By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Library media teacher Cathy Collins helps Jeremie Sanem and Julia Gass find resources online.
How can I access a database for a research paper?
Where can I find animals on the endangered species list?
What’s a good science fiction novel for English class?
These are the kinds of questions students ask library media teachers — or school librarians —every day. But with cutbacks, school librarians themselves are becoming an endangered species, much to the detriment of students throughout the U.S. and California.
California ranks 51st in the nation — behind Puerto Rico — with one librarian to 5,124 students, far below the national average of one library media teacher to 870 students, according to the California Department of Education. Only about 24 percent of schools in the state have a credentialed library media teacher on campus part time or more, with most of them working in high schools. But that figure will drop, as school districts increasingly shelve school librarian positions to balance the budget.
Research has shown that in the absence of poverty, the quality of the school library is the best predictor of reading scores. Douglas Achterman of the University of North Texas confirmed that school libraries positively impact student achievement in a 2008 dissertation titled Haves, Halves and Have-Nots: School Libraries and Student Achievement in California.
Working behind the scenes
Librarians may be known for shushing patrons, but they are getting increasingly vocal about the importance of quality school libraries staffed by qualified professionals. (A credentialed teacher librarian has both a California teaching credential and a California teacher librarian services credential.)
Cathy Collins, a library media teacher at Montgomery High School in Santa Rosa, believes school libraries are “the great equalizer” for students who lack books and computers at home. Because librarians work “behind the scenes,” the public may not understand the important role they play in education, says Collins. This includes helping develop an appreciation for literature, helping students locate and evaluate print and online information sources, collaborating with teachers on lesson plans and research projects, and much more.
“School librarians are responsible for teaching information literacy and technology skills that assist our students in becoming globally competitive in the job market,” says Collins, a member of the Santa Rosa Teachers Association. “By devaluing information and technology skills librarians teach, we directly impact our students’ future marketability in the workplace. For this reason, it is heartbreaking to see positions being cut left and right.”
Her district is considering eliminating seven school librarian positions, but so far has only eliminated one full-time and one part-time. Collins decided to teach overseas next year because she feared being jobless.
Many school districts throughout the state expect classified employees or “clerks” to take on responsibilities once held by library media teachers, which is a mistake, says Collins.
“The roles of clerks and librarians are both important — and sometimes overlap — but we need to have both in order to have a strong library program in any school operating to full potential,” she says. “There are some schools where classified staff only work part time or a few hours a week in libraries. It seems an incredible waste of resources to me to spend millions of dollars on our school library facilities and materials, but neglect the most important components of school libraries — certified librarians and classified staff.”
Students appreciate having someone like Collins helping them in the library.
“Without her, it would be a lot more difficult to know what to look for,” says Julia Gass, a senior. “A librarian can make recommendations to help you find what you need; otherwise the information might be here, but you wouldn’t know how to find it.”
Seven and a half teacher librarian positions in Riverside Unified School District were eliminated to balance the budget this year. Among those receiving a pink slip was Della Skannal of Sierra Middle School.
Skannal, a member of the Riverside City Teachers Association, fears the loss of school librarians will leave members of the “Google Generation” without the skills they need for information literacy and academic success. A March 21 editorial in the Los Angeles Times describes the phenomenon: “Today’s students sift through an infinite number of options: books, Internet sources, academic databases. Much of the time they opt for Google, which is like being tossed into the ocean without a paddle.”
“Most students feel the first place they should look for something is Google,” says Skannal. “But Google is simply a search engine, and we need to make sure the websites they are exploring are authoritative, authentic and reliable places for information. When students go to Google they may find 10,000 hits on a topic and encounter information overload and things that are of no value whatsoever for their project and paper. Librarians help students understand how to find information, evaluate information and utilize that information.”
While students may prefer technology to books, Skannal encourages reading for pleasure. “Sometimes they will come to me and say, ‘I want a book,’ and I help them pinpoint the genre they might be interested in, such as adventure or science fiction. I will go through lists of books the students might like and recommend some books they might enjoy. Lots of students just go by the cover of a book, and I encourage them to read the summary and see if they might like the content.”
Ellen Shimamoto, a teacher librarian at Gabrielino High School, finds it ironic that her district reduced its middle school librarian from full time to half time — after building a brand-new library on the site. Fortunately, she says, the San Gabriel School District has not eliminated any librarian positions completely.
Information literacy curriculum
The San Gabriel Teachers Association member received an Innovation Award from the California School Library Association for integrating information literacy skills with classroom curriculum for freshmen taking a career course. As part of the class, students spend 12 days in the library learning strategies in research, Web evaluation, taking notes, avoiding plagiarism and using databases. Then they pick a career they are interested in and research the pathway to that career. They are asked to look 10 years into the future and write a letter and résumé for a job in a field they have supposedly prepared for. At the end of the course they are “interviewed” for the job to see if they’ve done their research.
Shimamoto, who enjoys collaborating with classroom teachers for the course, says students learn invaluable skills they can use throughout high school and college. “Kids will come back and say, ‘Now I know why you taught us how to do this.’”
People might assume that once students go to college they no longer need a school librarian, but nothing could be further from the truth, says Jeff Rosen, a librarian at San Francisco State University who is vice president of the school’s California Faculty Association chapter.
“The information world students encounter today is infinitely more complex than when you and I were in college,” he explains. “It’s a different world. Administrators like to think that because everything is online, students don’t need librarians anymore. But it is exactly the opposite; with everything online it can be a very complex process to find it. Students need a shoulder to lean on working through the maze, and our job is more important than ever.”
Colleges have been cutting back on librarians nonetheless. At Rosen’s campus five librarians retired and were not replaced, resulting in 20 to 25 percent fewer librarians in campus libraries.
Academic libraries are caught in a paradigm shift, says Rosen. The information world is shifting from print to electronic, and users want information at their fingertips electronically — as well as in the print format they are accustomed to.
As community colleges and CSU campuses have cut back on remedial classes, the need for librarians has increased, he adds. Students arrive with lower reading and research skills than students in years past, and sometimes need assistance and one-on-one help from librarians to pass their classes.
“The role of the school librarian is changing, but it is more important than ever,” says Rosen. “They are very much needed in the K-12 world and the world of higher education, and will remain so in the foreseeable future.”
Elsewhere in California:
- In the Tracy Unified School District, students are using Facebook in hopes of saving school libraries and librarian positions.
- Members of the Parent Faculty Association at Foothill Middle School in the Mount Diablo Unified School District organized a massive fundraising effort to keep the library staffed an additional day with a full-time certified librarian.
- School libraries are set to disappear in California’s Belmont-Redwood Shores School District as it plans to close all media centers; as a result, students will reportedly no longer be allowed to check out school library books.
- In Modesto, the school board voted to cut 8.5 library media teachers and eight library assistants.