School Library Support Staff: A Vital Role, Declining Numbers

These unsung heroes can be essential to keep libraries operating efficiently, but there are fewer of them than there used to be. 

The numbers reported in SLJ’s “State of the Union” report on school librarianship earlier this year don’t come as a surprise to those in the field: there are fewer professional and library support staff in the nation’s schools than there used to be.

While much dialogue and advocacy has focused on supporting and restoring certified school librarian positions, the numbers of paraprofessional are also down, and that’s having an impact on school libraries, professional say. From 2000 to 2016, “more library support staff than librarians have been shed by public schools, from more than 46,000 to fewer than 26,000—a loss of almost 21,000, or 45 percent,” according to the SLJ report.

In Pennsylvania’s North Penn School District, library processors—the district’s title for school library paraprofessionals—cover a range of duties, from traditional collection- and circulation-based tasks to high levels of tech support, according to Laurren Gawronski, who was a teacher-librarian in the district for nine years. The processors are extremely busy, Gawronski says, because many school librarians have full teaching and prep schedules and aren’t able to spend much, if any, time actually tending to their library. “Basically, the librarians are now teachers, and the assistants are the librarians,” she says.

According to data from the Pennsylvania School Libraries Association (PSA), , in 2016–2017, 34 percent of schools responding to a PSLA staffing survey had no paraprofessionals; 20 percent employed one paraprofessional to serve an entire district, and 27 percent had a paraprofessional who worked at more than one school.

In Pennsylvania, the downtick in support positions results in a lack of library access, Gawronski says. “When the librarian is [out of the library] teaching, who is helping a student who comes in to locate, check out, or return a book? Is the library open when the librarian is at lunch, in the bathroom, on cafeteria or bus duty?” Gawronski recalls that “one year, I had to close the library while I had lunch duty. Prior to that, students had been permitted to get library passes in the cafeteria to use the library after they were done eating. Students were frustrated they couldn’t get a new book after lunch because I was [monitoring] the cafeteria.”

Amanda Hahn, school librarian at Indian Valley Middle School in Souderton, PA, says that her school’s staff “has expressed concern about the library being closed when I have to cover in-school suspensions, attend meetings, go to the bathroom, have lunch, or teach my two library classes where I can’t always help students.”

Hahn misses an aide the most while teaching in the library, she says. “It’s hard to teach and manage a class and monitor checkouts and laptop issues [at the school’s Chromebook hub]. My principal is aware of these concerns, but his hands are tied as we are understaffed.”

Short-staffed school libraries also have an impact on teachers. Closed doors and inconsistent hours mean not only an immediate inability to use the school library, but a decline in rapport. “Teachers often have very little time to use the library. When they do come in, they need help quickly,” says Gawronski. “If they don’t get that help, they often stop using the library as a resource. Teachers have a hard time keeping track of the library schedule when it’s not always open.”

Even if the room itself is open, visiting classes can be frustrated if no one is present to assist students and teachers. “I’ve had elementary students doing a project in the library while I was teaching at another school,” Gawronski says. Without an assistant present, there was no one in the library to help the students and teacher find what they needed.

Earlier in her career, Hahn was the librarian at a middle school with a library aide on staff. While the aide was able to attend to the various day-to-day tasks of a school library, Hahn could foster relationships with teachers. “The best part of having an aide was being able to go to teachers’ rooms to co-teach,” which Hahn found many teachers preferred as compared to bringing their classes to the school library. This school year, the support position was cut when the current aide retired. “There were no plans to refill the position,” says Hahn. “Even if the aide hadn’t retired, she was no longer going to be full time in the library; she would have been reassigned to a different support position.”

A library without adequate staffing also presents a safety issue, Gawronski says. “Can a student walk in and hang out in the library...without supervision? I’ve had students hanging out in the library without me realizing while I was teaching a class. What if there had been a fire or other emergency?”

Restoring assistant positions may present challenges, too. “The hardest part is that most of the library aide positions in districts don’t exist anymore,” says Hahn. “It’s harder to write them back into the budget.”

While the fight for certified school librarians continues, Gawronski doesn’t want the declining numbers of support staff to go unnoticed. “We need a full-time librarian and a full-time assistant in every school [to create] a successful and safe library program,” she says.

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