School librarians are becoming an endangered species

School librarians are becoming an endangered species
Librarian Maura Large shows Emely Arroyo, 13, the book "Hoot" by Carl Hiaasen in the library in Eliot Middle School in Altadena. Large has been a librarian at the school for two years and could be laid off this year. District officials have proposed to eliminate seven teacher-librarian positions, and the Glendale school district has proposed to eliminate four. (Tim Berger / Staff Photographer)

Maura Large trains students at Eliot Middle School in Altadena in the language of dictionaries, encyclopedias and almanacs.

They might soon be able to find her title — credentialed teacher librarian — listed under "extinct species."

Large's position, along with six others in Pasadena Unified, is slated to be eliminated at the end of the school year, a move that would save the district about $590,000, spokesman Adam Wolfson said.

It is a common scenario in districts up and down the state, and with numerous studies linking library services to academic performance, experts say students stand to lose.

"What are the expectations for 21st-century learning skills?" Large asked. "Who is going to be teaching these kids how to access the Internet, how to be safe on the Internet, how not only to locate information, but be able to discern whether that information is valuable for whatever they are doing?"

In March, Glendale Unified officials said they were looking to eliminate credentialed librarian positions at their four high schools. Burbank Unified lost its sole credentialed librarian in February after she left for another district. There are no plans to replace her.

La Cañada High School has a credentialed librarian, but her salary has long been paid for by the district's private fundraising arm, the La Cañada Flintridge Educational Foundation.

During the 2000-01 school year, there were 1,387 credentialed school librarians in the state, according to the California Department of Education. In 2010-11, that figure fell to 895.

"We have never had really good staffing numbers in California; we have always been last in the country," said Barbara Jeffus, a longtime school librarian consultant with the Department of Education. "And it is getting worse."

In the Fullerton Joint Union High School District, one librarian is responsible for six campuses, although her position will be eliminated at the end of the year. In the Paradise Unified School District in Northern California, officials cut the librarian positions and shrink-wrapped the bookshelves.

In recent years, Burbank Unified has staffed its school libraries with non-credentialed library technicians who perform basic functions, said Anita Schackmann, assistant superintendent for human resources. The model, she said, has worked well in the current economic climate. Glendale Unified plans to duplicate it in the fall.

But others say the uncredentialed staffers are a poor substitute for the real thing.

"There is a correlation between academic achievement and having a teacher-librarian in the library," Lisa Parish, the librarian at Glendale Unified's Hoover High School, said at a board meeting last month.

Librarians say they can be the most tech-savvy people on campus, coordinating with teachers to enrich lessons and connecting students with relevant research materials. Increasingly important is their role in digital citizenship, or teaching youth to stay safe on the Internet and conduct themselves with decorum when using social media like Facebook and Twitter.

"Librarians are people of inquiry," said Susan Ballard, president-elect of the American Assn. of School Libraries. "The most critical things we do is … help kids to ask good questions. Those questions can lead them to exploration and to uncovering and creating their own knowledge and understanding about topics."

Disparities between school library services could widen the achievement gap, she added.

"That gap would just get bigger and bigger and bigger, and I would hate to see that happen." Ballard said.

It is the third consecutive year that Pasadena Unified librarians have received layoff notices, but this time there are no federal stimulus funds to help the district retain them. No decision has been made on how the libraries would function without librarians, but one possibility is that they would be accessible to students only when brought there by a classroom teacher.

But Fyodor Bondarenko, a sophomore at Blair High School in Pasadena, said that system would have little benefit for students.

"Most of our teachers don't really go as a class to the library very often, which means the library [would be] a place that is completely sealed off and forgotten," the 17-year-old said. "None of us would have access to it."

Even so, school officials say they've been forced into a corner.

"I think that because of the draconian cuts that public education has endured over the past four years, there is no low-hanging fruit," Pasadena Unified school board President Renatta Cooper said. "There is no easy cut to make. Every cut matters, and everything that is eliminated is the elimination of something valuable and important. That is kind of where we are."