In a profession most readily associated with the printed word, school librarians have embraced what may seem like an unlikely tool.
Librarians in public schools across the country are mixing new technologies like iPads and the internet with old to teach their students fundamental skills, while also preparing them for the digital age. But their progress is threatened by a familiar problem in education: funding.
“Librarians are really embracing technology and integrating tech tools into their teaching in very meaningful and effective ways. The issue for school librarians is budget,” said Kathy Ishizuka, executive editor of the publication School Library Journal.
Librarians in schools that have robust support have seized the opportunity.
Todd Burleson, the school librarian at Hubbard Woods Elementary School in suburban Winnetka, Illinois, is running with technological innovation. In his library, technology isn't just used to consume information on a screen, it's used to create it, he said.
On an average day, his elementary school students may be producing their first book on an iPad, complete with self-shot photos, digitally-produced drawings and audio tracking. Or they may be using a green-screen iPad app to layer-separate animated sequences to produce videos.
But Burleson hasn’t shelved the hardcover books.
Children’s books offer stories that are written specifically for their reading level, something a Google search does not do.
“Books are one of the most valuable pieces of information that we can get,” he said.
Navigating this mix of technology and traditional media – “books and bytes,” as Burleson calls it – is, for him, why school librarians are so essential in the 21st century, and other school library advocates agree.
“Just because the children have that device in their hand, or have access to that essential information, does not mean they can find it efficiently and evaluate once they’ve found it,” said Audrey Church, president of the American Association of School Librarians. “I think we need librarians in schools now more than ever because of that teacher role they play in the area of information literacy and digital literacy.”
It’s now part of librarians’ jobs to teach students to be effective users of technology. This includes showing them how to identify appropriate online sources, condensing search results — even sniffing out fake news.
But training kids in new technology is not possible if the funds are not there.
In many cases, sheer cost puts libraries on the chopping block, said Christie Kaaland, a school library advocate and director of the library education program at Antioch University.
“A library is expensive. Print material is expensive. Technology is expensive,” Kaaland said.
Library funding is not equal across the United States. Certain states require a certified librarian to be on staff at every public school. Others do not.
In wealthier districts, librarians can rely on parent-teacher organizations to provide funds. In others, librarians often rely on grants to supplement the money budgeted for the purpose.
In some districts, tightening funds simply means fewer school libraries and certified librarians on staff.
In New York City, the largest school district in the country, the number of school libraries more than halved from 2005 to 2014, from 1,500 to about 700. In Philadelphia, another of the largest districts in the country, just eight full-time librarians are employed.
Librarian and advocate Tracey Wong saw the effects of funding cuts firsthand at public elementary schools in low-income neighborhoods of the Bronx, New York.
Wong’s first librarian job at P.S. 63 in the Bronx evaporated when her principal pulled funding and shut down the school’s library, she said.
After that, she went to work at another low-income public school in the Bronx, where she secured just under $1 million in about three years through private grants. With the funds, she brought in laptops, computers, iPads, a smartboard, and transformed the once-decrepit library into a bustling media center.
The new tools paid off: One of her students won an academic contest and was selected as one of five kids in the country to meet billionaire businessman Warren Buffet. Another won $500 in a separate contest and was taken to City Hall to meet the mayor of New York.
But despite her successes, Wong’s library eventually went the way of P.S. 63.
“A new principal came on board,” Wong said. “So by my third year being a librarian, she decided to shut down the library and was going to make me a fifth grade teacher.”
Instead, Wong left the New York City school system to work as a librarian in neighboring Westchester County.
Wong’s experience, while disheartening, came as no surprise, she said.
From the time she was studying to become a certified librarian, Wong was told to expect job loss and funding cuts.
The reality made Wong an advocate for libraries from the start. She secured grants to fund technology for her schools; lobbied principals to reopen libraries that had been shut; and now tracks her professional experiences on her website and frequently writes about how educators can secure grants for their schools.
“Advocacy is something you have to work on early, it’s the most important part of your job,” Wong recalled being told while earning her degree. “If you don’t start to do it, you’re going to realize you should’ve been doing it, and by that time it’s going to be too late because they’re always cutting jobs.”