Study Finds Fewer School Librarians in Districts that Need Them the Most

School librarian positions have declined by 20 percent nationally, according to the SLIDE (School Librarian Investigation: Decline or Evolution?) research project.

The number of school librarians around the country has fallen about 20 percent in the last decade, and districts with large numbers of vulnerable students are the most impacted, according to a new report from the School Librarian Investigation: Decline or Evolution? (SLIDE) research project.

In the 2018-2019 school year, three out of 10 districts had no librarians in any of their schools. Districts with more students experiencing poverty, higher levels of Black and brown students, and include more English language learners were less likely to have librarians, the research shows. More than 4.4 million students in high-poverty districts and about 3.1 million students in predominantly Hispanic districts did not have a school librarian.

Image Credit: Kachel, Debra E., and Keith Curry Lance. 2021.
“Data Speaks: Preliminary Data on the Status of School
Librarians in the U.S.” Teacher Librarian 48 (5): 30-31.

The report is part of a three-year research project that was funded by in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and is being conducted by researchers at Antioch University Seattle. SLIDE is led by project director Debra E. Kachel, a faculty member at Antioch University Seattle, and Keith Curry Lance, a library statistician and research associate with the RSL Research Group. This report looks at school library staffing issues at the national, state, and district levels and includes data from about 13,000 school districts.

The research found that there is no clear relationship between librarian staffing and financial resources. Local districts spending the most money per student (more than $15,000) and the least per student (less than $10,000) had better librarian staffing than districts spending between $10,000 and $15,000 per student. And while the number of librarians decreased around the country, many districts continued to boost spending for other staff positions. There was an increase in the number of school administrators and instructional coordinators, while the staffing of teachers decreased slightly.

“These findings challenge the notion that employment of school librarians is mostly a matter of funding,” the report states. “This implies that other factors besides financial pressures drive decisions about whether or not to employ librarians.”

The definition of librarian used to collect report data is outdated and often doesn’t reflect the job responsibilities of those in this position, according to the report.  The SLIDE project applies data from the National Center for Education Statistics, which uses a definition of a school librarian that dates back to the 1980s and hasn’t been updated to reflect more recent responsibilities for many in these roles, such as media literacy and technology coordination.

“This potential blurring of roles between school librarians, instructional coordinators, and other staff will be addressed by another major component of the three-year SLIDE project,” the report states.

[READ: SLIDE: Data, Interactive Tools, and an Equity Wake-Up Call | NeverEnding Search]

Some of the report’s other key findings:

  • Smaller and rural districts were more likely to have no librarian than larger and suburban districts. Districts with larger enrollments reported the highest level of librarian staffing and tend to be located in suburban communities.
  • Charter schools are not investing in librarians. Nine out of 10 charter school districts had no librarians.
  • In 2018-19, there were generally more school librarians in the eastern half of the country than the western half. Among the four major U.S. regions, the southern states had the largest concentrations of school librarians. In Texas, there were more librarians than in the bottom 20 states combined.
  • In the last decade, New Hampshire was the only state in the country that saw an increase in the total number of school librarians.
  • School librarians were least prevalent in states that do not have laws mandating some level of school librarian staffing, and less prevalent in states that have these mandates but do not enforce them. 
  • There were more school librarians and they were less likely to experience job loss in states that have more colleges and universities preparing school librarians.
  • The replacement of school librarians with library support staff is a growing trend. In 2009-10, only one in 12 districts (8.6 percent) employed library support staff, but no librarians. By 2018-19, one out of eight districts (12.5 percent) were employing library support staff but no librarians.
  • The pandemic will likely impact school librarian staffing substantially in one way or another, according to the report. In some districts, school librarians may have become more essential during and after the pandemic, while in other districts, the pandemic may be hastening the loss of school librarians.

As part of this ongoing study, the research team plans to continue studying librarian staffing issues around the country by interviewing 100 decision makers in districts where the most dramatic employment changes have taken place. The researchers want to learn more about the factors that impacted these staffing decisions.

[READ: The SLIDE Study: A Chat with Deb Kachel (Part 2) and Exploring the Interactive Data Tools]

For information about library staffing in each state and district, the SLIDE project offers interactive web tools that generate tables, charts, and maps summarizing data for each state and school district based on selected characteristics— enrollment, location, per-pupil expenditures, poverty, race/ethnicity, and English language learners. 

Melanie Kletter is a teacher and freelance writer in New York City.

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