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The view from my circ desk vs. stories of heartbreaking inequity

'Closed Sign in Yellowstone' photo (c) 2012, Bryan Mills - license:

It’s the close of the school day.

I am sitting at the circ desk looking out at our library where our kids have access to more than 85 computers and assorted devices and tools for reading, research and creation.

I am thinking about the great week we had: scanning curation sites for breaking news, honing filtered searches on our new Discovery service, mining Creative Commons image portals for the very best conceptual representations for senior presentations, producing thesis-driven infographics, and remixing poetry with digital storytelling tools.

This week, I taught and guided more than 24 class visits, planned instruction, delivered four periods of booktalks, and tweaked the many pages I curate to provide better access to lessons, databases, ebooks and media.

And Book Club, Gay Straight Alliance, Students for Feminism, and Lit Mag met in their library after school.

And, one mile away, 

across the Philadelphia city line,

it’s a completely different scene.

There are 242 schools in the School District of Philadelphia. 

Only 16 librarians are left standing across that line.  (And it seems that number is arguable.)

And what my [former] city colleagues tell me, is that NO Philadelphia public high schools have certified school librarians.

Consider this divide.

In the coming years, we will see groups of students entering college and the work force with strong information and communication skills as a result of strong library programs.

We will also see a growing number of students who have never seen a school library and have never met a school librarian. 

This group of students will be largely unprepared to become ethical and effective users and producers of ideas and information.

These are scary times. They should be especially scary times for the parents of kids who are going to compete with our kids in an information technology-driven world.

We were told to be indispensable, but right now, being indispensable is not enough.

Slash marks by large city school districts are made with little regard to what they remove from the heart of a school and from its learning culture. 

Here’s a heart-breaking recap of our children’s recent losses.


In Philadelphia, School Librarians Still in Flux, Aug. 22, 2013, SLJ, Lauren Barack.

Already hobbled, Philadelphia schools are facing their first day with fewer school librarians—continuing a trend in the metropolitan school district and the state of Pennsylvania as well. Of the approximately 22 remaining certified school librarians working in the Philadelphia school district, some are not returning to their school librarian positions.

Budget crisis shutters libraries at 2 top schools,, Susan Snyder, Sept. 14, 2013.

But now both libraries [Masterman and Central’s] – the academic hearts of two of Philadelphia’s most prestigious schools – have been shuttered.

They are the latest victims of the schools’ financial crisis. The district did not fund librarians – so principals at Central, Masterman, and any number of other schools had to cut those positions, along with counselors, assistant principals, and teachers.

“I’m going to tear up,” Masterman principal Marjorie Neff said at her desk Thursday as she explained the loss. “The library is the center of our instructional program here. People think about things like the library and counselors as extras. They are not extras.”

Central’s principal, Timothy McKenna, called the library the “hub of learning” at his 2,400-student school, but said the future was beyond his ability to protect.  . . .

“A librarian was never even in the mix for us,” he said. “In the past, we had a lot more decision-making power. And this year, it was limited.”

Parents, too, are trying to figure out how to get students some use of the library, Neff said. She has offered to be the new faculty adviser to the Ink Drinkers. And Kearney, the former librarian, who now works at Childs School, has started a blog to advise Masterman students on great books and databases from afar.

Bernadette Kearney, former librarian at Masterman, shared with me her response to Snyder’s article.

Here’s an excerpt:

Your article stated that there were 15 certified librarians in the district; I think the number may be fewer.

After working hard in this field for over 20 years and then seeing it virtually wiped out in a school district  with students so needy for literacy and inquiry skills, I can’t help but question what did we (I) do wrong?

Why does the general public think that school libraries are nonessential to the education process and, maybe more importantly, to shaping a life of learning?

As I am sure you are aware, Philadelphia is not the only city to eliminate school librarians. This summer, I made an effort to do some research on this issue.  

Washington, D.C., New York City,  Chicago,  districts  in Maryland, California, Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania have either cut school librarians or–as in the case of New York City–are threatening to cut them.

I mention this not because I’m advocating for librarian employment, but because of the elimination of the service they provide.  Research has shown that students in schools with libraries fare better academically; there is also a theory put forth by the American Library Association that school libraries offer safe havens for students needing emotional support (not breaking news to any librarian!) . . .

Maybe we librarians are just too quiet! I know I am always buried in my work . . . and have not had the courage to voice my outrage at the inequity to lawmakers. Being one of the few certified school librarians left in the district working in a school library, I feel responsible for changing public perception about the importance of having a certified school librarian as part of a school; I hope our little group can make a difference.  I am grateful for your article because it sheds some light on this injustice. Not only should high achieving schools like Masterman and Central have certified school librarians, but every public school in every state.  

Closing School Libraries? This Means War. Philadelphia Weekly, Stephen Segal, Sept. 13, 2013.

Let me spell this out in no uncertain terms: The library is the single most important operation in any school. 

It’s more important than each and every classroom. 

The library is where students engage their own minds. 

The library is the place that embodies the concept of intellectual activity being something for a person to choose.  

Whether you are a social progressive who believes public education should be the nation’s top funding priority, a fiscal conservative who believes a free market of school-choice options is the only way to keep educators accountable for their job performance, or a moderate who just hopes kids will emerge into adult society as vaguely functional human beings, there is nothing to debate here. Libraries are civilization.

Whether you believe public-school teachers are tragically underpaid and under-appreciated martyrs to humanity’s future or lazy union employees who enjoy coasting on tenure and seniority through a lifetime of ten-month work years, there is nothing to debate here. Libraries are education.

Whether you point a finger of blame for our sorry school system at negligent parents, corrupt politicians, inner-city violence or an uncaring corporate nation that prefers to raise mindless consumers rather than engaged citizens, there is nothing to debate here. Libraries are sanctuary.

A school where students are not free to use a library is not a school.  It’s a multiple-choice indoctrination camp.


Mayor Rahm’s Grand Experiment: Libraries Without Librarians

For another perspective, I called a high school librarian, who told me: “Good librarians do more than check out books. They build the library’s collection. They decide what books to purchase. Additionally, they teach students how to do research. That might be their most important function. They teach people how to be critical thinkers.”

But how about this, Mr. Mayor? Stop holding press conferences in school libraries that have no librarians because of your massive budget cuts. It’s bad enough you’re bankrupting our schools—you don’t have to rub it in our collective face.


City Schools Ask State to Waive Librarian Requirements, Brooklyn Bureau, Madeleine Cummings, Sept. 26, 2013.

On August 9, the DOE requested a variance from the state, asking official permission to offer fewer librarians in schools. While the DOE says it recognizes librarians’ value, in the face of fiscal challenges and technological changes the department is looking for alternative ways to provide students with library services. In place of hiring certified librarians, schools could train teachers to offer the same services, bring in parent volunteers or have librarians circulate between schools . . .

 “We have a full-time librarian,” Jada Mills, 11, says proudly of her Harlem elementary school, P.S. 76. “If we didn’t, I would ask the principal to put one in the school.”


Cutting libraries shows warped priorities, Lisa  Falkenberg, Houston Chronicle, Oct. 9, 2013

Schools without librarians. Schools without any library at all. What are we doing to our schools?
Maybe I’m having an existential moment. Maybe I’ve spent too much time with Diane Ravitch’s new book, “Reign of Error,” which explores the disastrous implications of the “reform” movement pushing testing, privatization and punitive teacher “accountability” . . .

For poor children, many of whom live in homes with no books and neighborhoods with few public libraries and bookstores, libraries are life rafts. Studies have shown that less access to books means lower reading achievement, and more access can actually mitigate some of the effects of poverty.

Then there’s the money for testing. HISD last year approved about $3.3 million for testing tools known as “formative assessments,” which track what students are learning. In an alternative, test-free universe, that amount is enough to pay for about 55 librarians.


James Patterson asks us how we might  save reading and school libraries, SLJ, James Patterson, Oct. 2. 2013

I know you’re mad. I know your colleagues have been fired or may be on the brink of being fired. I know your libraries are shutting their doors left and right. All this is happening, even though studies show that having children grow up without a school librarian is really, really bad  . . .

Does it come down to having me call your school board president? “Hi, I’m author James Patterson. I hear you’re voting in a very important election tomorrow, and I wanted to talk to you about keeping books and reading as your number one priority….”

Tell me with whom I need to speak. Tell me how to start changing the system’s priorities.

This fall, ALA President, Barbara Stripling launched the Declaration for the Right to Libraries.

In the spirit of the United States Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we believe that libraries are essential to a democratic society. Every day, in countless communities across our nation and the world, millions of children, students and adults use libraries to learn, grow and achieve their dreams. In addition to a vast array of books, computers and other resources, library users benefit from the expert teaching and guidance of librarians and library staff to help expand their minds and open new worlds. We declare and affirm our right to quality libraries -public, school, academic, and special – and urge you to show your support by signing your name to this Declaration for the Right to Libraries.

Shall we do a signing celebration in the place where it all started during Midwinter?

Coming soon: a Philadelphia student’s response to the shuttering of her school library.


Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza


  1. It is not only the fact that this group of students will go into the world without the support and guidance of school librarian in analyzing and producing information but it is the amnesia that these students will bring to the teaching profession — when they get there — of what the contributions of an engaged librarian can make to the educational environment. They won’t demand a library and a librarian because they didn’t grow with one — and thus the cycle will be perpetuated.

    • joycevalenza says

      You are absolutely right, Floyd. But I think the amnesia may be even more widespread. Current administrators will never have seen an effective library program.

  2. Thank you for writing this, Joyce. As a public Children’s Librarian in Philadelphia, I’ve seen the daily impact of the lack of school librarians, along with the lack of nurses, counselors, books, paper, etc.. I see either no school libraries, ones that are completely outdated, or ones that are staffed by volunteers, if they are staffed at all. As I’m sure you know, when school librarians are hired, they are lucky to have a budget, a circulation system, or a guarantee that they’ll even be there the next year.

    So… as a public librarian, I have at least a dozen schools in my area, anywhere from PreK to 8th grade, public, private and charter. I have no formal background in education. And our library system also lacks staff and materials, and respect from the ones making the budgets. I collaborate with all the teachers that I can, but I can’t take the place of a crack team of certified, dedicated school librarians!

    We know that our city’s kids need school libraries and school librarians. (And nurses, counselors, books, etc. etc.) Where do we go from here?

    • joycevalenza says

      Thank you, Sarah! I was there, also as a FLP children’s and YA librarian for 12 years. Yes, our kids deserve our different services and support. (And they need counselors, nurses, art, music and sports too.)

  3. Terrific work, Joyce, in capturing the entirety of this crisis. This country has plenty of money to spend on wiring schools and purchasing equipment, yet can’t find money to retain the librarians who are most qualified to teach students how to use technology and the web effectively. Many times I’ve heard a superintendents proudly boast that they’ve put a Smart Board in every classroom, and then watched their face fall when I ask them to explain how these boards are being used to advance learning outcomes.

  4. Hiya Joycie,

    Your post brought to mind Jonathan Kozol’s book Savage Inqualities in which he concluded that there are schools for the governors and schools for the governed. Schools without libraries produce graduates who are only trained to give a correct “response” not to think. Too very, very sad for those trapped in them.


  5. FYI, an anonymous donor heard of two of Philadelphia’s most high-profile schools laying off their librarians and gave the District $205,000. … Now how about the hundreds of other schools? Please?

    The story is here:

  6. Joyce,

    This breaks my heart (again). For some reason I thought the east coast was getting it right. It is damaging to students that the east coast appears to have slipped up in thinking about what students need and deserve.

    Students need to be safe, careful, respectful and creative in sharing and using information. A Teacher Librarian does not just give access to books, databases, computers and e-readers. A TL makes sure students know how to use the tools safely and effectively.

    Today I went into my school library as a Spanish Teacher. My students know how to log in to the computers. They know not to share their last names on the content they create for the web. They know to give attribution to others. They know how to use Creative Commons media. They know how to upload and download files. They know how to save a file and change the file name. They use databases. They know I appreciate fiction, nonfiction and the books they read in class instead of doing their Spanish (I appreciate the books, not the action). They know I read YA Lit.

    My Spanish students know all of these things and more because I am also the District Librarian. But students from other teachers can’t even start research or a simple web search because THEY CANNOT EVEN LOG ON TO THE COMPUTERS. Some students still don’t know how to log in. A quarter of the school year has already gone by and they can’t log in? That was step 1 of Library Orientation for Freshmen.. There is no more “Library Orientation” – with 4 Spanish classes, 160 Spanish students and 16,000 students in the district I don’t know where to begin with patching up the wounds.

    We are having the Superintendent of Schools for the State of California speak at our school next week. This, a school with one Teacher Librarian (me), for one period, for 6 high schools. What a joke. We are implementing Common Core with a 1/5 Librarian for 6 High Schools.


  1. […] I am profoundly saddened as I write increasingly about the growing divides that separate young people. More children are growing up without school library programs and […]

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