Sunday, December 13, 2015

Emergency Library Advocacy: Pushing Our Unions to Fight for School Libraries and Librarians as a Social Justice Issue

by Sue Doherty, Massachusetts BAT

originally published in the MSLA Forum Newsletter:

When I first began working in Brockton High School’s library program in 2004, Fran Murphy, one
of the librarians who was retiring that year, gave me what at the time was a great bit of advice:
“Always remember this there’s never an emergency in the library.” And for the first six years
that I was in this position this was true, at least in my district.

Although I’d heard the stories about other districts that were eliminating librarians in favor of
paraprofessionals and even closing school libraries, at my high school of approximately 4,300
students, we had four libraries with four fulltime certified librarians and three paraprofessionals
to assist us. Our department’s large district office was located at our school and employed two
fulltime support staff members, three people who worked on IT and equipment, and a K12
Coordinator of Library Media Services devoted solely to administering the library program. Our
libraries had ample storage and workspace, and the librarians’ schedules were flexible so we
could meet with teachers to collaborate during their planning time. All of our middle schools had
certified librarians, with some even having paraprofessionals to assist them, and about half of
the elementary schools were staffed by certified librarians. Some elementary schools had
paraprofessionals running the school libraries, but for the most part we were able to provide a
great level of service and instruction to the students and staff in our district.

However, starting in 2010 after we hired a new superintendent who had eliminated almost all of
the librarians in his former district, we began shedding certified and professional staff positions
as people retired or were laid off and reassigned to different schools. By the 20142015
school year, we were down to seven certified librarians from about fourteen in 2004. In addition, many
library paraprofessionals had either been transferred to other departments or to staff the school
libraries where there had once been certified librarians, so the remaining librarians were by and
large working without support staff. We had also lost much of our department’s real estate at
the high school and almost all of its office support and IT staff.

Then last May, when Reduction in Force notices went out in our district with a grand total of 233
pink slips and over 90 job eliminations, we found out that they were not planning to lay off
certified librarians but instead to completely eliminate five of the seven remaining positions.
They were keeping two certified librarians at the high school, but I heard through the grapevine
that if if weren’t for NEASC they would have eliminated all of the librarians. This leaves the
Brockton Public Schools with two certified librarians for a district of 23 schools serving
approximately 17,500 students, over 80% of whom come from low income households.

At around the same time we received this news in Brockton, I was hearing that the Malden and
Whitman school districts had also eliminated all of their school librarians except for those at the
high school. In addition, Springfield, which has a progressive union contract provision requiring
a certified librarian in every school, was considering going to ¼-time  librarians in most of their schools.

Fran Murphy was wrong: there is an emergency in the school library, and it’s national in scope.
What we are seeing is a rapidly accelerating loss of school libraries and librarians, and although
it is not confined there, this loss is especially pronounced in low income school districts that
serve high numbers of students of color. Last July, School Library and Information
Technologies Professor Debra Kachel of Pennsylvania’s Mansfield University published an
article entitled “The Calamity of the Disappearing School Libraries” that illustrates this
emergency state with some alarming statistics. Kachel reports that between 1991 and 2015,
Philadelphia public schools have gone from having 176 certified librarians to just 10, and a large
majority of the schools there do not even have functional libraries. In New York City the number
of school libraries has been cut by more than half since 2005, while in Houston almost 50% of
the school librarians have been cut since 2010. Ohio has cut more than 700 certified librarians
in the last decade, and California has just 1 librarian for every 7000 students.

Despite all the studies that have been done in the past dozen years or so proving the impact of
professionally staffed school libraries on student achievement, we are consistently put on the
chopping block when funding is tight. Looking to the cause of the emergency for help the
administrators and bureaucrats who keep cutting us because they can only see libraries as
expensive spaces full of outdated books and old fashioned librarians has clearly not been
working in many districts. Since this trend does not seem to be reversing any time soon, I’ve
been reconsidering how to advocate for our programs and students and have been trying a
number of different tactics this past year.

Like many other school librarians, I’ve done some traditional advocacy work in my own district.
When they laid off a number of librarians and closed two of the four libraries at the high school
in 2010, several of us spoke together at a school committee meeting and provided handouts
with information to the school committee members about the positive impact of school libraries
on student achievement. This did not prevent the layoffs, but there were some call backs for the
next school year. Then in the winter of 2013, the principal of a new district evening program for
at-risk and older students proposed putting up a wall and taking almost half of my library’s
space for offices for his staff. When the superintendent was visiting to explore possibilities for
re-configuring the library, I argued passionately against taking this library space away from the
students and teachers in the day school program, and followed up with a detailed memo
addressed to her and other high level district administrators about how the space was being
used by the over 4000 students and their teachers in our day program, and what it would mean
to them to lose that space as well as how it might impact our NEASC accreditation rating. In a
compromise, the night school program was given my storage and work room for office space,
but at least we were able to save the library space for the students instead of giving it over for
staff offices.

In addition to advocating when crisis situations have occurred, all along I have advocated for
libraries and certified librarians by striving to make the library and what we do relevant and
useful for the students, teachers, and district. I’ve worked on a variety of school and district
committees, collaborated with many teachers, supported the implementation of our IB program,
served for over 10 years as the book club advisor, helped students publish articles in the local
paper, and developed and taught a variety of technology professional development workshops
for my colleagues, including volunteering my time on a Saturday every year to teach workshops
for our district’s annual technology conference. Two years ago I responded to an invitation from
one of my colleagues to create and teach an in-district professional development course leading to three graduate credits offered through Fitchburg. The entire course was designed around
technology and research, and a variety of teachers enrolled in it, including kindergarten, ELL,
and special education teachers. My certified colleagues and I have also been striving to provide
the same level of service during the school day that we did when we had double the staff.

However, despite all of our efforts to show that we can provide digital and information literacy
instruction for students and professional development for educators using digital technologies,
the district leadership decided last spring that computer lab teachers were the ones they needed
to keep in order to teach digital literacy skills, so they assigned them the task of teaching digital
literacy and eliminated librarians.

After I found out last May that they were eliminating so many of our certified librarians, I went
into an “emergency response” advocacy mode. Although we were not the only department to
receive so many eliminations, since our department had already been cut so severely over the
past five years, it felt like a fatal blow.

I started out with the more traditional advocacy routes. The week after we found out the
librarian positions were being eliminated, I decided to attend a school committee meeting and
spoke in the open comments period before the meeting. I related to the school committee how
shocked we were when we found out that they had eliminated so many of the librarians and said
that I was not speaking out of concern for my job but out of concern for the loss of libraries.
Most of my discussion centered on the difference between professional librarians and
paraprofessionals and how there is a clear and undeniable difference in the education, skills,
and training between a paraprofessional and a certified librarian with a master’s degree,
emphasizing that we help with college and career readiness by focusing on reading, technology,
and research skills. I ended by inviting the entire school committee to visit my library to see
what we do, though none of them ever took me up on it.

A few weeks later, I attended and spoke about school libraries in the context of a PARCC
community forum at Bridgewater State University. The panel was composed of Board of
Elementary and Secondary Education members, the Commissioner of Education Mitchell
Chester, and Secretary of Education James Peyser. A large audience was in attendance, most
of whom were there to speak against the PARCC exams replacing MCAS. I discussed the cuts
in Brockton and told them because we don’t have enough funding, we were closing libraries and
eliminating librarians in favor of adding technology to give standardized exams. I also criticized
the PARCC exam’s “research simulation” questions, explaining that these questions do not
simulate the deep and evaluative critical thinking skills needed for the type of authentic research
they will need to do in college.

Then in early July, I attended the NEA’s annual Representative Assembly (RA) in Orlando,
Florida with over 7,000 NEA members from around the country. It was the first time I attended
this national meeting where NEA policy direction and other business is decided for the coming
year. Every morning our state delegation caucused to discuss and debate upcoming business
for the day. In our first caucus meeting, one of our NEA directors explained that we could
submit New Business Items (NBIs) for the RA to consider up until noon of the third day.

I decided to spend the next day working on an NBI about school libraries. The idea came to me
from several posts that New York school librarian and NEA member Susan Polos had made on
Facebook about the lack of mention of school libraries and librarians in the NEA’s Opportunity
Dashboard, a document the NEA was asking Congress to include in its reauthorization of the
Elementary and Secondary Act (ESEA). In my own local union, the leadership had told me
earlier in the year that we couldn’t do anything to challenge the replacement of certified
librarians with paraprofessionals because past practice had allowed it. It seemed to me as
though we were invisible and unimportant not only in our districts but even within our own
unions, where we pay dues and need representation just like everyone else. Frustrated with our
unions’ lack of attention to what is happening to our field, my goal at the RA was to compel the
NEA to see us, to acknowledge what is happening to our profession and to library access for
our neediest students, and to begin to help us.

I started out writing an NBI requiring the NEA to add access to fully qualified, certified librarians
and well-resourced libraries to the Opportunity Dashboard, but later decided to submit two NBIs.
The first one (#89) tasked the NEA with conducting a detailed study on the loss of school
librarians and libraries within the NEA and reporting the findings through existing NEA online
channels. The purpose of #89 was to support the idea of the Opportunity Dashboard by helping
the NEA and lawmakers assess where students were and were not being provided the
opportunities afforded by having certified school librarians and well-resourced libraries. The
idea for this one came from the work that the MSLA is doing with the Massachusetts legislature
to study the state of school libraries here. The second one (#103) required the NEA to add
language about access to libraries with fully qualified librarians to the Opportunity Dashboard.

Our state delegation agreed to sponsor my two NBIs, and I submitted them on July 5th, the
second to last day of the RA. All of the RA delegates received the text of my NBIs the morning
of July 6th, and that day I connected with librarians from all over the country who were happy to
see these NBIs in support of school libraries. I spent most of that day networking with other
librarians and writing out what I would say when I presented my NBIs to the entire RA
delegation. Several librarians and teachers volunteered to speak in favor of the NBIs, and we
even employed a sophisticated floor strategy where there are some people standing at
microphones ready to yield the mike to other people at other microphones who have prepared
statements of support.

We finally got to NBI #89 in the afternoon. I had three minutes to present my case for adoption
and then it moved to debate. Since #89 was estimated to cost $36,500 and was coming late in
the RA when delegates were starting to worry about the impact of NBIs on dues, the money was
questioned. Some wondered why the NEA should spend money conducting such a study since
similar studies have already been undertaken by ALA and AASL. When debate was closed and
a voice vote was taken, it was so close that they had to call for division, which is where people
stand to show their votes. Although the final vote in division was still close, NBI #89 was
approved by the delegates and the study is being undertaken by NEA this year.

        NBI #89: Adopted As Modified

        Using existing resources, NEA will conduct a study of student access to fully qualified
        school librarians/media specialists and well-resourced libraries/learning commons
        throughout the NEA. This study shall be published through digital channels and include,
        but not be limited to, information on the following topics:

       1. Current state laws regarding school libraries and staffing.
       2. Staffing patterns in school libraries by grade level and state: fully qualified, education
       support personnel, and/or volunteers.
       3. The ratio of professionally qualified school librarians to students, by state.
       4. The number and grade levels of professionally qualified school librarian positions that
       have been eliminated using the last 10 most recent years of available data by state.
       5. The number and grade levels of schools that have closed their libraries entirely, by
       6. A breakdown of access to school librarians and libraries by income and demographic

A little while later I went back to present #103, which was much easier to present and get
adopted since it was so simple and had a cost estimate of just $500. Libraries and librarians
were not mentioned at all in the Opportunity Dashboard, but art, music, physical education,
counselors, and other specialists were. After I finished speaking, I looked around the room and
saw that many states had delegates walking around holding up large signs that said “Yes,” their
state caucus’s recommendation for voting. Seeing so much support for us from our colleagues
around the country was moving.

       NBI #103: Adopted

       Using existing NEA resources, NEA will amend and electronically publish its ESEA
       Re-authorization “Opportunity Dashboard” to include access to fully qualified school
       librarians/media specialists as a category of “Quality Educators” and access to libraries
       and library/media studies as a part of “Quality Schools.”

Within two days of the end of the RA, the language about access to librarians and libraries had
already been added to the Opportunity Dashboard and posted online.

Since returning from Orlando, I have continued to actively advocate for librarians and libraries.
Later in July I went to Washington DC with a group that lobbied the offices of Massachusetts
lawmakers, and I always mentioned the loss of school libraries and librarians in our
conversations. At the end of the summer just before school started, I researched the regulations ( for paraprofessionals in Title1schools because my district had put a job ad out over the summer for library paraprofessionals to take the professional positions that had been eliminated. One of the job requirements in the ad was to “conduct library classes.” I have never understood why it is acceptable to replace certified librarians with paraprofessionals and expect them to teach classes but not to replace other certified teachers with paraprofessionals. My research led me to conclude that this practice is likely a violation of federal regulations, which state that instructional paraprofessionals are to serve in an instructional support role in school libraries and are to be directly supervised by certified teachers. I have brought this regulation to my union president’s attention and have also sent it to the MTA. I am hoping that the MTA will have its legal department look into this possible violation of federal education regulations on behalf of all the students in the state who are being denied the services of a licensed, professionally trained librarian-teacher, just because we are so easy to cut and there are no laws requiring us in the schools.

In addition to employing traditional advocacy avenues in our schools, districts, local
governments, and state legislatures, reaching out to our unions for help is an area of advocacy
that those of us who are working in public schools should begin to explore more. Framing
access to well-resourced school libraries staffed by fully qualified, certified librarians as a matter
of social and economic justice within our unions is a powerful way to address the issue in
cash-strapped districts where libraries and librarians are increasingly becoming seen as an
unaffordable luxury for students who need them the most.

Unions that have already developed a focus around social justice issues such as the Seattle
Education Association and the Chicago Teachers Union understand this issue of equitable
access and are willing to fight for their school libraries and librarians. The Massachusetts
Teachers Association has been moving towards a more social justice orientation. On Columbus
Day weekend, I marched with an MTA contingent in the annual social activist HONK! festival
parade while holding a sign saying “Less Testing More Reading @ your school library” and met
fellow MSLA member Erin Dalbec, who had a sign saying “Less Testing More Reading for
Pleasure.” It was so great to meet another MSLA member at this event!

Educators in many other cities and states around the country are pushing their unions to move
in the direction of social and economic justice. It’s time for those of us who work in
Massachusetts public school libraries to do the same. By advocating through and within our
unions to raise awareness about the social and economic justice issues attached to school
libraries, perhaps we will finally gain more support for our programs and profession so that all
students may benefit from having a great school library and librarian to call their own.

Works Cited:

Kachel, Debra. “The Calamity of the Disappearing School Libraries.” The Conversation . Web. 27 Sep. 2015.<>

“Massachusetts Policies for Instructional Paraprofessionals in Title I Programs: Implementation of NCLB’s
Paraprofessional Requirements.” Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary
Education. Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, July 2003. Web.
27 Sept. 2015. <>

“NEA Opportunity Dashboard.” NEA. National Education Association, n.d. Web. 27 Sept. 2015.
< >

“New Business Item 89.” 2015 NEA Annual Meeting . National Education Association, n.d. Web. 27 Sep. 2015. <>

“New Business Item 103.” 2015 NEA Annual Meeting . National Education Association, n.d. Web. 27 Sep. 2015. <>

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