Librarians' numbers decrease as roles expand: Students need help with Web, new media


By: Bob Vosseller

Photo Credit: Tom Spader

Reprinted Courtesy of: Asbury Park Press

On a typical day at the Forked River Elementary School in Lacey, school librarian Miranda Paris will help her students navigate the Web, help them decide what books best fit their research needs, put in a little time as the adviser of a peer mediator group here and teach a few children how to use the Dewey Decimal System. 

She’ll also help manage the school library’s teen volunteers and, if there’s time, she’ll devote part of her day to planning the school’s Battle of the Books literacy program.

It’s just the beginning of what Paris, who instructs 540 of the school’s students from pre-Kindergarten to fourth-grade, does on a daily basis.

“The school librarian’s job has changed tremendously over the past several decades,” Paris said. “It has evolved from book check-inner and check-outer to information specialist.” 

Yet members of the New Jersey Association of School Librarians are concerned that the number of school librarians across the state is declining, a shift they blame on school budget and state aid cuts that hit New Jersey schools hard in recent years. The trend has especially bad timing, according to the association and some educators: Librarians’ roles will become even more critical as districts roll out new national education curriculum standards heavy on research and technology, and as studies show a majority of students may not be equipped to navigate those standards.

Library advocacy groups report that:

  • 75 percent of first-year college students have no idea how to locate articles and resources they need for research, and 60 percent don’t verify the accuracy or reliability of the information they find, according to the American Library Association.
  • At least 70 percent of certified school librarians in well-funded school libraries provide instruction in evaluating the quality of websites, accessing information effectively and understanding different resources, such as online databases, according to the Center for International Scholarship in School Libraries.
  • 71 percent of school librarians teach appropriate and responsible technology use, while 61 percent of library staff also provide professional development for teachers in the use of digital content, according to CISSL.

A survey by New Jersey School Boards Association found more than 90 percent of school districts faced staff layoffs in 2010 due to state aid cuts, among them a wide range of district positions including school librarians, considered teachers under state law. There were 1,580 certified school librarians, also known as media specialists, in the state in 2011, down from 1,850 five years ago, according to Mike Yaple, spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association.

Sigrid Gessa, a parent from Lacey, said she wouldn’t want to see her son’s school librarians fall to the wayside, especially because she believes they teach skills that will be helpful on students’ college term papers and in their careers. Her son, Joel Roig, 11, a sixth grader at the Mill Pond Elementary School, said he attends a library class every two weeks and is taught how to research his school projects.

Gessa said school librarians are “information gurus who can help students with things that we as parents can’t always do and they also stress using the Internet properly.... They have opened up a new world to students beyond the books that are available to them in the library.”

Amy Rominiecki, president of the New Jersey Association of School Librarians, said the role of a school librarian — which also may include instruction on how to best use mobile devices like iPads — is misunderstood by most people. Her organization is working to bring greater awareness to what those in the position do. The association in September produced the NJASL School Libraries YouTube video, which promotes librarians’ work.

Rominiecki and Lacey Schools Superintendent Sandra Brower said librarians’ work fits well with the Common Core State Standards, curriculum being rolled out nationwide that will require students to become more skilled with computer technology and social media for research purposes.

“My belief is school librarians will begin to be reinstated because the Common Core Standards focus heavily on research,” Rominiecki said. “Schools will need to accomplish the goals set forth in the standards and will see the importance of their school librarian in attaining the goals.”

Brower agreed that “media specialists will play a role in the teaching and learning process more than ever before,” supporting lesson design and resource gathering as a common practice and promoting learning in print and in technology every day, especially as new math and language arts curriculum is mapped out here next year.

“I believe that students have and will always be consumers of information,” Brower said. “The change here has been the volume and instant access to information. With that comes the imperative of media specialists and teachers to help students know how to be researchers and that task is tremendous.”