In an era of severe cuts to school budgets — an era in which the internet has made information (think Wikipedia and even books (Project Gutenberg and Bartleby readily available– perhaps it’s not a surprise that school districts across the nation are starting “to send school librarians the way of the card catalog,” as the New York Times puts it. The Salem-Keizer school district in Oregon will eliminate all of its 48 elementary and middle school librarians if a budget proposal passes next week. Illinois’s rural and suburban School District 90 has been staffing its school libraries with parent volunteers, and the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, school superintendent decided to save full-day kindergarten by cutting 15 of the 20 librarian positions.
New York city’s chief academic officer, Shael Polakow-Suransky, states the problem succinctly:
“The dilemma that schools will face is whether to cut a teacher who has been working with kids all day long in a classroom or cut teachers who are working in a support capacity, like librarians.”
In New York, as in districts across the country, many school officials said they had little choice but to eliminate librarians, having already reduced administrative staff, frozen wages, shed extracurricular activities and trimmed spending on supplies. Technological advances are also changing some officials’ view of librarians: as more classrooms are equipped with laptops, tablets or e-readers, Mr. Polakow-Suransky noted, students can often do research from their desks that previously might have required a library visit.
“It’s the way of the future,” he said.
Membership in the American Association of School Librarians has fallen to 8000 from 10,000 in 2006 says the group’s president, Nancy Everhart. She also notes that living in the age of the Internet actually makes librarians more important in order “to guide students through the basics of searching and analyzing information they find online.”
Indeed, one of the problems, even the curse?, of the Internet is the sheer volume of stuff out there, an excess of information that is simply challenging, not to say daunting, for anyone — let alone a 10-year-old — to work their way through, on the quest for information that is valid, accurate, trustworthy, true.
While some states require that each public school have a certified librarian, others leave the decision up to individual districts. Even though New York requires certified librarians in all middle and high schools (but not in elementary schools), “an analysis of state and city data shows there is one librarian for every 2,146 students this year, compared with 1 per 1,447 in 2005.” Further , says the New York Times , at least 386 schools for students in grades 6 through 12 have no librarian on staff — even with state-mandated rules, school librarians seems to be in danger of becoming extinct.
Even if students can access much of the information on the web, getting information and understanding what to do with it — and how reliable its source is — are quite different matters. Librarians perform a crucial role as gatekeepers, screening materials (of which there are more than ever now, both printed matter and web-based) and guiding students and teachers, too, amid the morass. School libraries themselves are are as important to schools as, well, classroom space and playgrounds. As I remember them, libraries, where a quiet sense of “hush” to students could read and study, were repositories of all kinds of knowledge in the form of those key instruments of learning, books.
Is it a sign of the times that we have come to think librarians dispensable?
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Photo by The Daring Librarian