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A woman’s hand pulls a book from a library shelf.

New York City’s public libraries last week avoided deep budget cuts that would have reduced hours, but educators say the dearth of public school librarians affects many students.

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Lack of librarians hurt students, NYC educators say

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After New York City’s public libraries last week averted deep cuts that would have significantly reduced hours, some parents and educators are raising alarm about the state of libraries in the city’s public schools.

For years, advocates have warned that many students do not have access to a library or a certified librarian on their campus. The nation’s largest school system, with 1,600 schools, has roughly 260 certified school librarians, education department officials said.

And according to a Chalkbeat analysis of school budget item lines for librarians, a larger share of high-poverty schools had no librarian on budget. (Other schools may employ librarians whose salaries are paid outside of school budgets, like through a school’s PTA, which may not be reflected in the data.)

It’s an issue that’s developed over years, as schools have had to make difficult financial decisions in the face of declining funds, and as librarians say their work has been devalued in the public eye. New York City isn’t alone. In Philadelphia, for example, there were just 10 certified school librarians in 2020, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

But in the five boroughs, where more than 800,000 K-12 students attend the city’s public schools, other factors have come into play. Under state law, secondary schools with more than 700 students are required to have a full-time, certified school librarian, with part-time librarians required for those who fall below the enrollment threshold. (Charter and elementary schools are exempt from the requirement.) But as the city trended toward smaller schools under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the early 2000s, schools found themselves with fewer students and shared building spaces — with libraries sometimes losing out.

“The library is often a thing that’s on the chopping block, because it isn’t seen as essential as a cafeteria, for example,” said Emily Drabinski, president-elect of the American Library Association and a CUNY librarian. “I don’t blame principals for having to make those tough calls. … But it speaks to our failure to understand the contributions that school librarians make to learning at school.”

A Chalkbeat analysis also found nearly a third of the city’s schools with more than 700 students — which would meet the state’s requirement for a full-time librarian — did not have one listed in their most recent budget.  

Not having a librarian comes with consequences, educators say

Jenny Fox, a parent and children’s book author, said she started looking into the issue when her son’s Brooklyn elementary school lost its part-time librarian.

“It’s a quiet problem,” she said. “Half the parents at our school didn’t even know we didn’t have a librarian — people just assume that comes with a school.”

But not having a library at school can come with consequences. Studies have shown students at schools with certified librarians on staff tend to perform better on measures of academic achievement. School librarians often help inspire a joy of reading, as well as help students develop critical research and media literacy skills.

“In New York City, we’re always promoting college and career readiness,” said Arlene Laverde, a school librarian at Townsend Harris High School in Queens and New York Library Association president. “But what college students do you know that don’t do research? If you have to learn research skills in college, you are now five steps behind the private schools that have school libraries and school librarians ready to help.”

Laverede, who has worked as an NYC educator for more than 30 years and in school libraries for half of her career, said she’s watched as the field has shrunk. She’s heard people chalk up her role to just “reading all day” — a warped perception that has had painful consequences as schools have sought to trim expenses over the years, looking for positions that appear expendable. 

While the majority of schools have no librarians budgeted, schools serving students with higher rates of poverty were also less likely to have one, according to a Chalkbeat analysis. More than 81% of schools with poverty rates higher than 75% did not have a librarian staff member budgeted. That was roughly six percentage points higher than schools with lower poverty rates.

Lauren Comito, a librarian at Brooklyn Public Library and board chair of Urban Librarians Unite, has seen students without a library or librarian at their school come into her library seeking help. Libraries on campus offer a crucial space for student exploration, one that some are missing out on, she added. 

“We say that we want kids and students and schools to develop critical thinking skills, we want them to develop research skills, we want them to be able to identify misinformation or go out and find their own answer,” she said. “That’s something missing in schools — that ability to explore without it being connected to a rubric, and libraries provide some of that.”

City program aims to bolster librarian pipeline

Mina Leazer, a librarian at Manhattan’s Seward Park Campus Library, transitioned from teaching into her current role through an education department program. Working as a librarian has allowed her to continue helping students, providing a space for them to not just read and relax, but also to come seeking advice or help with a wide range of questions, she said. 

Leazer said she fears many students without campus libraries or librarians won’t become lifelong readers. 

“If those habits aren’t formed in that critical moment, they’re not going to miraculously appear again,” she said.

The city is trying to strengthen the pipeline of librarians, who are “invaluable resources for our young people in developing literacy skills and fostering academic success and college and career readiness,” an education department spokesperson said.

The education department offers a “Teacher 2 Librarian” program, which partners with universities to help licensed teachers earn a master’s degree in library and information science and become state certified to work as a school librarian. There are 18 new candidates preparing to join the program, according to an education department spokesperson. The city plans to keep working to increase the number of certified school librarians in public schools.

But though some programs have successfully turned teachers into certified librarians, Laverde said she worries years of dwindling positions have also turned some away from the career path.

“In their mind, it’s a dead certification,” she said of prospective librarians. “Why am I going to invest money into this degree and for a school library certification if there are no jobs available?”

Zalykha Mokim, a school librarian at Newcomers High School, a Long Island City school that serves newly arrived immigrants who may be learning English as a second language, shares others’ concerns over the scarcity of certified librarians.

Mokim became a librarian last year after a decade teaching — after experiencing multiple schools without a librarian on staff, and seeing how children across the city lacked equal access to librarians. The low number of school librarians has disproportionately impacted students of color and students from low-income families, she added.

“Of course I’m concerned about it, but I’m also hopeful, because there is a cohort of librarians who are trying to bring advocacy and trying to bring it into this realm where libraries are seen as essential and necessary for a vibrant public school community,” Mokim said. “Libraries are not a luxury for our students. Libraries are a necessity.”

Julian Shen-Berro is a reporter covering New York City. Contact him at jshen-berro@chalkbeat.org.