Chicago Teachers Strike Spotlights School Librarians

Despite having only 108 members in the union, librarians have a seat at the table and a platform to speak.



As the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) strike continues in its second week, school librarians are in the spotlight. One of the primary demands of the Chicago Teachers Union in this contract dispute is increased staffing that would ensure librarians, nurses, and counselors in every school.

Nora Wiltse, who has been the school librarian at Coonley Elementary School for the last 12 years, is on the union’s 40-person negotiating team. That union leaders gave her such a spot, when librarians are only 108 members of the approximately 25,000-member organization, speaks to its priorities and commitment to librarians as part of the vital staffing needs of students, she says.

“You would think with [so few of us], we would never be anywhere near the bargaining table,” says Wiltse, pictured above with supporters on the picket lines.

It is a balancing act at times, she admits.

“There are [times]we have to look at numbers and say, ‘How many members will this benefit?’” she says. “TThen there are the other times—this is just a critical role in the life of our students, and the fact that we’re such a tiny portion of our union is not going to affect that.”

Picket lines are nothing new to Wiltse or Brenda Garcia, library media specialist at Frank W. Reilly School. Both were working in the district during the 2012 CPS teachers’ strike.

“From my perspective as a member, [2012] was more about salaries and respect,” Wiltse says. “This time around, that is not our main issue. It is not even Top 3. The conditions in the schools have deteriorated, and the staffing levels been cut so much. We’re not saying, ‘How dare you take our raise or how dare you not offer us a raise?’ We’re out here saying, ‘We need a librarian. We need a nurse in our building again. We have students who live in temporary living situations and we don’t have staff who can help them wash their clothes and get bus tickets.’ It’s much more focused on student need.”

Wiltse says the most difficult part now is “just being face-to-face with the inequity.”

“We talk at CPS about the disparity between the city and the suburbs—and there is a huge disparity there—but it’s really hard to look at those numbers and see the disparity within CPS,” she says.

Wiltse describes “an embarrassment of riches” at her school, where parents volunteer, share their resources, and successfully fundraise for a library budget. Students have print resources in their homes and access to books in their neighborhoods. Many others in the city do not, and the schools aren’t bridging the gap. “It’s really tough to see how little we’re providing for our neediest students,” she says.

Garcia’s school lacks access to the same kinds of resources, but there are other schools in the district with less, she says, and she is worried about them.

Already down from 454 librarians in 2013, Garcia (pictured right, with fellow striking educators) fears that if the union fails to get the staffing it is asking for this year, 108 librarians could drop to 50, and eventually librarians could disappear from Chicago schools altogether. That would hurt those students who already have the fewest resources.

“Why take more away from these kids that already have so little?” she says. “It just angers me.”

Garcia says the worst part of this strike for her is not being available to her students and dealing with people who yell at her when they see her sign while she’s on her way to the picket lines. However, she quickly adds, supporters outnumber those detractors. She’s particularly heartened when she hears from past students about how much she meant to them.

“I love what I do, and I love what I do for my students. I know that they appreciate it and that it helps them,” she says.

While nobody wanted to go on strike, the silver lining for librarians is the platform to educate the community and their peers on the importance of their role. Many teachers in Chicago have spent their entire careers without a librarian in their school. They don’t know what they are missing and don’t see the point in stretching a thin budget for something they believe they are doing fine without, says Wiltse.

“I’ve talked to some, and they say, ‘Isn’t this making the union look silly for asking for something that’s outdated?’” she says. “They have this image of the librarian from when they were in school, shushing them and making sure they aren’t taking a book without checking it out properly. They don’t know that a librarian is also a technology specialist and all those other things.”

What’s the point of spending money on a database if there is no one on staff who knows how to use it? asks Garcia. She has been educating colleagues at Sunday night dinners with her family for years. Those peers just happen to be her three sisters, who are classroom teachers in Chicago. Garcia regularly explains new resources and library services to them.

For those who ask, What’s the point of hiring librarians if there will be no budget for them? Garcia and Wiltse have the same response: Librarians are resourceful. Just get us in the door.

“There are people certainly who still say you have to make sure they have an adequate budget and they have the room and the space and everything and the support from administration and all of those things are really important, but we’re rebuilding a system that is in crisis right now,” says Wiltse. “I think we have to take one step at a time.”

Garcia hasn’t had a budget in years. She funds her program through grants, DonorsChoose, and the annual book fair. When Christmas comes along, and her family asks what she wants, she tells them she wants LEGOs for her makerspace.

“It sounds so horrible, but this is what we do,” she says. “This is what we have to do.”













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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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Sheryl Osborne

Lies' statement above beautifully captures the role of the school library, and the article makes many great points that underscore what's happening in our democracy.

Posted : Nov 01, 2019 04:40

Lies Garner

Investing in librarians offers long term benefits by way of thoughtful and resourceful citizens who read widely and think critically. Fight the good fight for ALL CPS students!

Posted : Oct 24, 2019 05:47



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