Libraries Without Librarians?

Waiver Sought by City Puts Fate of School Librarians in Question
By Ivan Pentchoukov
Ivan Pentchoukov
Ivan Pentchoukov
Ivan has reported for The Epoch Times on a variety of topics since 2011.
August 15, 2013 Updated: August 15, 2013

NEW YORK—Christian Zabriskie can’t remember the names of any of his middle school teachers, but he will always remember Monica Blondin, the school librarian.

For years, Zabriskie and his friend Jon were prime targets for bullies in middle school. They found the light at the library, where Blondin taught them to be curious, structure their thinking, be determined, and stand up for others.

Most students across the city no longer have the support Zabriskie and his friend had. The number of librarians working in the city’s public schools has been decreasing since at least 2008, despite a state regulation that requires all secondary schools to hire one (elementary schools are an exception). More than half of the city’s secondary public schools do not have a librarian.

Matters are bound to get worse. The city’s Department of Education (DOE) is preparing to request that the State Education Department (SED) waive the regulation that requires schools to hire a librarian.

No librarians will be immediately laid off if the SED commissioner, John King, grants the waiver. But school principals, who make the hiring decisions, will then be free to choose not to hire a librarian in order to cut costs.

“Student learning is changing as much more information is available online. While libraries continue to be an important resource, the old model of a room full of books with a staff member managing the access is changing,” Stephanie R. Browne, deputy press secretary with the DOE wrote in an email to the Epoch Times.

School librarians are first certified as teachers and then as librarians. They teach students and teachers how to use online resources, curate physical and digital collections, foster the love of reading and learning, and more. They work either part time or full time, depending on the number of students at the school.

“Having a school librarian who deals with every person in the school is pretty cost effective,” Sara Johns, president of the New York Library Association, said. “It’s kind of shortsighted to say that you’re saving money by eliminating that position.”

According to the DOE’s salary schedule, a school librarian’s starting salary is close to $50,000 and increases based on experience and education. The DOE’s estimated operating budget for the coming school year increased $950 million to $24.8 billion.

The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) first raised the issue in 2010 and appealed to Joel Klein, the SED commissioner at the time, asking that schools in violation of the state rule be ordered to comply. Klein issued a decision that year declaring the appeal moot since the school year was over.

UFT appealed again. A decision on that appeal has not yet been made, according to Antonia Valentine, a spokeswoman with the SED.

“Hundreds of complex appeals are filed each year, so it’s impossible to guarantee a specific date,” Valentine wrote in an email to the Epoch Times.

UFT also filed a lawsuit in the State Supreme Court. That case is stalled.

The request for a waiver comes on the heels of record-low test scores for third- through eighth-graders released earlier this month. The lower scores are the result of a new test aligned with the Common Core curriculum, which continues to be adopted by the state. Common Core requires students to do more reading and research, while encouraging critical thinking—skills librarians are trained to nourish.

“We have been doing this for years. School librarians, in opposition to the old stereotype of the shushing person who just dusts off the old warehouse of books, that’s not what we do. We teach the children how to learn while the teachers are teaching them what to know,” Stephanie Rosalia, a School Library Media Specialist at the Department of Education said.

“We teach the exact skills that have been defined, only lately, as Common Core.”

Officials from local to federal levels promoted the Common Core curriculum as a way to prepare students for schools and jobs in the digital age. Rosalia said that school librarians fulfill exactly that role: teaching children how to use online search and identify credible sources, create presentations, browse digital collections, and more.

According to the Library Research Service, nationwide studies have shown that schools with endorsed librarians score better on standardized tests in reading compared to those without.

“There’s been some rhetoric that in the modern age we don’t need librarians, we don’t need books, etc.,” Zabriskie, who eventually became a public librarian and executive director of Urban Librarians Unite, said. “If you look at library circulation rates across the country they’re up higher than they’ve ever been. Teens are reading books more and more. The idea that since we have Google now and we don’t need libraries is facile.”

The DOE Alternative

DOE is considering classroom libraries as an alternative, Zabriskie said. A typical classroom library is a bookshelf in the corner of a classroom with books selected by teachers.

“Schools are innovating and providing access in many different ways including rich classroom libraries, curated online research sites, and full online curricula,” wrote Browne, a DOE spokeswoman.

Zabriskie said that such libraries have a limited number of books and lack depth. Students who use a school library also have the advantage of anonymity and security amid the stacks, where books can be picked without fear of ridicule and scrutiny from peers.

“A classroom library is not a library. It’s a stack of books sitting in the corner,” Zabriskie said. “The idea that you house a library as part of a classroom is kind of inane.”

Ivan Pentchoukov
Ivan Pentchoukov
Ivan has reported for The Epoch Times on a variety of topics since 2011.