Even as students are sorting through information online more than ever, the number of school librarians who could help them learn the fundamentals of research and media literacy have been quietly disappearing.
A report published today from the School Librarian Investigation: Decline or Evolution? (SLIDE), a research project through Antioch University Seattle and funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, highlights an ongoing decline in the number of districts nationwide with school librarians. According to the findings, there were about 20 percent fewer librarians during the 2018-2019 school year in the 13,000 districts examined than a decade prior. But the absence of these educators isn’t equally distributed; Smaller, rural districts, and those with higher proportions of English-language learners, Hispanic students, and low-income students were more likely to lack a librarian.
“What we knew from our work since 2018 is that we’ve been losing school librarians at a pretty alarming rate for a decade,” says Keith Curry Lance, a library statistics and research associate with the RSL Research Group, and co-author of the study. “But everybody’s not losing their school librarians, just the people who can least afford to lose them.”
The dropping rate of districts with librarians isn’t a recent change. In fact, the steepest declines happened in the early 2010s, although a downward trend has been consistent throughout the decade. As of 2018-2019, about three in ten school districts lacked even a single librarian.
That trend contrasts with changes to other education professions over the same period. Instructional coordinators and district and school administrators increased significantly over the past ten years and teachers decreased slightly. None experienced the sustained year-after-year losses that school librarians did.
Districts with higher levels of students living in poverty, English language learners, and Hispanic students were significantly less likely to have librarians on staff. In fact, majority Hispanic districts were more than twice as likely to have no librarians. Majority non-white districts generally were also less likely to employ a librarian, although the correlation wasn’t as dramatic.
Notably, the researchers found that financial resources were not correlated to librarian staffing. They examined various levels of per-pupil spending among districts and found that those that spent the least actually had better staffing than some that spent more.
“The explanation you get nine times out of ten when you ask ‘Why did you cut your librarians?’ is ‘We just couldn’t afford it. We hated to do it but we just didn’t have enough money,’” says Lance. “Well, that doesn’t line up with the per-pupil spending data.”
The study authors also found that nine out of ten charter districts, which can sometimes include a single school, had no librarians as of the 2018-2019 school year.
One important determining factor for districts is legislation mandating some level of school librarian staffing. Although these policies are not always enforced, having laws on the books still correlates with having a school librarian in at least one school in the district. States that had more university programs that train K-12 teachers in library media and grant them endorsements are also more likely to hire them across their districts, but those programs are on the decline.
“This is the chicken-or-the-egg situation. As the universities don’t produce [librarians], school districts are saying, ‘I can’t find people so we won’t have the school librarian,’” says Debra E. Kachel, affiliate faculty at Antioch University Seattle and the study’s other co-author.
One complicating factor in the research is the very definition of “librarian.” The National Center for Education Statistics, whose data the SLIDE project analyzed, uses a definition that dates back to the 1980s and makes no mention of computers or the internet. Additionally, some district leaders shy away from using the term “librarian” to describe staff who might be providing the same role as a librarian, because of fears the term sounds outdated, the researchers say.
“What I’m fond of saying is, even though we don’t like to think about it, the concept of what a school librarian is is going all fuzzy around the edges,” says Lance.
Ultimately, these findings raise major questions for the future of public school librarians, especially given the economic recession brought on by the pandemic. The data doesn’t cover the 2019-2020 school year, and so COVID-19’s effect is still difficult to determine. However, financial challenges will likely strain staffing budgets even further.
And there are districts facing new cuts in school-library staffing. The latest budget in Washington, D.C. would leave 37 schools without a full-time librarian in the upcoming school year. Activists have launched a social-media campaign pushing to restore at least some of that staff.
The new research does, however, provide important context for understanding the landscape immediately before the latest economic downturn. And looking ahead, the effects of these losses will compound over time, says Kachel. She found that only a small fraction of districts without a librarian a few years ago reinstated any of those educators.
“There are a lot of school administrators now who have been in districts where there have been no school librarians ever,” she says. “Why would an administrator want to add a position when he or she has never experienced working with that type of professional?”