Amid literacy crisis, Michigan’s school librarians have all but disappeared


A school library in Detroit. Under a proposed law, every school library in the state would be required to have at least one librarian. (Photo by Anthony Lanzilote/Chalkbeat)

When the basketball star and a local news crew showed up at Thurgood Marshall Elementary school in Detroit, the room the kids called the “library” was a glorified storage closet, complete with peeling paint, jumbled bookshelves and unopened cardboard boxes.

By the end of the home makeover segment, the library looked the part. Students lounged on new bean bag chairs, listening to a story read by Reggie Jackson, a player for the Detroit Pistons who helped pay for the renovation.

But the story was missing a crucial piece: a librarian. Thurgood Marshall doesn’t have one on staff, according to state data. The Detroit Public Schools Community District didn’t immediately return requests for comment.

In Michigan, this is the new normal. School librarians have become an endangered species across the state. Consider:

  • 92 percent of schools statewide don’t employ a full-time, certified librarian. Even if you count part-time librarians, the numbers hardly budge.
  • The number of school librarians in Michigan declined 73 percent between 2000 and 2016, one of the sharpest declines in the country. The national count dropped roughly 20 percent during that period.
  • Michigan ranks 47th in the country in the number of librarians it has per student.

The disappearance of school librarians comes at a pivotal point for literacy in Michigan. Beginning this year, districts will hold back third-graders who are more than a year behind their peers in reading.

That tough new policy comes in response to Michigan’s two-decade tumble down national rankings of how well students read. The state’s fourth-grade reading scores are 35th on a rigorous national measure of student achievement. That’s down since 2003. No state in the Midwest performs more poorly.

Michigan rapid loss of school librarians makes it one of the more extreme examples of a national trend. American schools are in the midst of a reckoning about the role of libraries in schools. While most adults in the United States went to a school with a dedicated librarian, there are far fewer working in schools today, the result of an economic downturn and a growing sense that digital technologies would render books, library reference systems and librarians obsolete.

Search librarians at your Michigan school

Use this database to see how many full-time librarians are employed at schools in Michigan. Enter the name of the school in the search bar below. Note: Blank fields indicate no librarians.


Source: Michigan’s Center for Educational Performance and Information, 2018-2019 school year. Empty cells reflect state data. Figures represent full-time, certified library specialists.

Library advocates in Michigan say nothing could be further from the truth, noting that reading scores foundered as the state lost librarians. They point out that Michigan requires its prisons to have a certified librarian on staff.

“Schools that have librarians and libraries have better reading scores than schools that do not,” said Rep. Darrin Camilleri of Brownstown, the Democratic House minority whip. “There is no clearer data than that.”

He can point to several studies that suggest a link between school librarians and improved reading scores, even when accounting for differences in school funding and student income.

Explanations for the decline of the school librarian vary, but there’s little doubt that it is in part the result of cost-cutting by districts across the country. The trend accelerated after the economic recession in 2007.

Students in poorer districts have been most affected. The districts with the most librarians per student — Birmingham, Ann Arbor, Troy, Grosse Pointe, Bloomfield Hills — are in the state’s wealthiest communities.

Still, some school districts were more willing to cut their librarians than others. Northville, an affluent suburb of Detroit, has one librarian for its 7,300 students, down from eight in 2010.

In some schools in Michigan, libraries often are filled with technology as well as books and they have enough space to accommodate full classes. In other districts, librarians don’t have a dedicated space and instead spend their time visiting classrooms to help students and teachers use technology.

In schools with libraries but no librarians, the task of keeping books organized and computers up-to-date is assigned to school aides, but Camilleri points out that they aren’t trained to help students and teachers access the materials and that they often have other responsibilities.

Before Camilleri was elected in 2016, he taught for two years in a charter high school in Detroit. It didn’t have a library.

Now he’s backing a set of three bills that would require every school in the state to have a library and a librarian to go with it.

There’s no price tag attached to the bills yet, in part because the state doesn’t know how many schools would need to create new libraries. And it’s far from clear whether the measures stand a chance of winning the bipartisan support they would need to pass the Republican-controlled legislature.

But elected officials  on both sides of the aisle agree that Michigan has a school librarian problem. 

“Do I think that we should have libraries and media specialists in every building? Yes,” said Pamela Hornberger of Chesterfield Township, Republican chair of the House education committee, who needs to support the bill if it has a chance of passing. “It’s just how we’re going to end up getting them.”

Hornberger, a veteran teacher and former member of the L’Anse Creuse school board, is skeptical of Camilleri’s plan to use an anticipated school funding increase to pay for new librarians. She says she doesn’t want to limit school districts’ options — what if, for example, a small school district wanted to share a librarian with a neighboring district? 

“I don’t want to start designating how districts use money when someone in Muskegon could use it in different ways than someone in Sterling Heights,” she said.

Another hurdle for the bills to overcome: Librarians are in extremely short supply. As school library jobs dried up in Michigan, the number of people training for the certification declined sharply. Camilleri acknowledges that it would likely take at least four years to put a certified librarian in all of Michigan’s more than 3,400 schools.

Then there’s the question that seems to follow school librarians everywhere: In a world turned upside down by digital technologies, who needs libraries?

While there’s little question that money is driving districts to cut library jobs, some say that administrators are more willing to do without librarians now that most students have Google at their fingertips.

“Money is a factor. Value is a factor,” said Christina Gibson, assistant superintendent at Eastpointe Community School District, explaining why her district hasn’t had a librarian in at least 20 years. (The district decided to hire a librarian this year.)

But school librarians who’ve managed to hold on to their jobs in Michigan insist that their roles have been completely transformed.

“Students went from being masters of thumbing through 3×5 cards to Boolean searching to keyword searching,” said Martha Spear, library media specialist at Berkley High School in a suburb of Detroit. “We spent less time teaching how to decode a Table of Contents and more time on digital citizenship.”

Those changes brought with them a new vocabulary. Spaces formerly known as “libraries” became “media centers,” “learning labs” or “information commons.” Librarians became “media specialists.”

But the importance of the job hasn’t changed, said Keith Curry Lance, a consultant who has authored numerous studies linking libraries to improved academic performance. Research into the effectiveness of libraries has focused primarily on the presence of a staff person, not the space itself, he said.

That research is one reason the Eastpointe district recently hired a librarian for the first time in decades. It wasn’t an easy decision: administrators had to choose between hiring a librarian and expanding their physical education program.

But once they began interviewing candidates — most of whom wanted to come out of retirement to take the job — Gibson says they discovered they didn’t know what they were missing. One applicant promised to speed the lesson planning process by sharpening teachers’ research skills. Others talked about teaching students how to be responsible citizens online.

“We didn’t even realize everything librarians knew or could do until we sat down and started talking to them,” she said.

They hired a young man who got certified as a school librarian despite the bleak market. This fall, he will begin work as the sole librarian for the district’s 3,000 students.


About this story
Koby Levin is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit, an online website devoted to education issues. This article originally appeared on the site on Aug. 8.

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Wed, 08/14/2019 - 7:03am

Trying to mandate a school librarian in every school will be very difficult, especially for rural and urban districts that are having a hard time as it is attracting teachers.

Wed, 08/14/2019 - 9:22am

Note that it's not the elected State Board of Education that's advocating this, it's some legislators.

This phenomena, legislative interference in state school policy decisions, is, I think, the primary reason why Michigan's school policies are so disjointed, inconsistent from one legislative session to the next and failing.

The merit of librarians in every school may need consideration and debate, but that's the elected State Board of Education's function, not a legislative function or executive function.

We've diluted public school policy decision making to the point where disjointed uncoordinated often contradictory decisions coming out of numerous state government bodies is making the problem worse rather than better.

We have a state constitution that assigns state public school policy making authority to our elected State Board of Education and only the elected State Board of Education. The sole responsibility of the legislature is to fund, not make policy. School policy decisions won't get better in Michigan until we start adhering to our own rules.

Wed, 08/14/2019 - 9:40am


Wed, 08/14/2019 - 3:09pm

You forgot the oldest rule ... He who gives the money, makes the rule(s)! Like it or not!

middle of the mit
Thu, 08/15/2019 - 11:27pm

Take note Bridge readers. This is the Republican philosophy.

The Golden rule to them is " He who has the gold, rules!"

Yet those who have the gold don't want to take responsibility for the way the world is!

Isn't that funny?

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 4:26pm

So you also believe the the state legislature should allocate money to the schools no questions asked relying that State BOE has sole responsibility? This isn't to do with Republicans or Democrats that just won't happen.

Wed, 08/14/2019 - 10:05am

Don't [librarians, educators, reporters, advocates for libraries] just tell us the libraries and the librarians are valuable, personalize the importance by describing, be specific, how they are valuable, what value they provide students.
We got a little reference to value from a couple of candidates for the East Pointe opening, but even that requires those of us outside the schools to blindly believe.

Even in my career, in my job, I had to continue to demonstrate my value and that included explaining it to those I that impact my work, funding.

Why should taxpayers give more money if those who will be spending it aren't willing or able to keep us informed of the value they provide, in ways that we can relate to?

Robyn A Tonkin
Wed, 08/14/2019 - 10:14am

I think the two comments concerning this article previous to mine spell out the problem very well. People want to parse everything so that they dip into their own little bag of concerns for a comment topic. Simply put, if a child is struggling with enjoying reading, if a child has parents with poor literacy skills, so adequate help is not to be had at home, a dedicated librarian with a library science degree, can help an indifferent reader materially. I remember all my librarians from Trenton--there was one for every grade school and more than one for the secondary schools. Today, there is .90 librarian for the whole district. How many coaches are there? Bouncing a ball, unless you an absolute phenom, will not get you a good job and secure your future--a high degree of literary will. "A high degree of literacy" does not mean you're on social media 24/7.

Jim tomlinspn
Wed, 08/14/2019 - 11:29am

47th? Guess charters and for profits have not delivered what public has been sold

Wed, 08/14/2019 - 4:50pm

Schools should be allowed to decide how to best spend their money and not have yet another unfunded mandate from the state. Clearly, district administrators and school board sdid not think librarians were the best use of limited resources. A good librarian is an asset, but there just is not enough money to go around. The article failed to note the state slashed school funding in 2009 and many districts still are not back to that funding level.

middle of the mit
Thu, 08/15/2019 - 11:46pm

I wonder what some of our more conservative posters think about this:

"“Two-thirds of Michigan’s third graders don’t have the ability to read a book,” Schuette said. “The reason this is happening is we have not placed reading as Michigan’s priority for our children. That’s going to change, and when I’m governor, Michigan’s children will read. Period.”

He made the remarks during a news conference held at the Robert and Janet Bennett Civic Center Library in Livonia.

Schuette’s criticism about reading not being a priority appeared to be a dig at GOP Gov. Rick Snyder, who since 2015 has pushed to boost third-grade reading rates. In 2016, Snyder signed into law a bill requiring schools to provide more assistance to struggling readers and hold them back if they fall too far behind."

If Snyderlywhiplash was doing so great, what was full of Bill Schutte complaining about?

And if Dems want to keep the course, and improve, what are you complaining about?

Isn't it about the kids and the future?

Isn't it why you voted for Bill Schutte?