Are School Librarians Expendable?

by Jessamyn West, librarian and technology instructor in central Vermont and blogger at http://www.librarian.net.

This article was original published June 27, 2011 as part of an online discussion at The New York Times Room for Debate Forum

States and cities are under severe budget constraints. They are turning to the library.Are School Librarians Expendable?

My feeling -- as someone who works in a local tech education center that shares its library with the high school next door -- is that this situation is more complex than administrators' seeing librarians as expendable.

No matter how effective teachers are, children will be left behind without librarians to help guide them through the information blizzard.

In the situation schools are in now, where expenses like staff health insurance costs and I.T. infrastructure budgets are going up by double-digit percentages a year, people have a triage mentality. Some schools are having to reconsider all non-mandated services and make tough decisions. I think a few factors come into play.

1. The role of school library media specialists in a world where people can do their own information search and retrieval. Any librarian knows that being able to find information is only a small part of research and scholarship. Information must also be evaluated, a trickier proposition if a student or teacher doesn't know what makes a source credible or worthwhile.
In older models, the librarian was more of a selector, protector and a preserver of resources. Now a librarian, or school media specialist, is more of a discerning cultivator and a matchmaker between people and the widely varied resources that meet their information needs. Media and technology literacy is more important than ever, but the integral role of librarians isn't always obvious from the outside; as a result their contributions can be undervalued.

2. The lack of metrics for the value of libraries in an educational setting. Libraries have value, social value and educational value. However, library and technology literacy are often not built into state educational standards. I went to a college where library instruction was a necessary part of your first year of college; this is becoming the case less and less. With No Child Left Behind and other assessments pushed increasingly to the forefront of educational goals, belt-tightening will often involve eliminating what can't be counted or assessed.

Looking at California's Common Core State Standards, for example, after what happened in the Los Angeles Unified School District, a lot of emphasis is placed on what children should be learning but there is less emphasis on how they learn it. A fifth grader is supposed to be able to "gather relevant information from print and digital sources," but somehow the word library isn't written into that process anywhere, so people conclude that it's nonessential. No matter how effective teachers are, children will still be left behind if they don't have librarians to help them navigate the information environment.

3. The increasing costs of maintaining an adequate school library media center as information shifts to both online distribution and license-not-own models. Libraries are purchasing fewer print materials, and more digital materials. The world of digital materials is complex and rapidly evolving. The shift to electronic resources makes sense, but brings with it the expenses of maintaining a computer lab and multiple vendor contracts for e-content and databases, contracts with terms and costs that change frequently. In uncertain times, this situation can concern administrators as being hard to control and possibly not sustainable in a system with annual budgeting.

My concern, as someone who works with people who lack technological access and education, is that removing school librarians and media specialists from the educational environment will have the largest effect on those whose information access is already hampered by the same pressures that are affecting our schools. Public education in this country is a right, and libraries and librarians are an indivisible part of public education.

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