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While 79% of schools nationwide have at least a part-time librarian on staff, the situation in America’s biggest cities is much less encouraging.  Some of the lowest numbers come from LA and New York, where you’ll only find a librarian in one out of every three schools. But no major city is struggling quite as much as we are in Philadelphia, where only 7% of schools had a librarian on staff last year and, of those, none were paid for by the school district.

Huey Elementary Library before volunteers turned the space around.

Huey Elementary Library before volunteers turned the space around.

Evidence abounds about the benefits of school libraries for literacy development, particularly for at-risk children. While wealthy students have books and technology at home and can travel safely to their local public libraries, kids from low-income homes have no such guarantees. Their school library becomes the place to access the internet, find information, and conduct research. For many of them, it will also be the place where they discover what it means to read for pleasure. Outside the confines of the classroom, students are free to follow their curiosity and direct their own learning. They can collaborate with others on shared reading or find a quiet space to read on their own. Of course, this has proven effects on their reading level, but those of us who love to read know that finding oneself and others in books does so much more. When surveyed, teachers in WePAC’s partner schools say again and again that one of the best things about having access to he library is the sheer number of books students can choose from and their own joy in selecting a book to take home each week.

In light of the national crisis facing school libraries, some cities are finding unique solutions. In Seattle, grants have allowed the public library program to partner with schools to extend materials and programming. In Worcester, Massachusetts, a city known for its significant immigrant population, an initiative is building community libraries within schools, where they serve to mitigate the impacts of cuts to both schools and the public library system. A similar partnership is working for at least one high school in Chicago, where a public library is also functioning as a central library for a high school.

Where partnerships like these aren’t feasible, organizations are working to refurbish library facilities or provide more books directly to kids. But something is lost when initiatives don’t staff these spaces with certified professionals; even in light of our increasing reliance on technology, librarians are essential to teach the “new literacies” required in the digital age. What it means to be literate is rapidly evolving, and we need libraries and librarians in our schools to anchor our kids and them navigate the shifting terrain.