some thoughts on school libraries

Or, at least, that’s where this started.

Sometime last spring – not sure when, but it was definitely sunny here in western Oregon – a colleague and I drove to an OLA board meeting in Forest Grove — quite a haul from our part of the Willamette Valley. I love being a part of the Oregon Library Association because it’s one of the few things I do that isn’t academic/instruction librarian focused. That extra perspective that comes from hanging out with children’s librarians (and lots of other kinds of librarians) is really important to me.

Driving back home we both had the same thought – that part of this meeting had been VERY relevant to us in our academic/instruction life — the State Librarian had released some numbers about school librarianship in Oregon. School librarians numbers here have shrunk dramatically in the last 30 years:

Graph showing the numbers of school librarians in Oregon declining more than 50% from 1980 to the present

School Librarian #'s

And it’s not like the numbers of students has held steady:

graph showing the number of students per librarian increasing

And these numbers are only set to get worse.  In the last year the two largest school districts that still had librarians in every school: Beaverton and Salem-Keizer both had to put those librarians on the chopping block because of budget constraints.  The Beaverton district may have saved their librarians.  Salem-Keizer, on the other hand, is cutting all positions except for the two librarians in the high schools.

This situation is certainly not unique to Oregon.  This story about librarians in Los Angeles forced to defend their jobs in a hostile environment made the rounds last spring.  And the American Library Association uses the word “crisis” in this School Libraries Funding Press Kit.

So, why am I focused on school libraries?  Because it’s time to gear up for the new term – to teach classes for students enrolled in bridge programs designed to give them a taste of what they need to be successful in college.  And to think about the first-year experience with it’s focus on how the resources available to you at a research institution are different than those you may have had access to before.

And I generally focus on “things you might not expect to find in your library” when I get students who are new to college, don’t have a research assignment and do have a meeting with me.  But this has me thinking a lot more specifically about – what about students who don’t know what to expect from A library, much their “their” library.  If “library” to them means “unstaffed room with perhaps outdated books” in it, don’t we have a bigger hill to climb than the complexities of how to use our specific libraries — where do students who have no school librarians get their sense of the type of help they can expect from any library?  I’m not sure.

So lately when I talk to faculty about things I talk less about the stuff we have to offer students and more about this – I don’t think most of them know about these numbers.  I don’t think they always know the extent to which students have been on their own when it comes to research and evidence.  I think this all makes the soon-to-be-published research I saw teased on my Twitter last week a little more important.  What do you think?  Does a lack of school librarians mean starting with what a library IS?

And I also wonder because I have been hearing more and more from instruction librarians at conferences and meetings that they want to focus their dwindling resources on the advanced majors “who can really take advantage of our resources and services” — that we should automate the basic instruction that can be done with a tutorial or online module and leave the real teaching (since there are fewer of us in academic libraries and our numbers aren’t getting any bigger ) for the classes with the real need.  And I get that there are fewer of us and the numbers won’t be getting any bigger, but I have to wonder — if we ignore them in K-12 and then ignore them in their first two years while they’re learning what college is, what college research is and what a research library (or a library full stop) is — what will their motivation BE to seek us out when the time is right?   I have no answers here, only questions, but I can’t imagine that that will be an easy sell, and I think there must be a better answer, even if I don’t know what it is yet.

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