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The Disappearing DC School Librarians

An article in the Huffington Post reports that almost half of Washington DC’s public schools will open without a librarian. 58 of 124 schools will be librarianless, 24 more than last year.

One group protesting the lack of librarians complains that the lack of librarians at the poorer schools creates an unfair advantage. Unlike one school in Chevy Chase, the parents in the poor schools can’t come up with $10,000 a year for the school library.

“Schools should be an equalizer,” he said, not a “have-and-have-not divide.” When it comes to American schools, “should be” and “are” are very far apart.

The American Association of School Librarians president “said she worries that children’s future opportunities are at risk if they fail to learn basic research and Internet skills.

‘It’s going to take a terrible toll on our students’ ability to be competitive in college and in the workplace, and we are very concerned.’”

The question is whether having librarians in schools is really going to make any difference. Oh, I know there are studies that claim librarians make huge amounts of difference, and I was told of at least one study commissioned and then suppressed by a state library association that they make little difference at all. Let’s split the difference.

It doesn’t matter much here, though, because the librarians aren’t the important factor in this debate, even though the debate is about librarians. If we’re comparing inner-city urban schools in DC to the schools in Chevy Chase, one school having a librarian and one school not having one is almost literally the least important thing about the difference.

The differences between public schools in poor neighborhoods and public schools in rich neighborhoods are so enormous that they dwarf the question of school librarians entirely.

This is so obvious that it shouldn’t be worth mentioning. Children with affluent parents in affluent neighborhoods have so many advantages over children in poor neighborhoods that it’s hard to count them all.

Some kids grow up bored whining about life in upper-middle class neighborhoods with their boring parents, but they’re just spoiled. Put them in a neighborhood where walking on the street at night is an invitation to get shot, and they would soil their designer knickers in a hurry.

Regardless of what happens to the librarians at their school, they’re not going to need help learning basic research skills or how to use the Internet, and they’re being bred to be competitive in college and in the workplace, just like their successful parents have been.

This has nothing to do with the librarians, and not even that much to do with the schools. It’s a sociocultural phenomenon where well off parents push their well off kids to do well and have the resources to do it.

Even if the librarians don’t matter that much, the decision of how to place the librarians pretty much says, “screw the poor.” The poor in every country are pretty easily screwed over anyway because they can rarely fight back.

According to the article, the librarian “job is now a ‘flexible funding’ position rather than a ‘core’ one at schools of all sizes, meaning librarians’ salaries will be drawn from a general pool of money that the school must disperse for many needs.”

If the budget allocation isn’t designed to screw over the poor who can’t fight back, the answer is simple. Take all the library resources away from schools in place like Chevy Chase and give them all to the poorest schools. The kids in Chevy Chase will do fine anyway.

Do that and study the effects over time. That’s the only way anyone could actually prove the DC school librarians make a meaningful difference. The worst case scenario is that it won’t help the students much, but then again it certainly couldn’t hurt.

The best case scenario, it gives the kids a fighting chance at success. Even something in between might be worth aiming for.



  1. I was somewhat friends with the old librarian at my high school. She was very knowledgeable, but honest had no role whatsoever in the high school’s non-existent “basic research and internet skills” curriculum. She was essentially a book-purchasing consultant and book checking-in and checking-out manager who spent most of her day trying to keep idiot high school students from doing idiot high school student things and trying to order only enough manga to placate those who demanded it.

  2. On the flip side of Joey’s experience my middle school librarian taught a nine week library class to every grade level where we were taught everything to do with using the library. I didn’t think much of it until I got to college and got into an English class where one day was devoted to a crash course at the university library on how to use library resources.

    Everyone else in the class had no idea what they were doing going into it. The stuff they covered was mostly review for me. There was a bit of a lag between the instruction and the payoff, but that school librarian definitely made a difference in my education.

    Of course they replaced her with an Teacher’s Assistant when she retired a few years back and they don’t teach the library class anymore as far as I know. Budget cuts and all that. So I guess it doesn’t matter whether or not you’re effective as long as you’re a convenient line item to be eliminated.

  3. anonymous says:

    The question isn’t whether a librarian will be the equalizer in the poor school vs. rich school debate. That’s a red herring. The question is whether the students will do better with a librarian, working in partnership with classroom teachers, than they would otherwise, all other things being equal. Most of the research seems to indicate that they will.

  4. Diane Roberts says:

    Hey, AL, we’re trying what you suggested here in Houston! ….or at least half of it. The local Jesuit high school has let their librarian go – it’s one of the better private (privileged for the most part) schools in town. Of course the resources freed up won’t go to poor areas of town, but you have to start somewhere.

    I don’t know about the numbers of school librarians in Houston compared to DC, but the number of school librarians, public and private, here as definitely been going down. I just retired from a private high school and was replaced with a part-timer. Another private secondary school that once had 1.6 librarians went from one last year, to a single part-timer this year.

    Not a profession with much of a future around here.

  5. Then there’s the school librarian in NJ who actually admitted in the NJ Education Association’s monthly magazine that books can be so racy that she cannot bring herself to read them, so she has her students do that for her. See “School Media Specialist Passes Sexual Content Review to Students; Dee Venuto Says It Is Discrimination to Keep Children From Material Including Lengthy, Vivid Descriptions of a Ménage a Trois” at the link under my name.

  6. Maybe the schools that don’t have libraries could partner with their local public library. They could pay the DC library system some amount of money, but far less than they would have to pay to hire their own librarian and build their own collection, and then have a public librarian come to the school with books some number of days per week.

    A public library in my area has basically taken over the local public school libraries and it’s been working out pretty well. Yes, in an ideal world every school could have a wonderful library, but we live in reality where money, especially in poorer urban areas, is limited.

    • Library Spinster says:

      “Maybe the schools that don’t have libraries could partner with their local public library.”

      I can tell you how that works in Philadelphia. No heads up of any kind. We find out every kid in 8th grade has to read such and such a book when they come in, one at a time. Doable when there are a lot of copies in the system, not so much when the system only owns a handful.

  7. Randal Powell says:

    I’m amused that the AASL falls back on “research and internet instruction” as their core competency. How much focus has “research and internet instruction” gotten from them in the past? Are the ALA/AASL approved school media programs — that train and assess future licensed school librarians — primarily focused on turning out people good at research and internet instruction? I think that the AASL would have been well advised to have been clearly focusing on that, and advocating for that, but they have not been, and it’s a bit late in the game now.

  8. library_yeti says:

    I can’t wait to hear about the lack of critical thinking skills exhibited by college students on the east coast a few years from now. Many of them may end up at unaccredited colleges or predatory for-profit institutions as a result of their lack of savvy. Let the games begin. Too bad the subjects of this sad experiment have to suffer.

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