September 1, 2023

Steven Singer: Where Have School Libraries Gone?

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Across the country, school libraries are disappearing, and not just because of culture warriors. For teacher Steven Singer, the phenomenon hit close to home. Reposted with permission

Last week I discovered that an important part of my neighborhood school is gone – the library.


My daughter and I were taking a tour of my old alma mater, McKeesport Area High School, when I noticed the huge empty space where all the books used to be.


“What happened to the library?” I asked the guidance counselor who was showing us where my daughter’s classes would be this year.


Nowhere. Turns out it’s closed – for good.


The school board eliminated its last two librarian positions in 2018 to save money. Even then these had been itinerant librarians who jumped between buildings keeping the libraries open whenever possible but not all day, every day.


Since they’ve been gone, for the past five years teachers could still take their classes to each building library, however, without someone to sort and organize the books, it wasn’t worth the trip. So at the end of last school year, the remaining books in the high school were given away to students and teachers.


This year the high school’s ex-library space is set to become a large group instruction room.


And that may be the fate for the other libraries at the district’s two elementaries and middle school sometime in the future. My daughter tells me both Francis McClure and Founders Hall (the other two district schools she attended) have libraries but her classes rarely went there. It’s probably the same at Twin Rivers, the district’s other elementary school.


What a pity!


When I walked passed the space that used to house the high school library, I saw a few random books piled up on packing pallets ready to be taken away.


I can still remember what the room used to look like 30 years ago when I went to school there – the rows and rows of sturdy wooden shelves. I remember sitting in comfy chairs at wide tables with surfaces worn smooth by years and years of use.


Library time had been so special – curling up with a book and being transported away from the here and now. How many papers had I written with help from those books? How many books had I checked out over the years? Horror stories, joke books, historical narratives, books of world records, myths, reference texts…


My daughter will never know what that’s like unless I take her somewhere outside of the district. There is a local Carnegie library, but there’s nothing like having all of that just a few steps away.


Now I know what some of you probably are thinking: This is 2023. Why do we even need libraries anymore? Can’t kids just use the Internet?


There are many problems with this. Yes, all students in the district have access to Chrome Books and Internet connections in school. But every book is not available on-line. In fact, the number and variety of books available digitally is much smaller than most public or school libraries typically have in their collections – if you’re not going to pay an additional fee.


I can read most of the classics of world literature on the Internet, but anything that isn’t in the public domain is going to require me to pony up some dough. And the same goes for most respected resources.


Want an article from a local or national newspaper or even a magazine? Most require subscriptions to access articles – especially articles from their archives. You can find some free on-line encyclopedias but the articles are limited and it can be difficult for children (and some adults) to be able to tell which are most trustworthy. Wikipedia is still one of the most cited sources, and as useful as it is, you can’t trust it as well as the kind of reference books you’d find in most libraries.


McKeesport Area School District (MASD) isn’t the only public school greatly reducing or doing away with its school libraries.


The School Library Journal and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported:


“Between the 1999–2000 and 2015–16 school years, the NCES reports that the profession lost the equivalent of more than 10,000 full-time school librarian positions nationwide. That translates to a 19 percent drop in the workforce, from 53,659 to 43,367. The most rapid declines happened from 2009–10 to 2013–14. The decline slowed from then to 2014–15; but resumed larger losses in 2015–16, the latest data available.”


We see school libraries being closed in PhiladelphiaBostonLos AngelesWashington, DC, etc. A 2016 report in The Guardian indicates how serious the problem is worldwide:


“Libraries should be a right in schools. We must give pupils the opportunity to go to a quiet place to do extra study or to choose a book to read. It is particularly important to children from deprived areas. Opening a library door helps children open their mind. For many, books are too expensive and a library allows students to borrow them.”


The problems is often one of priorities. Districts would rather spend billions on technology than libraries. However, both are important. Schools should not have to choose. They should make more diligent decisions about which technologies are most essential instead of buying every new techno-fad with huge promises and no track record.


In the most impoverished districts, the problem isn’t just what hardware or software to purchase, but how to keep the district afloat without cutting vital services like libraries.


In 2018 when the MASD board eliminated the librarian positions, district officials said the cuts were because of “budgetary constraints” combined with the rise of charter school costs.


Every child living in the district who goes to a charter school takes away funding that would have gone to pay for all the kids attending the distict. MASD paid $2 million toward charter school tuition in 2006-07, which has risen to $14 million in 2022-23, according to Business Manager Scott Domowicz.


If this continues, Domowicz said in May that he expects the district will need to pay $16 million next year. That’s 17 percent of the new budget going toward charter schools.


What a pity that parents who remove their children from authentic public schools are making it more difficult for children in those schools to have access to a campus library!


But they’re also depriving their own children of the same amenity since charter schools are much less likely to have library facilities at all.


According to NCES, in 2020–21 only 52 percent of charter schools had a library media center. And only one-third of these charter school media centers had full-time, paid, state-certified library media center specialists, compared to two-thirds of authentic public schools. It’s actually worse than it seems because these statistics include learning resource centers that are entirely on-line without any physical books. So charter schools actually have fewer traditional libraries than quoted here.


Neighboring districts to MASD have dealt with the issue in similar ways.


Nearby Steel Valley School District (SVSD) still has a library for the middle – high school campus staffed with a full time librarian.


However, the librarian’s schedule is often taken up with teaching and/or study halls making it very difficult for teachers to take their classes to the library.


If administrators and school board members don’t prioritize keeping the library open during the school day, it’s only a matter of time before SVSD goes the way of MASD.


And if that’s not scary enough, think of the academic impact.


There is evidence that school libraries help increase standardized test scores. According to Phi Delta Kappan: Data from more than 34 statewide studies suggest that students tend to earn better standardized test scores in schools that have strong library programs.


It is no coincidence that this is all happening as literacy and facts are being challenged nationwide.


According to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF), which monitors textual challenges, more than 273 books were challenged or banned in 2020. However, the majority of attempts to remove books go unreported so the reality is probably much higher.


This is part of a concerted effort to make America dumb again. These are political attacks against science, history and facts. It just makes sense they would also target the repositories of these sciences, histories and facts – libraries.


One day our descendants may not even know enough to ask the title with which we began this article. Instead of “Where have school libraries gone?” they may ask, “What was a library?”


“And what was a school?”


One of the last pictures of McKeesport Area High School’s library – Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Austin Davis (an MASD alum) talks with students during a visit to the district in February 2023.
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