Posted on August 31, 2023
Voices of Decision-Makers: How District & School Leaders Decide about School Librarian Employment. (August 31, 2023)
The School Librarian Investigation—Decline or Evolution?—or SLIDE—was a 2020-23 project funded by a Laura Bush 21stCentury Librarian grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services to Antioch University Seattle. The final phase of this project was a qualitative study of interviews of K-12 administrators. The purpose was to learn the perceptions, factors, priorities, and experiences that led these administrators to either increase or decrease librarian staffing levels. Forty-nine school leaders from 29 states and D.C. agreed to be interviewed anonymously. Most were superintendents, assistant superintendents, or other district-level administrators.
Among administrators who increased school librarian positions, researchers identified four major themes:
- Equity of Access to Librarians
- New Leadership, New Priorities
- More Teaching by Librarians
- Opportunity to Meet Mandates
Among administrators who reported reducing, eliminating, combining, or reclassifying school librarian positions, three prevailing themes emerged:
- New Priorities, More Specialists & Teachers
- Can’t Find a Librarian
- New Leadership, New Priorities
A prevailing theme among both groups of interviewees—whether librarian staffing was increased or decreased—related to changes in administration and changes in priorities. This suggests that support for school librarians is sometimes based on preconceived beliefs of new leaders about the value of school libraries and librarians. Also, both groups were influenced by previous experiences, whether positive or negative, working with or supervising school librarians.
Factors were grouped into three types. Structural factors were identified as those administrators felt little control over, including, hiring staff to address state mandates, opening/closing of buildings, and “pipeline” issues. Pragmatic factors addressed logistical issues such as having enough teachers to cover classes and reassigning librarians to meet immediate needs. Strategic factors represented district priorities, including hiring staff perceived to improve specific student performance goals or to improve equity of access to librarians.
Administrators who added librarians were more likely to report strategic factors while those that reduced librarian staffing cited more structural and pragmatic factors. Insightful quotes are included in the full report and illustrate unenviable and difficult decisions that school leaders had to make to staff library and information services to meet local needs while staying within their budgets.
To add perspective to these 49 cases, national school librarian employment data were analyzed. The last two years of available data– 2020-21 and 2021-22–revealed extreme volatility in hiring patterns likely due to the impact of the COVID pandemic. In 2021-2022, 7.1 million U.S. students were in districts that had no school librarians—that is 35 percent of all local school districts. In short, access to school librarians continues to be a major source of educational inequity driven by the circumstances and often unique realities of today’s K-12 environment and the priorities and values of key administrative school leaders.
This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Grant Project RE-246368-OLS-20. The views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed on this website www.libSLIDE.org and related products do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Service.
New research has documented continuing losses of school librarians and uncovered gross inequities in access to school librarians across the U.S. Districts with more students living in poverty, more minority students, and more English language learners were less likely to have librarians than districts with fewer such students. These findings come from a study funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and led by project director Debra E. Kachel of Antioch University Seattle and principal investigator Keith Curry Lance of the RSL Research Group.
Between 2010 and 2019, almost 20 percent of school librarian full-time equivalents were eliminated. Data on almost 13,000 local school districts for 2018-19 also revealed that:
- Three out of 10 districts had no librarians in any of their schools.
- More than 4.4 million students in high-poverty (50%+) districts had no librarians.
- Almost 3.1 million students in predominantly Hispanic districts were without school librarians.
- Almost 4.8 million students in predominantly non-white districts were without school librarians.
- Smaller and rural districts were more likely to have no librarians than larger and suburban districts.
- Nine out of 10 charter school districts had no school librarians.
The study also found that losses of school librarians may not be just about school finances. Districts spending the most (over $15,000) and the least per pupil (less than $10,000) had better librarian staffing than districts spending between $10,000 and $15,000 per pupil. And, since 2010, school and district administrators and instructional coordinators have increased by double-digit percentages, while school librarians have declined by almost 20 percent. Clearly, there are other factors involved when districts or schools decide whether to employ librarians for their students.
Interactive data tools have also been created at /data-tools/. You can create customized searches with charts and tables to compare and sort among states and school districts.
Profile – compare library staffing data for a selected district compared with peer districts
State Survey – provides state-specific information on librarian staffing mandates, number of universities preparing school librarians, and more
Advanced Search – examine district characteristics (enrollment, locale, & per pupil expenditures) and student demographics (race/ethnicity, poverty, and ELLs) in relation to the employment of school librarians and others
Today, the role of school librarian includes teaching students about media literacy, Internet safety, and digital citizenship; assisting teachers in designing and delivering lessons and selecting resources; and integrating technology into the curriculum, in addition to the more traditional roles of managing collections and encouraging reading.
How school librarian losses are impacting those students who likely need their services the most should be of major concern to education policy makers.
In subsequent years of this three-year project, school decision-makers will be interviewed to learn what factors are influencing whether or not they employ school librarians for their students. The complete report, Perspectives on School Librarian Employment in the United States, 2009-10 to 2018-19 is available at /publications/perspectives.
This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s libraries and museums. We advance, support, and empower America’s museums, libraries, and related organizations through grantmaking, research, and policy development. Our vision is a nation where museums and libraries work together to transform the lives of individuals and communities. To learn more, visit www.imls.gov and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.