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Debate: Are School Librarians Expendable?

July 5, 2011

I didn’t see a lot of discussion or commentary, at least in my circles, on this recent New York Times, Room for Debate discussion of the question, “Are school librarians expendable?” So, I thought this might be a good place to share.

Specifically, debaters considered whether school administrators see librarians as more expendable than other school employees and if so, why?

Librarian Jessamyn West refocuses the question on larger issues in our education system and defines the 21st Century librarian’s role: “Now a librarian, or school media specialist, is more of a discerning cultivator and a matchmaker between people and the widely varied resources that meet their information needs… [T]he integral role of librarians isn’t always obvious from the outside; as a result their contributions can be undervalued.”

Tech exec Ze’ev Wurman made some broad assertions about books, reading, and our nation’s schools without offering much evidence to back them up:“Yet all this discussion about libraries and librarians misses an essential point: even with recent cuts we already spend enough for the good education of every student, even in the most frugal state.”

Author Francine Prose reflects on Mrs. Morgan, a school librarian who made a significant impact on her life: “So I would like to take this chance… to publicly thank [Mrs. Morgan] and all the others like her, the librarians to whom we owe so much, though their influence may not be quantifiable on any standardized test. I would like to express my gratitude to Mrs. Anna Morgan for helping turn me into a reader, a writer, a lifelong lover of books… “

As for me, I certainly don’t think school librarians are expendable, but can see how the nuanced role they play in a student’s success could go unnoticed (and unmeasured). I agree they no longer exclusively play the traditional role of book selector and keeper of the library. School librarians are generally a passionate lot and sharing their enthusiasm for reading and learning should be part of students’ education, as well as new roles teaching students about critical evaluation to deal with 21st Century information overload and imparting necessary tech skills to efficiently find, understand, manage, and use the information students need. When school officials quickly react to budget cuts by permanently changing the composition of their faculty, with no mandates to shift the teaching of these skills from the library exclusively to the classroom, I can’t help but wonder  about the long-term effects on students. As an academic librarian, I wonder, specifically, whether these students will be ready for college-level research. Whether they’ll have the curiosity to drive them.

So, what are your thoughts? Are school librarians expendable?

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