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As school districts cut budgets, librarians’ jobs are dwindling and changing dramatically. What does that mean for students?

As students in Spokane, Washington, returned to school last week, they might have noticed something missing from their school libraries: librarians.

While the libraries themselves remain open, the district decided this summer to eliminate all school librarian positions from its 54 elementary, middle, and high schools. Shifting the way in which its schools provide library services is one way to address the district’s considerable $31 million budget shortfall, says Brian Coddington, a spokesman for the district. All librarians were offered teaching positions; clerks and classroom teachers are now in charge of managing the schools’ collections.

Spokane isn’t alone here: In cities and districts across the country, school librarian positions are either being eliminated or changed in significant ways. Between 2009 and 2016, more than 9,000 full-time equivalent school library positions were eliminated in the U.S., according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That’s about a 15 percent reduction in the country’s total number of school librarian positions. What’s at risk, advocates say, is not just children’s access to books, but also the development of their research skills, digital literacy, and critical thinking.

Whether for budgetary reasons or changes in educational priorities, a variety of districts and individual schools have opted to cut these positions and transfer the workload on to a combination of classroom teachers and educational assistants. So while a teacher may have previously been responsible for simply walking their class to the library, they now may be the ones introducing students to all the library has to offer, from browsing the reading collection to conducting reliable research to checking out materials.

“It is clear that we are losing school librarians in alarming numbers,” said Keith Curry Lance, a consultant with RSL research group who has done extensive work in library research and statistics. “We also know, although we don’t have specifics about it, that in many cases those jobs are disappearing, or at least appear to be disappearing, because in many districts, in many states, school librarianship is evolving into many something elses.”

It’s a trend that’s playing out in areas big and small. Last year, the Mckeesport Area School District in southwestern Pennsylvania opted to cut its last two librarian positions, while offering access to libraries through classroom teachers. In 2017, the Dallas Independent School District announced it would cut librarians from 11 of its 230 schools, and look to paraprofessional staff members to keep the library in working order. In Michigan, between 2000 and 2016 the number of school librarians decreased by 73 percent, according to nonprofit news organization Chalkbeat. Seattle Public Schools also recently faced significant cuts to their school librarian positions due to a multi-million-dollar budget deficit, but managed to avoid them for the 2019-2020 school year thanks to a change in how much they can collect in local levy funds.

Kathryn Roots Lewis, the past president of the American Association of School Librarians, said she sees more of a “mixed bag” when it comes to changes in school librarian positions. While some places are cutting positions, others have managed to do just the opposite. She gave the example of Los Angeles’s school district, which earlier this year committed to having a teacher-librarian at each of its middle and high schools.

Bare-bone versions of school libraries appeared “unheralded” in the U.S. hundreds of years ago, according to the American Library Association. The first professionally trained school librarian reportedly was in Brooklyn in 1900. In the decades that followed, the profession expanded in popularity, helped along by findings published in the Library Quarterly in 1961 indicating that a school library with a trained staff had a positive influence on learning.

The role has evolved significantly in the time since. Gone are the days when the responsibilities of all school librarians revolved solely on printed books and card catalogues. Schools across the country have come to rely on librarians to contribute to—if not lead—lessons on technology and digital information gathering. In some cases, these expanded roles even come with new titles. Schools in North Reading, Massachusetts, have taken to calling school librarians “Digital Learning Specialists,” and in Burlington, Vermont, they are called “Library Interventionists,” according to Debra Kachel, affiliate faculty at Antioch University’s education school.

For school-aged children, whose future success is increasingly tied to tech literacy, maintaining a facility and personnel who are fluent in all things digital is more than just an added benefit—it may be an educational necessity. Lewis said school educators look to librarians for guidance on how to use digital materials and where to find them, and also how to determine what information is accurate.

“Our world is so interconnected now,” she said. “Our students [need] to be able to understand the ethical use of information, and how to use media, and how to use technology. … A school librarian is a really important piece of that.”

With the right budget, school libraries can be home to workspaces that include 3D design tools and printers and digital sewing machines, Lewis said. Some also have spaces and accompanying technology for students to create their own podcasts and videos. School librarians are then on hand to help students navigate these programs and tools. She gave the example of a school she has visited in Oklahoma, where students gathered at the library every day at lunch to produce their own podcast with the help of the librarian.

Today, the amount of data available on school librarians is fairly scarce. Although the National Center for Education Statistics offers a glimpse into how many school librarian positions currently exist, further insight into these positions and how they’re evolving is practically non-existent. In 2012, the education statistics center and the American Association of School Librarians both opted to stop producing their comprehensive surveys of the profession.

Lance said the result has been many unknowns when it comes to how many schools are actually eliminating librarians and how many are simply revamping these employees’ roles and titles. For example, if a librarian is no longer called librarian, they may not be included in a study on the profession.

One thing that is clear is the fact that the school librarian position is changing. Many schools are losing them altogether, a few may be trying to reinstall them, and others are changing the very nature of the job. In the midst of all this change, Lewis said, the overall importance of school librarians has only grown.

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