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SLIDE: data, interactive tools, and an equity wake-up call (Part 1)

We now have the data.

Important new research documents concerns relating to the future of our profession and implications for those we serve.

The School Librarian Investigation—Decline or Evolution?, or SLIDE research project emphasizes a critical equity issue: our most vulnerable students–those living in poverty, minority populations and English language learners–are those most impacted by declining numbers of school librarians. These losses and their potential impact are a sobering reality, a serious challenge, and a wake-up call.

Despite decades of research consistently showing positive correlations between high-quality programs and achievement, patterns suggest, for today’s children and for children to come, a school library-rich future is, or potentially will not be, evenly distributed.

Thanks to SLIDE, we now have quantitative data and a growing kit of digital tools to help us better understand school library staffing issues at the national, state and district levels. Interactive digital tools now allow us to easily make comparisons. And soon, qualitative results will offer a better understanding of why educational leaders choose to make their school staffing decisions.

Poster from Kachel, Debra E., and Keith Curry Lance. 2021. “Data Speaks: Preliminary Data on the Status of School Librarians in the U.S.” Teacher Librarian 48 (5): 30-31.

Launched in September 2020, SLIDE is funded by a Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian/Research in Service to Practice grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services and conducted under the auspices of Antioch University Seattle. The study is led by project director Debra E. Kachel of Antioch and principal investigator Keith Curry Lance of the RSL Research Group.

The Perspectives Report

The project’s newly released Perspectives Report, based on analysis of National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) data, examines school library employment in the United States from 2009 to the latest data available at the time of analysis, 2018-19. The researchers summarize national, state and district-level findings, discuss their implications, and pose questions for future research about existential issues facing school librarians as a profession.

States, districts and school type very widely in their approach to support for school library programs. The report’s Executive Summary (pp. v-viii) points to specific patterns:

Nationally: It’s not about the money! In 2018-19, there were more than 42,000 school librarians in the U.S—almost 20% fewer than in 2009-10. Over the same interval, Instructional Coordinators increased by almost 34%; District Administrators, by more than 16%, and School Administrators by more than 15%. Yet: In 2009-10, the national ratio of students per librarian was 939 to 1.

State perspectives:

Between 2009-10 and 2018-19, all states lost school librarian full-time equivalents (FTEs) except New Hampshire which gained almost 3%.

East vs. West and the South!: In 2018-19, generally, there were more school librarians in the eastern half of the country than the western half. Among the four major U.S. regions, the Southern states had the largest concentrations of school librarians. In Texas alone, there were more librarians than in the bottom 20 states combined.

It’s an equity issue: Districts with higher levels of poverty, more minority students, and more English Language Learners were less likely to have librarians. Majority Hispanic districts were more than twice as likely to have no librarians and less than half as likely to have the highest level of librarian staffing.

Rural vs. suburban: Districts with no librarians were likelier to be ones with smaller enrollments and to be located in rural areas. Districts with high levels of librarian staffing tended to have larger enrollments and to be located in suburban communities.

Prevalence in southern states: Of the 10 states with the highest state ratios of librarian FTE per school (.75 or higher), were in the South: Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Virginia, Tennessee, Maryland, North Carolina, and Mississippi. Connecticut—the only state in this group outside the South—rounds out the top 10 states on this ratio.

Highest student per librarian ratios: The 13 states with the highest ratios of students per librarian (1,500 or more to 1) include eight Western
states (New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Oregon, Idaho, and California), four Midwestern states (Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Minnesota), and Massachusetts.

Lowest student per librarian ratios: (fewer than 750 to 1) occurred in eight Southern states: Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina, Virginia, and Louisiana.

States with preparation programs: School librarians were least prevalent and most likely to experience job loss in states with no institutions of higher education preparing school librarians. As of Spring 2021, the 5 states with no such institutions were Alaska, Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, and Wyoming.

Mandates matter (when they are enforced!): School librarians were least prevalent in states that do not mandate some level of school librarian staffing, and less prevalent in states that have such mandates but do not enforce them. They were most prevalent in states that have and enforce mandates.

District perspectives:

Future Ready Schools Districts: In 2018-19, districts that had signed the Future Ready Schools (FRS) Pledge were more likely to provide the highest level of librarian staffing (.75 FTE or more per school) and less likely to have no librarians.

Charter Schools: There were only 321 school librarians in charter school districts in 2018-19. Thus, 90% of charter districts had NO school librarians.

Source: Lance, Keith Curry, and Debra E. Kachel. 2021. Perspectives on School Librarian Employment in the United States, 2009-10 to 2018-19.

Perspectives’ newly launched Interactive State Survey allows users to drill down into Fall 2020 data across the 50 states and District of Columbia to gain local and comparative context from survey items that examined the following:

  • State-Mandated School Librarians
  • School Library Standards/Guidelines
  • State Government School Library Official
  • State Data on School Librarians
  • State Funding Directly to School Libraries
  • State-Funded/Discounted E-Resources
  • Higher Education Institutions Preparing School Librarians
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Screen-Shot-2021-07-18-at-4.26.39-PM-500x175.png
Interactive map of State Survey data.

Implications and questions

The Perspectives Report suggests several issues that beg further study:

  • The gap between the AASL standards and the realities facing school librarians and how to address them;
  • How—and to what extent—higher education institutions are preparing school librarians with the leadership skills needed to close the gap between the AASL standards and the realities of public education;
  • National and state “pipeline” issues that create challenges in recruiting and hiring school librarians;
  • The learning loss of students in districts without librarians, particularly those without them long-term;
  • How the FTE level of school librarians relates to job performance, particularly in relationship to numbers of schools, students, and teachers;
  • What library support staff are able to accomplish in the absence of school librarians;
  • How the information-seeking behavior and inquiry-based learning of students are affected by the presence and absence (especially long term) of school librarians;
  • The differential long-term impact of inequitable access to school librarians on at-risk students (students in poverty, minority students, and English Language Learners) and others;
  • Why districts that spent the least per pupil had better librarian staffing than districts that spent more;
  • How librarians work in more innovative ways when participating in efforts such as Future Ready Schools (FRS); and
  • How, in the absence of school librarians, charter schools meet the information needs of their students and teachers.

Among the report’s conclusions is a call to awareness and action for the profession.

Kachel and Curry share:

“If school librarians (regardless of job title) are to have a long-term future in U.S. public education, the school library community needs to better understand the perceptions, values, and priorities of those who make staffing decisions.”

Lance and Kachel 2021.Perspectives on school librarian employment in the United States, 2009-10 to 2018-19. SLIDE: The School Librarian Investigation—Decline or Evolution? (p. 83)

Next steps: What’s really behind the SLIDE?
Over the next year, the study’s qualitative phase begins. The research team plans to interview 100 district-level decision-makers around the country in settings where the most dramatic employment changes have occurred to learn more about the specific factors influencing their staffing decisions.  Insights from these interviews are the critical missing pieces to inform our advocacy efforts.

My next post features a chat with SLIDE project director Deb Kachel who offers a deeper perspective on the Perspectives report and its implications.

Learn more about the SLIDE study:

SLIDE Project

SLIDE State Survey

On Facebook and Twitter

Kachel, Debra E. 2021. “Data Speaks: Addressing Equity of Access to School Librarians for Students.Teacher Librarian 48 (3): 49-52.

Kachel, Debra E., and Keith Curry Lance. 2021. “The Status of State Support of School Library Programs.” Teacher Librarian 48 (5): 8-13.

Lance, Keith Curry and Debra E. Kachel. (2021, July). Perspectives on school librarian employment in the United States, 2009-10 to 2018-19. SLIDE: The School Librarian Investigation—Decline or Evolution?

Lance, Keith Curry, and Debra E. Kachel. 2018. “Why School Librarians Matter: What Years of Research Tell Us.” Kappan Online. March 26.

Lance, Keith Curry, and Debra E. Kachel. 2021. Press Release: Most Vulnerable Students Impacted by Declining Numbers of School Librarians. July 19.

Pun, Ray. (2021, June 7). An Interview with Debra E. Kachel and Keith Curry Lance on the IMLS project, “SLIDE: School Librarian Investigation: Decline or Evolution?” IFLA CPDDL Blog.

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. Sara Kelly Johns says

    Thanks for this powerful, strong post, Joyce. The school library profession needs this to stimulate reflection, growth and action. Kudos to Deb Kachel and Keith Curry Lance for their work, a wake-up call. It IS an equity issue!

  2. Terry young says

    The Golden Age of School Librarians and Libraries is behind us. Strive to stop the slide!

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