School librarian cutbacks widen digital divide
About one-third of public schools do not have a full-time, state-certified librarian.
Members of the American Library Association call it a national crisis, as colleges and careers increasingly require students to have expansive digital literacy skills. Some 20 percent of public school libraries do not have any full- or part-time state-certified librarians, according to a 2013 report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
Though physical book collections are shrinking in many districts, the role of librarians or media specialists is expanding. Along with fostering a love of reading, librarians teach students media literacy, in part how to research, analyze information and evaluate sources to determine what is accurate, says Gail Dickinson, past president of the American Association of School Librarians.
The librarian’s ability to teach all students these digital literacy skills plays a large role in closing the digital divide between students with internet at home and those who don’t have access, she adds.
“When you are an avid reader and solid information user, you are most likely a great student,” Dickinson says. “School librarians can enhance the learning experience for every child, and truly give those college and career-ready skills our students need.”
Since students can often access library books and research databases electronically at any time, many school librarians now hold evening office hours to respond to student research queries via chat or text, Dickinson says. Some librarians are becoming “embedded” in online classes by providing library resources in lessons and helping students complete research.
School libraries with more staff and larger collections lead to stronger academic performance, according to a study by the American Association of School Librarians. Students at schools with better funded media centers tend to achieve higher average reading scores, regardless of family income and parent education level.
Laws requiring school librarians vary widely from state to state, Dickinson says. For example, New York districts do not have to hire an elementary librarian, but are required to have one in middle and high schools. In Virginia and North Carolina, every school must have a librarian.
“In tough economic times, it’s sometimes a hard sell to keep a position that is not required by the state,” Dickinson says. From 2006 to 2011, the number of school librarians dropped more than the number of other teachers, according to the NCES. The community members and volunteers many schools hire to take over library duties often do not have the same training and knowledge of certified librarians.
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