Spokane-area children know what time it is: The days are longer, camp is right around the corner, soon the local pools will open and there will be three glorious months without homework. School is almost out for summer. But when Spokane Public School students return to their classrooms in the fall, someone will be missing. Last April, facing a $31 million budget deficit, Spokane Public School administrators decided to eliminate all librarian positions from the district.
For the librarians who have seniority, they will be moved into teaching positions in classrooms; for junior members, they will be laid off — a catastrophic life change for people who invested their time, money and energy into guiding students through an ever-changing informational landscape. The district promises that all students will still have access to library materials, same as they do now, but instead of a specialist creating and curating those library hours, classroom teachers will be in charge.
I understand SPS was in the untenable position of balancing a budget with a significant deficit; however, the impact school librarians have on our students, especially during a time where information literacy is at a premium, is immense. Getting rid of librarians in the schools sends a simple message to parents, students, educators and the community: A librarian's job is nonessential and someone else can pick up the slack. A school without a librarian is going to impact our students in ways that we can't possibly yet predict. We know now, though, the ways in which librarians positively affect our students in the present day.
According to "Why School Librarians Matter: What Years of Research Tell Us," published in the March 2018 edition of Phi Delta Kappan: The Professional Journal for Educators, data from more than 34 statewide studies shows that students who have a strong library program tend to earn better standardized test scores. If test metrics are not that impressive to you, consider that schools with supported librarians also see a correlation in higher graduation rates. Also, for our most vulnerable school populations, students who have been historically and institutionally underserved — students of color, low-income students and those with disabilities — the benefits associated with good library programs are even stronger.
Researchers also discovered that many school leaders seldom understand the true function of a librarian, advancing the stereotypical belief that librarians are simply the "keeper of books," rather than an integral component of the school ecosystem. Librarians are trained in education technology, and by virtue of being in contact with all the students and teachers in a school, have a "big picture view" on the building and how curriculum, technology and programming impact the entire school population. Librarians are essential keepers of institutional knowledge and perspective, and last spring they were informed that those skills were not essential.
System collapse doesn't happen all at once. Consider the scientific reports warning of mass species extinction, bleaching coral reefs and unstable weather patterns as the planet warms. We can read these reports in our newspapers and still walk out of our homes to a blue sky and drive to work removed from the reality that these reports deliver. But for how long can we feel buffered? The system never fails all in one go. It dies by tiny steps of attrition. School may be in session next year, but the system will be weaker because of its missing librarians. ♦
Aileen Keown Vaux is an essayist and poet whose chapbook Consolation Prize was published by Scablands Books in 2018.