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

Patrick Taylor

Patrick Taylor is an advocate for school libraries and lives in Trenton.

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. 

August 2019: Amid literacy crisis, Michigan’s school librarians have all but disappeared
Opinion: A librarian in every Michigan school? Lawmakers make the case
Opinion: Want to improve literacy in Michigan? Restore school librarians​

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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Carolyn Upton
Fri, 08/02/2019 - 9:14am

Patrick would you post a link to list of school districts that do or don't have full time certified teacher librarians in sate of Michigan. It would be helpful.

Michael Scott
Fri, 08/02/2019 - 9:59am

The comment, "And it's not money. There's money," is patently false and is an indicator of the author's lack of knowledge about school funding/finance. If there indeed was enough money, districts would employ certified teachers as librarians. Here's a challenge... find one district administrator who says he/she PREFERS para pros (no matter how qualified, committed, or caring) over a certified teacher to staff a library. The truth is that if districts could afford this option, they would.

Sat, 08/03/2019 - 3:31pm

Not true, my district just spent tens of thousands of dollars on a supplemental on-line reading program that we used for a year and probably won't use again. And this happens all the time. There is money. Not a lot of it, as we all know. But if districts didn't use band aids such as online reading programs to try and quickly up scores and instead used money to give teachers better professional development or hire more staff, such as school librarians, we would be much better off.

Michael Scott
Sun, 08/11/2019 - 8:59am

A one-time expenditure on a program is generally (always?) more affordable than an on-going expense for personnel. Prudent budgeting requires calculations for the upcoming and following years. Is the on-line program better than a librarian? I would agree, that over the long-term, it is not. Improved professional development for teachers seems to be a no-brainer; sustainability is always the issue there. Nonetheless, there is still not enough money to accomplish what needs to be done. In a perfect situation, there would be funds for all three - librarians, supplemental instructional programs, and on-going, targeted, data-driven professional development. If Michigan wants to improve reading/literacy scores, more money is needed.

Chuck Jordan
Fri, 08/02/2019 - 10:09am

Just another indication of the inequality between rich and poor districts.

Alexander Beaton
Fri, 08/02/2019 - 10:29am

It might be difficult for school administrators to quantify the benefits of school librarians, especially in an era of “teaching to the test”. However, they are valuable to get kids interested in reading, and make books available, which translates into better literacy (and test scores). Public libraries have books for kids too, but the schools have a captive audience. The kids are there >>every day<<, so a poorly stocked / poorly staffed / or nonexistent school library is a big opportunity lost. Great point by the author about school librarians teaching information literacy, which our kids need to become critical thinkers (also something that kids are tested on!).

Fri, 08/02/2019 - 10:33am

Libraries have been on the decline for generations, they rely on old movie line, 'build it and they will come,' people aren’t. This follows the Michigan education system lead, they fail to properly describe and frame their value and market it, they fail to personalize the library/education to the individual students, they fail to excite the students' desire with what’s in the 'library', in 'education', in the 'classroom.'
I learned two things, selling/marketing is integral to everything [even ideas] and individuals want to use their imagination and can be excited doing that. The ‘libraries’ need to apply those two lessons if they want people to rediscover their ‘library’ [first in school and then for the rest of their life].
The 'libraries' just like the 'schools' need to replace their message, they need to personalize the value, they need to identify the ways to integrate the ‘library’ into the students personal activities so it becomes a habit. The ‘libraries’ need to be aggressively marketing, they need to sell the idea/the value to students and to adults. The questions they need to ask themselves, why should students use the ‘library’, how can they use the ‘library’, when can they use the ‘library’, and why aren’t the students [in mass] doing this?

Mon, 08/05/2019 - 3:49pm

Physical libraries are exhibit A of instituions going into obsolesence faster than anyone can imagine and how their interested parties will deney, frustrate and hang on no matter what happens! US postal system??? How else can we get our junk mail? What's the Dewey Decimal System in the age of Google?

Sun, 11/03/2019 - 4:35pm

I mean, the majority of the public still use their public libraries... so when you don’t know where to find a book on, say, learning Japanese (or any foreign language), Dewey can be pretty useful; foreign language texts are in the 490s (or if you want to supplement with geography, by golly, take look at the end of the 900s). And what do you know - I’d you are a resident, you can borrow and renew for free as many times as you need to! And the software based approach to learning languages is not only ineffective (there’s plenty of research that just tears Rosetta Stone apart - I don’t have time to look it up right now but by all means feel free if you’d like to try and have the last word), but expensive.

The Google argument doesn’t even have anything to do with a library classification system. Or print texts. Do you think print texts are obsolete? As of this year, “68% of Americans and Canadians believe print is the most enjoyable way to read books” and “86% of Americans believe they should have the right to choose how they receive their communications (electronically or printed),” according to Two Sides, a global nonprofit communications industry (https://twosidesna.org/US/perceptions-and-attitudes-towards-print-and-pa... - and yes, this was published earlier this year).

And to presume that all librarians do is teach the Dewey Decimal System is a farce and wasn’t even true in the 90s before the digital boom. We teach how to conduct research. We teach how to evaluate information in the “age of Google,” as you note, because a lot of search returns are biased or ill-researched; and with such immediacy to information access, it’s important to know how to delineate quality information and avoid the so-called fake news.

We also teach kids to find books and information that they love or are passionate about because inquiry, engagement, and student empowerment just a few of the cornerstones of the modern education system.

But sure, get rid of librarians because we have the Internet. Well, people with privilege do.

And it’s so petty to minimize the work our postal workers do. Sure, there’s a lot of junk... but what if your wife or girlfriend or boyfriend or husband or friend or family member found themselves off the grid without a way of texting or emailing you? People still write letters and send mail... a lot. I have friends teaching all over the world who send postcards that come via, you guessed it, our postal workers.

By the way, one question mark is plenty when posing a question. Typing three makes the question seem inpatient and posed by a child. Maybe your librarian could’ve taught you effect public discourse, too! :)

Sun, 11/03/2019 - 4:48pm

You are correct - this is what they should be doing. It’s certainly what I’m doing in my school librarian position and the results are certainly coming to fruition. Programming and collaborations are key here. I regularly communicate with public librarians, local and state politicians, and community members to give their libraries not only what they need, but what they want, too. I advertise the programming I am able to do with my budget and the attendance is there.

I understand that you may perceive many librarians as not doing this - and you’d probably be correct. The profession has evolved, new standards for measuring success have been developed; and I’m sure that many librarians of the older generations (but the certainly not all - Plymouth-Canton, Airport, Grosse Pointe, etc.) have struggled to adapt. The intention nonetheless is to forge ahead and train the next generation of librarians to be innovative, forward thinking, and passionate.

Disgruntled taxpayer
Fri, 08/02/2019 - 10:56am

I'm happy for Mr. Taylor that he had such a positive experience with his school libraries and librarians in Trenton. However, his advocacy will have the opposite effect for much of Michigan.

I encourage everyone to read Michigan House Bill 4392, introduced this past March. It states: "Beginning in the 2019-2020 school year, the board of a school district or board of directors of a public school academy shall employ a certified library media specialist for each school library operated by the school district or public school academy" and then gives requirements for how many half-time and/or full-time certified library media specialists must be employed based on the enrollment of each school. The bill later states that '"certified library media specialist" means a certified teacher ... with an ND library media endorsement'. While this may sound wonderful, what it means is that to operate a school library at any Michigan public school you must employ a certified teacher who also has a master's degree in Library Science or Library and Information Science. Think about that. I live in a rural Michigan county. I have to travel two hours to see an orthodontist. My local vision center is often without an optometrist (we currently have one on site two days per week). Specialists are rare, like in many rural counties. Yet, if HB 4392 were to become law, the schools in my county would be legally required to employ about ten *certified* teachers with master's in LS or LIS to offer a school library. You know what will happen? Virtually every school library in the county will be closed. I've spoken with several library and school administrators in the area and none are in favor of this bill.

To my knowledge, every school in my county has a library. Are they staffed with certified library media specialists? Nope, not many. But they are staffed with people doing their best for the students within their district. What Mr. Taylor is advocating is that he'd rather see all of these libraries closed than remain open without a certified teacher with a master's degree working as the librarian. He's standing on a soap box writing a guest opinion that attempts to realize the ideal when most of us in the world need to idealize the real. And the reality is that many Michigan school districts (rural or otherwise) simply do not have the means or the availability of the required staffing to keep their libraries open if HB 4392 passes. While firing his guns from his soap box, Mr. Taylor has shot off both of his legs.

Kathy Lester
Sat, 08/03/2019 - 6:29am

All Michigan students whether in a rural or urban area, in a large or small district, from a home with low or high socioeconomic status deserve equitable access to an effective school library staffed by a certified school librarian. Why wouldn't we want the best for all students in our state? Do we allow paraprofessionals to run the music program, the counseling services, or math classes at a school because the schools are in a rural area? The Michigan Department of Education works with schools in these areas and provides permits where necessary. The intent is to not close school libraries but to make them vibrant learning classrooms. Wayne State University has a new certification program that allows teachers to add Library Media certification with a 15 credit program. Research shows that students from schools with a certified school librarian have higher reading achievement, better ACT scores, a higher graduation rate, better skills at finding, understanding, and using quality information (information literacy skills), and better technology skills. A 2010 Michigan study showed that 66% of 4th graders with a certified school librarian scored proficient on the state reading assessment versus 49% of 4th graders without a school librarian scoring proficient. With the Read by Grade Three Law beginning to retain students this year, I believe we owe it to our students to provide them with all the services they need to succeed including certified school librarians. {You can find more information here: bit.ly/MIslibPTA}

Rick Rose
Sun, 08/04/2019 - 10:06am

Pretty easy to know why there are no more librarians in schools...it's called money. When regular teachers haven't had a step raise or negotiated raise in the last ten years, do you think schools are going to ADD positions???The politicians now have exactly what they have legislated and parents in MI. Remember, those people with no training in teaching, educational background in many cases, or just plain ignorance have continual taken from monies earmarked for kids to address other issues. It's why I'm leaving the state and taking my income taxes with me.