School Libraries 2021: Impact, Obstacles, and the Fight for the Future

In the November issue of SLJ, we examine the state of U.S. school libraries and librarian ­positions—the fight to preserve the institutions and the vast range of critical services performed by library professionals nationwide.

Illustration by Ken Orvidas


With versatile expertise and flexibility in their day-to-day responsibilities, school librarians could help lead education out of the current chaos. These stories share the scope of librarians’ influence and the fight to keep them in schools.

In this issue, we examine the state of U.S. school libraries and librarian ­positions—the fight to preserve the institutions and the vast range of critical
services performed by library professionals nationwide.

As the country struggles through the pandemic, which has laid bare inequities, school librarians have been trained for this moment, possessing a skill set to lead ­education to a better place. But the profession itself may be endangered.

Despite the exceptional work by school librarians, their numbers are declining. In 2019, there were 20 percent fewer school librarians than a decade earlier, according to the School Librarian ­Investigation—Decline or Evolution? (SLIDE) research project.

The loss of librarians hit particularly hard in areas of greatest need, and that was before COVID-19. The impact of the pandemic on school librarian jobs is unknown. Could COVID relief funding ­secure those positions or even restore librarians in districts that eliminated them? Or could schools that closed their media centers last year decide they didn’t miss them, and apply money elsewhere?

As the SLIDE report said: “It could go either way.”

We open our reporting from Washington, DC, Seattle, and New York City, revealing the inequities in public education and ongoing advocacy efforts to preserve school librarian positions and services, which impact kids and teens who need them the most.

A look at Washington State, and the legislative win there that mandated money for school librarians in every school, reveals why achieving that goal has fallen short.

Librarians play a vital role in student learning, ­fostering multiple literacies, critical thinking skills, and a lifelong love of reading among students. They

are community builders, too. Look at Julie Malek, a school librarian in Denver who not only forges meaningful connections between students and the library but also cultivates relationships among the kids, the school, and the broader community.

Then there’s Joseph Vernacotola. The middle/high school librarian in Barberton, OH, documented his pandemic journey in pictures. Taken from March 2020 to September 2021, Vernacotola’s photos show a library shuttered without warning, everything left in place, until it was transformed into classrooms while Vernacotola became a remote math and literature teacher. Now, ­after months of uncertainty, he has returned to the library, which is bustling again, as it should be.

He was fortunate. Once administrators perceive that the school can get by without a librarian, or see one reassigned excelling as a classroom teacher, they may lean toward cutting the library program altogether. And once that budget line is gone, reinstating a school librarian is unlikely.

While advocating for themselves and their profession, school librarians also defend the freedom to read and field an increasing number of challenges to their collections.should

The statistics—funding and job numbers, full-time versus part-time—are important. But the narratives tell us why they matter. Stories, as all librarians know, are the best messengers. It’s the personal impact libraries and librarians have on students, their families, and communities that can move people to act—to advocate for, defend, and demand librarians in every child’s school.

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