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No More Pencils, No More Books: Are School Librarians Becoming Obsolete?

Media specialists argue that guidance and research skills are needed more than ever in the Internet age.

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Once the staple of nearly every school, the school librarian and media specialist is feeling a bit underappreciated -- if not under siege -- these days.

Over the past five years, the number of certified library/media specialists in New Jersey’s public schools has dropped by almost 15 percent, according to the statewide association, and its own membership is down by almost a quarter.

There were 1,580 certified specialists statewide last year, down from 1,850 in 2007-2008, serving roughly 2,500 schools.

The biggest contributor to the drop was the state’s budget crisis two years ago. Library positions were some of the first to be cut by districts looking to trim staff, association officers and local officials said.

There has been little recovery since then; budgets have continued to be tight, and schools have been unwilling to hire those positions back as the debate rages over what the role of the school librarian should be.

Classroom Computers

Is it even necessary to have a specialist -- or a library itself -- to help students find resources when the information is often readily accessible through a computer in the classroom?

The librarians’ statewide association is trying to respond to that question with an emphatic “Yes,” launching a public awareness campaign explaining their members’ importance -- especially in these changing times.

It is a campaign being waged in other states as well. The New Jersey association is rallying around the Common Core Standards, the national effort to develop a unified curriculum and testing for every state.

With New Jersey on board for the effort, the association’s leaders say both students and teachers will need reliable resources more than ever.

They also maintain that specialists remain critical to schools, helping students navigate the Internet and other resources, much as they once did with books and periodicals.

“What we are teaching kids is how to deal with all of this information coming at them,” said Amy Rominiecki, president of the New jersey Association of School Librarians and library media specialist at Seneca High School in the Lenape Regional High School district.

Without them, added Pat Massey, library media specialist in the South Plainfield school district, “the students are at a loss, the school community is at a loss.”

The association cited a 2011 study of New Jersey school libraries by the Rutgers Center for International Scholarship in School Libraries that found widespread benefits to a vibrant library program, helping build not just academic skills but also cooperation and community within a school.

“The school library is the learning center where people can go and work with a specialist and do things in a cross-content approach,” said Massey, the association’s former president.

Rominiecki said the cause is not lost. She said her own district still has two specialists in each high school, and other districts are moving to ensure similar staffing.

More Cuts Ahead

Still, the trend is downward, and there may be even new pressures to trim further. The Christie administration this month suggested loosening the requirement that all districts to have their own media specialists, as part of a sweeping report aimed at reducing school regulations.

State law now requires every school have a library/media program, and every district staff those programs. “But how that is all defined, that is the question,” said Massey.

The state previously required full-time positions for every school in the neediest districts, which came under the Abbott v. Burke school equity rulings, but that fell by the wayside with the state’s new funding formula. State monitoring still gives a district points for the strength of its library programs, but the administration’s recent proposal suggested the possibility of whole districts now sharing staffing.

A Balancing Act

It’s been tough for schools to balance their budgets for the past few years, especially after the widespread state aid cuts in 2010, and library programs have been among the first to suffer.

At Freehold Regional High School district, the number of media specialists went from seven three years ago -- one for each of its six high schools, plus a roaming one -- to three. Each librarian is shared between two high schools.

“Once something is gone, they don’t often come back, and we are living with three,” said Charles Sampson, the Freehold superintendent. “It’s a decision of where you deploy your resources.”

Sampson said he had the option of maybe adding at least some of them back this year, but faced a difficult choice in schools where teaching staff was also down in key academic areas.

“It came down to a classroom math teacher or a media specialist, and we decided not to fill the media position,” he said. “It’s not to say we won’t continue to revisit the situation each year.”

Still, he said that conditions have changed with technology providing students ready access to information anywhere. He agreed that adults are needed to guide and provide research, especially in the elementary grades, in which students are just starting to navigate the Internet.

But he added that this type of education can take place in he classroom as well. “It’s not so much about the walls any more,” he said.

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