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Opinion | Michigan school libraries are still in limbo. Why?

Patrick Taylor

I'm going to be a little candid here because I'm frustrated. Maybe it's because I'm new to the librarian world. Maybe it's the overall political climate and the apathy and disillusionment it brings to so many of us. I don't really know, but I think either root of annoyance is valid.

I cannot understand why it is such an uphill battle for Michigan schools to have access to libraries and librarians. When I was a student in Trenton Schools, I remember the three librarians I had as teachers (because, yes, school librarians are in fact teachers): Mrs. O’Leary at Anderson Elementary, Ms. Hardin at Arthurs Middle School, and Mrs. Yee at Trenton High. 

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We had access to a librarian in all buildings and at all levels. These three women worked tirelessly to ensure that we found books we loved (and guided the reluctant readers in breaking their conceptions and internalizations when it came to reading). Luckily, when Ms. Hardin and Mrs. Yee met retirement, Trenton maintained the library media specialist positions and the women working there now -‒ Melissa Lambert and Lisa Fulcher -- are invaluable teachers in the district. Unfortunately, this has not been the case for the majority of schools in the state.

I cannot understand why in 25 years we've gone from staffing real librarians in schools to having libraries in some districts solely operated by a paraprofessional, aide, or volunteer. They have no requirement for a degree or teaching credentials, but are expected to do the job of a teacher with a master's degree. 

I am not trying to be dismissive of paraprofessionals, nor am I trying to devalue them; schools would be nothing without support staff. I am simply making the distinction (and even the Michigan Department of Education has recently made recommendations) that most school libraries are not appropriately staffed. Furthermore, to publicly maintain that a library can be operated by non-certified personnel is insulting to the profession of librarianship.

According to the Michigan Association for Media in Education (MAME), only 34 percent of Michigan students have access to a library with any sort of staff; only 18 percent are certified librarians; and only 8 percent are full time. We’ve seen these statistics before, but it doesn’t make them any less alarming. Michigan ranks third-to-last nationwide in its ratio of students to teacher librarians.

Why are we shoveling money into Chromebooks when 56 percent of third-graders can barely read? Why are we so hell-bent on using technology for the sake of technology when we're not staffing teachers who can ease the integration of educational technology into the classroom? Why aren't we providing kids access to the most knowledgeable people in the profession to help students evaluate information in an era of "fake news”?

Why is it so hard to understand that librarians are the answer? And it's not money. There's money.

The American Library Association, the American Association for School Librarians and MAME have done a great deal of advocacy and outreach regarding this issue. I encourage everyone who sees the value in school libraries to explore what these organizations are doing and see if there is a place for you in their work.

And kudos to school districts like Plymouth-Canton and Livonia, which value their libraries and maintain a full-time, certified teacher librarian in every school building (about 20 schools in both districts).

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