How School Libraries Buy Books, Struggle for Funds, and Confront Book Bans: An Explainer

Kenneth Palmer

Debates over school library books that have overtaken school board meetings across the country have thrust a generally (and sometimes literally) quiet corner of American public schools into the political spotlight.

Hundreds of titles—including literary works like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer, the graphic novel Maus, and, more recently, hundreds of picture books with LGBTQ characters or protagonists of color—have disappeared from school shelves in districts across much of the country over the past couple of years. Librarians have faced verbal abuse, online harassment, calls for criminal charges, and death threats as parents question their motives for building collections with a focus on diversity and inclusion.

Observers of these fights may not realize that school librarians typically have to follow rigorous processes for acquiring new books, or that millions of students attend schools without a librarian at all. In fact, school libraries have accounted for a shrinking portion of school budgets over time, and the job of school librarian (sometimes known as media specialist) has become less and less common.

Here’s a look at how school librarians and the libraries they oversee actually work.

School librarians already go through an arduous process to evaluate books.

Several recent campaigns in school districts have implied or asserted that books make their way into schools under librarians’ noses.

That couldn’t be further from the truth, librarians and experts say. Most districts have detailed policies governing their library collections, in line with standards set by national and state school library associations. Those policies require librarians to undergo several time-consuming steps before purchasing a book.

They must read existing professional reviews of potential new purchases in peer-reviewed journals like Booklist, School Library Journal, and Horn Book. Sometimes they’re required to consult with advisory committees that include teachers, administrators, and parents. Often, a school administrator, or even someone at the district level, must give the final go-ahead.

“It’s not like going on Amazon and going, ‘I’m going to go online shopping,’” said Cathi Fuhrman, a librarian for State College Area High School in Pennsylvania who’s worked in school libraries for nearly three decades. “It’s an arduous process.”

On top of those procedures, librarians typically see their role as being experts on their collection. Many know every single book in the catalog, and regularly take time to examine collections for gaps, out-of-date reference materials, or resources that have become worn out from heavy use. New books are supposed to supplement the existing collection and meet the needs of a student or group of students.

Fuhrman and her librarian colleague recently reviewed their school’s history and geography collection.

“It took us hours and hours over a long period of time, teaching classes in between,” she said. “Guess what—we touched every single book, and we’re talking a couple thousand.”

Even high-profile, well-funded initiatives to expand library collections don’t skip these steps. The Pitt County schools in North Carolina, for instance, recently surveyed students, collected circulation reports for existing books, and reviewed school demographics in deciding how to spend $600,000 in federal COVID relief dollars to diversify library collections.

Many districts do allow librarians to steer the purchasing process, because they have the qualifications to do it.

Nearly every state requires school librarians to have a teaching license, according to the Every Library Institute. More than 20 states require school librarians to have a master’s degree, often in library science or school library media. And more than half of states require school librarians to pass a Praxis exam.

“I believe that decisions are most effectively made closest to the point of consequence,” said Jordan Ely, chief financial officer for the Gresham-Barlow district in Oregon. “The media specialist and the principals in those schools, they know what students are struggling with, what life looks like for them. And frankly, what the kids want to read.”

School libraries cobble together money from a wide range of sources.

Some states provide direct funding each year for school libraries. Wisconsin’s dedicated pot of funds for school libraries supplied districts with nearly $37 per student in 2020. Colorado annually gives each district between $3,500 and $4,000 for school library expenses.

Others provide more sporadic forms of financial support, like grant programs to which districts can apply, or funds that can be used for libraries as well as curriculum materials and other priorities.

Thirty-five states provide no direct aid for school libraries, according to researchers working on the federally funded School Librarian Investigation—Decline or Evolution, or SLIDE, project. Instead, those school libraries rely solely on state funds that can be spent on anything, or on district funds that can be allocated in a wide variety of ways.

Some districts direct aid to each school library. Some have policies that require school buildings to invest some of their discretionary funds in libraries.

Others leave those decisions to individual principals, which could mean one school has a flourishing library while another two miles away has no access to new resources, or lacks a library altogether.

In a nationally representative 2021 survey of school librarians by the School Library Journal, 15 percent of respondents said they had no budget for the year to purchase new resources.

Even when districts do require schools to invest in libraries, principals don’t always follow through. The Fort Worth school district in Texas recently implemented a requirement that schools spend at least $8 per student each year on library books, but some schools have invested only a fraction of that amount, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

As with overall school funding, the federal government contributes the smallest share for school libraries. Some districts use federal funds from programs like Title I to supplement library collections.

Some states fund school libraries with help from a federal program called the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA), which provides money for libraries of all kinds, including public libraries and university collections. Oregon, for instance, devoted $70,000 in LSTA funds in 2021 to grants for schools to expand library collections with a focus on racial diversity. Colorado accepted applications from districts to use LSTA funds on technology and other efforts to reach students during the early days of the pandemic.

More than 5 million students attend schools without a librarian.

During the 2020-21 school year, more than 10 percent of America’s public K-12 students—at least 5.6 million—attended a school without a librarian on staff to manage the catalog and help students navigate available resources, according to an analysis of federal data by the SLIDE project researchers. Those numbers don’t reflect students in Illinois, New York, or Utah because researchers couldn’t locate accurate figures for those states.

Districts where a majority of students are children of color, high-poverty districts, rural districts, and small districts were all more likely to have no librarian, the SLIDE project found.

Only 10 states require public schools to have librarians, and only six of those specify staffing levels per number of students, according to the SLIDE project.

And many states have no dedicated state-level position that serves school libraries. Having such a position is important because it signals to policymakers that libraries are important and have systemic supports, said Debra Kachel, an affiliate faculty member at Antioch University Seattle and director of the SLIDE project.

Thirteen states have a state employee whose exclusive job is working with or overseeing school libraries, the SLIDE project found. Another 21 states employ someone who works with school libraries as part of their broader duties.

Seventeen states have no such official focused on libraries either part- or full-time.

School libraries represent a tiny—and shrinking—fraction of overall education spending.

Libraries are fairly cheap for school districts, all things considered.

On average, schools reflected in the 2021 School Library Journal survey spent $11.35 per student on library resources like books, digital media, databases, digital devices, furniture, and more. By comparison, the average district annually spends $15,446 per student.

Districts buy individual books from vendors as well as collections from publishers. Hardcover books generally cost between $18 and $27 each last year, and paperback books cost between $8.50 and $10 each, according to data supplied to the School Library Journal by book publishers Follett and Baker & Taylor.

Last year, the 1,800-student Pittsgrove district in New Jersey budgeted roughly $10,000, or $5.55 per student, of its $30 million operating budget on library books. It spent roughly the same amount on e-books and audiobooks.

“The total amount spent on library books from year to year is a minimal part of our budget,” said Darren Harris, the district’s business administrator.

That’s become increasingly true in recent decades.

The National Center for Education Statistics in 2014 stopped collecting nationwide data on school library spending. But between 1999 and 2011, per-pupil spending on library materials dropped by nearly half, from $36.33 per student to $18.50 per student, according to federal figures adjusted for inflation. By contrast, total per-pupil spending rose almost 15 percent in that period, to $11,149 from $9,729.

Just like teachers, school librarians spend a lot of their own money for work.

Collections from book fairs and community donations are often essential tools for librarians to raise money to refresh collections or upgrade supplies. Book fairs in schools with large shares of low-income students are less likely to generate substantial revenue compared with book fairs in higher-wealth communities.

And regardless of how well book fairs do, it’s commonplace for librarians to invest hundreds of dollars of their own money each year to keep collections updated and provide other necessary items for students.

Jenna Kammer, an associate professor of library science at the University of Central Missouri, talked to dozens of school librarians for a 2020 study outlining their out-of-pocket contributions to their libraries.

Nearly one-third said they spent between $100 and $299 of their money each year to expand their collections. The upper end of that range is $1 shy of the maximum amount for which school librarians and other educators can claim an annual federal tax deduction.

Roughly 12 percent of respondents said they spent $1,000 each year. Less than 5 percent said they didn’t spend any of their own money.

In districts with more than 75 percent of students receiving free and reduced-price meals, librarians spent even more of their own money. Roughly 17 percent spent more than $1,000 a year, and close to 30 percent invested between $500 and $700.

Some librarians said they made these investments because money from their employers was tight. Others told Kammer the cumbersome process for getting reimbursed for library spending wasn’t worth the hassle, or that their school or district prohibited them from hosting fundraisers on online platforms like GoFundMe.

The median pay for school librarians in 2021 was $61,640 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s roughly equivalent to the nationwide average teacher salary.

The number of school librarians is trending downward.

Nationwide, K-12 schools employed 10,000 fewer librarians in 2018 than in 2009, according to an analysis of federal data published in a SLIDE project report. The student-to-librarian ratio also rose in that time from 939 students per librarian to just shy of 1,200.

During the same period, the number of higher education institutions offering degree programs for aspiring school librarians dropped. Fifty-one such programs exist nationwide, and five states—Alaska, Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, and Wyoming—have none.

Some of the nation’s largest school districts lack librarians on most of their campuses. Dozens of kindergarteners and 1st-graders recently protested outside New York City’s education department building and met with officials to highlight that more than half the city’s schools lack a legally mandated full-time librarian, and two-fifths lack a library. Fewer than one in five elementary schools in Chicago had a full-time librarian in 2021, WBEZ Chicago reported. The 200-school Philadelphia district employs fewer than a dozen librarians, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in 2021.

As a result, many students in urban schools don’t have access to a school library during their entire K-12 career, Kachel said.

“Those are the same kids that are going out and competing in colleges and for other jobs with a lot of these suburban kids coming from wealthy schools that have all these resources,” Kachel said.

Studies have shown that robust school libraries can improve students’ reading skills, raise test scores, and spark a lifelong love of reading. They can also provide crucial resources for English learners.

The federal Right to Read Act, proposed by Democrats in the Senate and House last fall, aimed to invest $600 million in school libraries nationwide but hasn’t gained traction on Capitol Hill.

The chilling effects of book bans have begun, but appear likely to worsen.

Political controversies over school library collections appear likely to deter library staffers from entering or staying in the profession, researchers say. They may also impose a chilling effect on decisionmaking around what appears on library bookshelves—even if no backlash materializes, said April Dawkins, a professor of library science at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.

“If you are worried that a book might be challenged, you lose that book because it goes through a challenge, or even someone steals it from the library, are you going to spend your very small budget, or nonexistent budget, on materials that may face a challenge, or are you going to go the safe route?” Dawkins said.

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