator or current school librarian on its eight-member board even though four-fifths of libraries in the U.S. are school libraries. Why not at least a president of a school library association? Furthermore, of the 16 members of the DPLA education advisory committee, just one is a current school librarian (actually now in an administrative role).

Organizations representing school libraries, rural libraries, and others close to the grassroots should play a key role in the creation of the public system.

Significantly, the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA) passed a resolution against the inclusion of the word “Public” in the DPLA’s name. Public libraries will want control of a national digital public library system. The intent here is not to harm the DPLA. On the contrary—its funding level would multiply in its new incarnation as the National Academic Library of America (NALA), funded by the endowment. The public side might be known as the National Public Library of the United States (NPLUS). Or perhaps just the National Library of the United States (NLUS) to limit the word “Public” to local libraries.

–Economic and social benefits mentioned on this site’s needs and benefits pages, including a reduction in the “savage” inequalities of the library world. On the average, U.S. public libraries spend only around $4 per capita per year on books and other collection items. The $4 falls short of actual needs. Even at that, some libraries in rural areas can spend only a faction of the $4.

–More books and other content, available through a national digital collection even though local libraries could still purchase their own books. One result? Rich collections of ebooks and multimedia items for older Americans and others with mobility issues.

–User access not only to public- and K-12 specific catalogs but also to a universal catalog that will encompass the academic system as well. Public and school libraries will be smartened up, not dumbed down. Their catalogs will be able to include more academic works and source materials of interest to their particular sets of users.

–Easy customization capabilities to allow for localization that highlights content of great interest.

–Ongoing experimentation with different business models, including more development and use of open source material of mass appeal.

–National-level outreach and marketing to point TV watchers and others to local libraries in a highly targeted way. The Hernandez scenario tells of a public service spot that is far from generic. Instead of vaguely talking up local libraries, the spot encourages a watcher of a vampire show to go to the library and check out a vampire book and meet like-minded people. Needless to say, via matching grants, the endowment could also finance local outreach. It could pay for display of such spots, national and local, if alternatives were not available.

–The distribution of promotional text and videos via social media services. Many of the promotions could point to specific library offerings related to a user’s interests, including topics of Facebook-style groups.

–Improved SEO services—for both public and academic libraries—to improve the online visibility of library content and services. Here is an example of the possibilities.

Ebook literacy. Users of both public and academic libraries tend to be using suboptimal devices for their personal needs. Endowment-supported programs will can educate librarians and users and, in some cases, pay for appropriate devices.

–Family literacy programs offering both ebooks and paper books. The endowment will encourage partnerships between public libraries and organizations such as childcare facilities, not just to distribute books as loaners but also as gifts, especially for young parents and their children.

Cell phone book clubs with social events intended especially to reach younger people. The name is aspirational. Participants will be able to read books however they want, including on paper, not just on tablets or E Ink readers with larger screens. But cell phone reading is the choice of millions of younger Americans, especially members of minorities. Phones are among the most ubiquitous of gadgets, carried everywhere, like keys, wallets or purses. Furthermore, future cell phone designs may include screens that can fold out to display more words on the same page.

–Funding for the education, hiring, and professional development of digitally savvy librarians for the poorer districts, especially those from low-income and minority families. Worthy candidates for such programs could be identified as early as high school.

–Money for 3D printers, ebook readers and other new technology. One goal of public libraries should be to interest younger people desiring blue-collar careers to acquire technical skills of interest to employers. Both nationally and locally , public and school libraries should work with prospective employers.

A national digital reference service for the U.S. Many public library users may know in a general way what they need but not know the precise questions to ask. The reference will develop databases with a “wizard” approach to help narrow queries. In addition, users will enjoy access 24/7 to a wide variety of subject specialists. A variant of the service will also serve many users of academic libraries. The public and academic systems will jointly operate the service.

USBook (with US pronounced as “us” rather than as initials), a social media service designed for long-term storage of family memories and for family use. It will not replace services like Facebook. Rather, ideally, through agreements with Facebook and similar companies, it will serve as a repository for content originated there. It may also appeal to users who want a family-friendly environment without constant barrages of ads and of news from unknown sources.

–Promotion of civics courses—and media literacy courses—with multimedia for those who do not absorb material best through traditional text. There is no need for so many millions of Americans to grow up to be “low-information voters.”

–Cooperation with the academic system in access to cultural and historical source material. This is a “must.” At the same time, such a need by itself should not mean that public and academic libraries should be together  in “one big tent.” They can work together on multiple sideshows.


The percentage of money that universities spend on libraries has plummeted, and the efficiencies of the Internet are one reason. Most likely the percentage will never reach the old level. But there is no doubt that we should be spending more on academic libraries in a cost-effective, Internet-wise way while preserving physical libraries. The endowment could help academic and research libraries maximize efficiencies and reduce unnecessary redundancies.

Here are the features and benefits of the endowment vision for academic libraries:

–Board members passionate about the specific needs of academic libraries, even though they will share resources with public and K-12 libraries.

–More content and shorter waits for users seeking popular books and other items. Public library users will enjoy a similar advantage.

–More content and other resources for students at small institutions, including those with special talents who today cannot easily find what they need locally. Significant differences exist between library spending at large and at small colleges and universities, and the number of students is not the only factor.

–Better resource sharing of collections. Many books in academic systems, especially ebooks, are never checked out. A national collection will make it easier to publish highly arcane titles and for them to find readers. It also will facilitate interlibrary loans of content owned by specific libraries.

–More leverage with publishers of serials, the prices of which have increased dramatically in recent years (causing colleges and universities to drop subscriptions at the expense of learning and research). Seventy percent of the materials budgets of surveyed academic libraries go for serials, the prices of which have sharply increased Might this percentage be too high, especially with so many competing needs?

At the same time academic journal publishers that add value will actually enjoy more opportunities. The market will be bigger, with more money available, by way of the endowment.

–Access to the public system as well as the universal catalog, so students and faculty members can still enjoy access to popular fare such as bestsellers.

–More intellectual freedom. Significant differences can exist between the academic community and the rest of the country on many issues. An endowment with a two-system approach will reduce the chances of local jurisdictions pressuring the academic side.

–More use of open source, with resources available for libraries and parent institutions not just to commission such works but also to buy properties from publishers for open source use.

–Development of both general and highly specialized courses, matching disciplines, to enable students at all levels to conduct more comprehensive search and identify the very best sources. The sources can mix human instruction with instructional video and software. Currently, many university faculty members overestimate the information literacy levels of students.

Ebook literacy with special academic needs in mind.

–Preservation of cultural and historical documents, which can be conducted in partnership with public libraries and museums as well as the Hathi Trust and the Internet Archive, among other organizations. This can build on the existing activities of the Digital Public Library of America, which, as noted, could be the start of the academic system. The preservation should include both paper and born-digital documents.

–Truly permanent links, accessible from both library systems and the open Web. Networked books and other link-reliant items will never reach their full potential if links come and on. Concepts such as Digital Object Identifiers are helpful. But a library endowment approach will offer the ultimate in technical and financial stability. The public as well as the academic side could benefit.

–Access to other national digital libraries adhering to the same standards of permanence and offering sufficient openness. In time there might be a world search engine or catalog encompassing the holdings of all national digital libraries meeting standards. However, except possibly for backup purposes, we should avoid a global database for now. Too many cultural and political clashes will be at work for it to succeed.

–Development of related infrastructure offering redundant storage, with precautions against hackers deleting or changing content. The public system could share this infrastructure.

–Possible sharing of powerful computing resources linked closely with databases.

–More content of high-level scientific interest than the current DPA offers.

–Sophisticated databases to match up graduates and employers and make clear the long-term needs of both industries and individual employers.

Related: Smartphones Can’t Replace Libraries, by former ALA President Julie Todaro and Irene M. H. Herold, appearing in Inside Higher Ed. “Academic librarians play a vital part in the education ecosystem, putting information into context for students by distinguishing information from knowledge and offering direct assistance to constituents in a personal way that cannot be replicated by an electronic device.”

Photo credit: Here.