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

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% 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% between 2000 and 2016, one of the sharpest declines in the country. The national count dropped roughly 20% during that period.
  • Michigan ranks 47th in the country in the number of librarians it has per student.

(Scroll down to see if your school has a full-time certified librarian.)

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 U.S. 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.

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, 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, 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. Starting this fall, he will begin work as the sole librarian for the district’s 3,000 students.

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.