A K-12 librarian on the urgent need for a national library endowment

Update, May 2018: Read School Librarians, Where Art Thou? in School Library Journal and Schools See Steep Drop in Librarians, New Analysis Finds in Education Week. The decline in the past two decades has been around 20 percent, with minority children among the main victims. 

By Paula Wyatt
K-12 Library Relations Director, LibraryEndowment.org

Paula_headshotedited two

The creation of a national library endowment is essential for strong libraries.

I am on the front lines as a school librarian in a large Midwestern city, and I can tell you we are losing battles—from funding to public sentiments about libraries and librarians.

To preserve democracy as we know it, we must protect our school, public, and academic libraries. Freedom of information is a right for everyone, not just an elite few. My own parents were not library patrons, so I had never been to a library until I started school. I could not get over my ability to choose books myself and take as many home as I could carry. It was the first time I can remember feeling empowered, and I was certain I could solve any problem with the right information. For me it was better than being in the proverbial candy shop.

When I began my teaching career in 1992, however, the librarian at my school infuriated me. The children did not have access to quality materials, and the librarian often pushed his own agendas on the students. My second graders complained how much they hated “library.” I mustered the courage to air my concerns with my principal, and he gave me one year to get my credentials and take the position and put my ideas into action. Until then, becoming a librarian had never crossed my mind.

In the late 90s, when I took on my first position as a school librarian, we had a librarian in every school, with their own budget line, and my district had a department of libraries teeming with people to support the schools with tons of resources. My advocacy was limited to my students. I immediately changed the curriculum to enlighten them on the importance of libraries—for all—as community cornerstones. A place to go to when you need answers, when you need rest, when you need help. I started applying for grants to create a good, welcoming atmosphere in line with my vision.

Fast forward 20 years. A former colleague, now a principal, needed a librarian with a vision for her school and reached out to me. It was like a time warp back two decades. The space was decrepit and the collection ancient. No technology was available for the students. I reached out to the department of libraries to reintroduce myself and found it decimated. I learned that five out of six librarians in local public schools had been cut over the years and all those library doors had been shuttered and their collections were no longer available to students. Parents of former students were angry I took the library job. “No one needs librarians anymore—we have the Internet,” explained one parent, and another told me, “Well, you are a dying breed!”

Most shocking was when I showed students, including eighth graders, how to use our Chromebooks to find books on the shelf. We looked up titles, and I showed them how the numbers online corresponded to the labels on the spines. They looked at me in awe, clapped, and asked me to do it again. That’s how out of touch they were with the benefits of modern K-12 libraries and knowledgeable librarians.

For my students, the first place I went for help was to my local public library branch. The librarian was excited to partner with me and showed me unbelievable resources available to students not only at the physical branch but online. Live homework help, databases, thousands of ebooks, editors, movies, music, and more. The resources are endless. I began to think of my library as a “learning library”—with training wheels, so to speak, to prepare students to navigate and use public resources.

One stumbling block, however, is that many of my students lack access to a device at home that can be used to access many of these applications that are available. Some own phones, but most have limited data or the phones are too small to be productive for the entire scope of services. I am working on finding grants to expand an exciting project. My goal here is to increase students usage of the public library by allowing them to check out Amazon Fire tablets from me and use them at school to download books, movies, and music that they could then access at home even if they lack WiFi. If after hours they need services, they could connect to family WiFi, or could access the school’s WiFi from outside the building. I have collected some initial data and enough Fires and iPads to launch the instruction with my most reluctant readers, seventh and eighth grade students. I am keeping my fingers crossed that I find donors willing to donate enough money to offer these students the devices for check out.

How wonderful if the library endowment could help fund innovative programs like the one here at my elementary school! Keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of school libraries lack the resources to replicate what I’m doing here. I still don’t have enough. And the resources I have I really had to scramble to find. Not every school librarian has the skills and time to draw small grants as I did through the DonorsChoose.org site. The endowment could help augment scarce tax money. Among other things, it could help pay for badly needed renovations of the kind that my school was lucky enough to be able to enjoy with a grant from the Donner Foundation. See this video to understand what a difference more funds can make in the lives of children. It is amazing to watch how suddenly their library had become so much more inviting as a place to read and learn!

For school librarians, I have become active on many fronts but truthfully don’t have a clear plan on how to best call attention to our plight. Recently I read a study by a famous think tank regarding the changes in the form and function of public libraries. What I found most stunning is that a key component was never mentioned—how will the public learn to navigate these services? As Web applications become more complicated and wider in range, how can we ensure that the public knows what is available and that they have the skills and confidence to use it? Our children need librarians in their schools. They need to learn how to find, use, and evaluate resources. If they don’t, they may never know that feeling of empowerment, or the important role libraries play in our community in fostering lifelong learning and providing free information to all citizens regardless of their status or ability. A national library endowment could help address those issues.

Libraries are changing to meet modern demands, but the need will always exist for well-staffed school libraries, on site and well integrated with the rest of the schools. The benefits are already well known in areas ranging from reading abilities to test scores and general scholastic achievement. If enough public money won’t be available, we must come up with other ways to preserve and protect our K-12 and public libraries. LibraryEndowment.org’s efforts to find new paths for funding are exciting. Philanthropists and others in a position to make a difference need to understand the harm that underfunding of libraries will do to us as a society in the long run.

Paula L. Wyatt volunteers as K-12 Library Relations Director of Library Endowment.org. You can reach her at Plwyatt4@gmail.com.

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.