Texas’ Disappearing School Librarians

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Meisha Washington reads a book in the newly reopened library at Houston’s Hogg Middle School. The library had closed due to state budget cuts
Patric Schneider
Meisha Washington reads a book in the newly reopened library at Houston’s Hogg Middle School. The library had closed due to state budget cuts.

There once was a time in Texas when adding more students and building new schools also meant hiring more school librarians. What magical, idyllic times those must have been, way back in 2010.

In the past three years, Texas has been hemorrhaging librarians. Even as the number of students in Texas public schools exceeds five million, the number of certified librarians in schools has dropped by 500, down to 4,640. Texas has about as many librarians today as it did a decade ago, when schools had 600,000 fewer students.

Even after absorbing $5.4 billion in funding cuts from the 2011 Legislature—damage only partially remedied this year—Texas schools have shed 3 percent of their counselors, 2 percent of their teachers and 1 percent of their nurses. But they’ve cut 9 percent of their librarians. (All while the student body grew by 3 percent.) Forced to skimp by the Legislature, many administrators went skimping in the library.

In early October, the Houston Chronicle told the story of Mary Burgert, a middle-school librarian laid off mid-year because of budget cuts. Houston ISD is a particularly tough place for librarians. The state’s largest school district has just 97 certified librarians, down from 169 four years ago, according to the Chronicle. About 60 percent of the district’s schools, the Chronicle reported, are without a librarian this year. In dozens of schools, the library is simply closed.

You might be wondering, So what’s the big deal anyway? Is it really that hard to find a book? Can’t kids just figure out how to Google on their own?

Gloria Meraz with the Texas Library Association says a little respect for librarians, particularly in the Legislature, is long overdue.

“Like every group, we were cut in 2011, but we’ve seen the steady erosion of support for several years now,” she says. “The fact that there are districts that are opting to reduce the ranks of school librarians really puts Texas schoolchildren at a significant disadvantage.”

Meraz cites a 2011 Legislative Budget Board report that called librarians “critical to campus effectiveness and student achievement,” and a 2001 study that found higher standardized test scores in schools with libraries than in those without.

Even in the years before massive school budget cuts, library staffing wasn’t keeping pace with student growth. Many schools that report having a certified librarian on staff, Meraz says, share that librarian with another school. The state doesn’t set minimum standards for library staffing.

Some schools are turning away from physical library stacks in favor of tablet and laptop-borrowing media centers. Some charter schools skip the library altogether.

“I think it’s telling that there is no mandate for school librarians to be on each campus,” Meraz says. “So many people have a very outdated image of what a school library is.”

Beyond clerical shelf-sorting work, librarians are there to instill good research techniques and help distinguish between good and unreliable information—skills that become even more important when you get your facts off the Internet.

“It’s a common misconception. People think that, well, everything is online, so we don’t need librarians. Truly, nothing could be further from the truth,” Meraz says. “What we find is that people need even more help.”

 

Patrick Michels is a reporter for the Texas Observer and a former legislative intern. He has been a staff writer and web editor at the Dallas Observer, and a former editor of the Texas Independent. He has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University, a master's in photojournalism from the University of Texas at Austin, and is a competitive eating enthusiast.

  • texasaggie

    I am surprised that there were enough librarians in TX that their numbers can be cut. I wasn’t aware that parents cared about whether or not their kids could read and understand what they read.

    I can remember back in the early 90′s going into the house of a psychologist with two daughters and the only reading material I could find was a Glamour magazine and a Seventeen magazine. But that was College Station so things may be different in the rest of the Republic. I know that Laredo has no real bookstores other than the public library even though it has a university and a community college. The bookstore in the Mall went out of business years ago and one used bookstore lasted less than a year.

    • sunshinemel

      Smart school administrators who are versed in 21st century learning will make sure that Texas schools have certified librarians. Unfortunately, there are too many administrators that have missed the bus. They still believe that school librarians just read to the students and shelve books.