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Students Still Want to Read Books but NYC’s Public School Libraries Are Being Forgotten

Issue 275

Students still want all the magic you can find in a library, yet 60% of NYC schools don’t have one that’s functioning.

Ben Mankoff Nov 21

“My mom won’t take me to the public library,” said a high-school sophomore in Brooklyn upon learning that her school library didn’t have the novel she’d been craving. When she was offered an e-book version, her nose crinkled. She preferred to wait until she could get the paper book at school, even though it might take months to arrive.

This student needed her school library. It was barely up to the task. Dust lay thick on the shelves, new books hadn’t been ordered in years, and instead of a certified school librarian, the person running the place was a newly minted substitute teacher with a master’s degree in who-the-hell-cares: me.

The condition of the library — most books a decade past relevance, cataloging software I couldn’t use, broken furniture and computers shoved away in a corner — should not have been surprising. New York City’s public-school libraries were in crisis long before the pandemic endangered enrollment and budgets, and before the recent national moral panics around gender and race prompted waves of censorship. State regulations require most city public secondary schools to employ a certified school library media specialist, but between 2005 and 2014, the number of librarians employed in city schools fell by half, according to a report by Education Week. That decline has continued. The city Department of Education’s (DOE) Office of Library Services doesn’t have reliable data, but the available figures indicate that over 60% of city high schools do not have the state-mandated library media specialist on staff, and more than 40% don’t have any library space. 

With some 1.1 million students and a budget approaching $40 billion this school year, why have city school libraries been allowed to slip into neglect? The answer is like the Scylla and Charybdis of Greek myth, with the multiheaded beast of capitalism on one side and a vortex of bureaucracy on the other. Other reasons are the legacy of the Bloomberg administration’s policies, which made a fetish of competition between principals, and the accelerating integration of digital technologies into conceptions of literacy. 

Available figures indicate that over 60% of city high schools do not have the state-mandated library media specialist on staff, and more than 40% don’t have any library space. 

A change in management

In the early 2000s, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his education chancellor, Joel Klein, set out to change the way the city educates children. Their program involved breaking up large schools, making space for more charter schools, training principals in business management and replacing superintendent oversight with private-sector contracts paid out of school budgets.

“Klein set out to do something any other schools chief would consider insane: Disrupt his own schools with built-in competitors,” Richard Whitmire wrote admiringly in a book about the era. Klein and Bloomberg, with money from Bill Gates and others, pushed the progressive-sounding Small Schools of Choice initiative, which broke large “failing” schools into smaller student bodies sharing a single campus. Klein also brought in former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, nicknamed “Neutron Jack” for his love of neutron-bomb mass layoffs, to head the board of a then-new city program, the now national Leadership Academy, whose goal remains training new principals in the art of “disrupting inequities.” 

Their philosophy was that competition breeds innovation, that empowered principals would innovate in response to the needs of their communities. That school-district-as-market philosophy often resulted in educators within a school campus jockeying for the limited space available. That left libraries especially vulnerable to neglect, because their mandate is unfunded and therefore unenforced.

One principal, a former librarian, told me that her campus had no librarian because she and the two other principals who share the space could not agree on its use. “My kids wanted to do a mural in there,” she said, but the other principals objected. “It was this competitive thing, again, a campus. No real shared vision.” When the last librarian left for another school, hiring a new one had fallen to the bottom of the priority list, leaving the 500-odd students on this campus without one. Nationally, 90% of schools that lose a librarian don’t hire a new one.

“The DOE has shifted to this franchise model, where each school is kind of like its own serfdom,” Bronx ­librarian and union leader Christina Gavin said. 

Many principals are unaware of both the state mandates for libraries and librarians, and of the ways in which a library can benefit their students. In New York City, whether a student receives those benefits comes down to the decisions of individual principals. 

“Instead of having standardized operations being pushed out to all the schools, it’s inconsistent across the city,” said Gavin. She and other advocates, with help from the DOE’s Office of Library Services (OLS), have worked to educate principals about the benefits of school libraries, even creating tools to make it much easier for them to search for and hire new librarians. As laudable as these efforts are, passionate librarians like Gavin spend too much of their time advocating for libraries instead of running them. 

With enough staff, maybe advocacy wouldn’t be such a burden. In an effort to address the shortage of librarians, says OLS director Melissa Jacobs, the office turned to New Visions, the same private organization that received the bulk of Gates’ funding to create small schools. Together they created a program called Teacher2Librarian, which subsidizes certified teachers studying for Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) degrees, in exchange for three years of service in a public-school library. But this program is not designed to fully close the gap between state mandates and reality.

“The DOE has shifted to this franchise model, where each school is kind of like its own serfdom.”

One place Teacher2Librarian has been successful, says Russell West, a New Visions coordinator of the program, was at the Julia Richman Education Complex on the Upper East Side, once cited in the New York Times as “the country’s premier example of a large, failing urban high school turned into a peaceful campus of successful small schools.” But according to West, the campus had a library that wasn’t working. A teacher there took it upon herself to improve the situation and eventually joined New Visions’ first cohort in the Teacher2Librarian program. 

That success, however, relied on a principal willing and able to support that work. “There’s a certain aspect of the principalship that is served by independence,” West put it. But that flexibility is also a central flaw in the city’s approach to education: It relies on the interests and values of individual principals over structural support. 

And what about the simple fact that principals who do want to hire a certified librarian can’t seem to find candidates for the job? Last spring, Melissa Jacobs was imploring librarians daily to send her their resumes, saying she was getting requests from principals who couldn’t find certified librarians to hire. Although the number of MLIS degrees being granted in the New York area continues to rise, there aren’t enough graduates who want to get the extra certification that would enable them to work in public schools.

“Libraries should be able, willing, and provided the means with which to adapt to fit the needs of the communities they serve,” says Jesse Miglus, a public librarian who got her start in central New York State and now works in Colorado. In school libraries, she says, “sometimes the administration and school board have the librarian’s back, but not always.” 

Discipline through technology

The librarian, in transforming into the “library media specialist,” is becoming the midwife of bringing children into mass media. We imagine that media literacy education will produce cool, rational, Vulcan information argonauts navigating a “field of options,” in the words of anthropologist and philosopher Thomas de Zengotita, and parents and teachers are being told that this is somehow the same thing as literacy. 

It is not. We know that digital technologies like smartphones are socially isolating, that time spent on them makes both children and adults less integrated with others. 

“One thing I have noticed is that books, like experiences in life, make it into a person’s dream life, but the stuff on screens barely does,” says Jamieson Webster, a psychoanalyst and author of a recent New York Times guest essay about the mental-health crisis among adolescents. “The time spent on the machine is not coming into sessions, it’s not coming into their unconscious life. And that means that a huge swath of experience is being deleted constantly.” 

All this is discouraging for those of us still invested in the idea that widespread literacy is good for democracy. The students who come into the library where I work tell me, over and over, no matter what kind of reader they are, what kinds of stories they seek, that they prefer paper books to digital books. 

But when I don’t have the book they want in the library, the solution the OLS offers is the Citywide Digital Library, via an app called Sora. Sora, made by a company called Overdrive that contracts with the DOE, makes it possible to read books on a Kindle device with an e-ink screen, which does a better job of replicating the experience of reading a physical book, as it is single-purpose and less straining to the eyes. But only some of the digital titles available are compatible with the Kindle, and the user has to go through multiple extra steps to get a book they’ve borrowed from Sora’s website onto a Kindle.  

The Citywide Digital Library was touted as an achievement in access when it was introduced by the OLS during the pandemic, but the children most in need of access to books are the ones least likely to have multiple devices, which means they wind up reading on tablets and smartphones with normal screens. The proponents of digital books as a solution to the access problem miss this reality. 

Their implicit argument is also not so different from those made by Netflix or Facebook: That with digital books we can — in theory, someday — feed a student the perfect book tailored to their individual reading level, interests and demographics. But not all students want that. The young Black woman standing in the library, in addition to outright rejecting digital books, tells me that she is tired of books about brilliant Black teens who have to save the universe. She seeks serendipity and privacy, not data-fueled curation. 

The students who come into the library where I work tell me, over and over, no matter what kind of reader they are, what kinds of stories they seek, that they prefer paper books to digital books. 

“Reading a physical book is more direct than reading on my phone,” another student told me. The linear, sustained thinking required and nurtured by the reading of a physical book is replaced with the rapid, staccato consumption that an Everything Machine encourages. Learning to hold conflicting ideas in one’s mind — what author George Saunders calls the “holy befuddlement” of unanswerable questions — gives way to flipping between alternate realities. 

Are we really saying that the role of the library media specialist should be to urge students to give that up in the name of access? Because despite the DOE’s protestations of progressivism, many initiatives promoting “access” and “representation” ultimately yoke education to corporations and to an ethos of achievement within the landscape those corporations dominate. They replace literacy and relationships with optionality and efficiency. 

What is to be done?

The problems facing school libraries are not unknown to decision-makers in and around City Hall. The City Council is putting over $14.4 million toward infrastructure and supplies for school libraries in 2023, the most it has ever appropriated for school libraries, according to a Council spokesperson. But this money does nothing to address the staffing issue.

The DOE’s Panel for Education Policy, composed of a mix of mayoral appointees, borough president appointees and community members from each borough, is currently debating whether to include funding for librarians in the base rate that each school receives for its yearly budget. This change would add teeth to the state mandate for librarians in secondary schools, but it seems unlikely to happen: The PEP is going to have to choose between funding librarians or social workers in schools and, according to panel member Dr. Kaliris Salas-Ramirez, it’s likely going to choose social workers, given the COVID-19 pandemic’s assault on our collective mental health.

The answers to the problems with school may have to come from below, from librarians themselves. But the obsession with digital media is clouding our vision, obscuring what libraries can be for children. The digital-literacy tools given to librarians are 10 years behind in terms of capturing the current information ecosystem, and the rate of change in that ecosystem is only increasing. 

I don’t mean to suggest that we bury our heads and ignore the march of mass media, or try to completely restructure education to fit some kind of pre-capitalist bucolic fantasy. That is impossible and probably undesirable. Children have the media, and the media have them. I want to suggest that librarians in particular, in the age of information overload, ought to promote an embodied kind of literacy. This doesn’t have to mean no longer showing students how to discern good online sources from bad, but it does mean questioning how far that can go in nurturing thoughtful, engaged citizens. 

When I asked Jesse Miglus, the public librarian in Colorado, what she wants people to know about what libraries need most right now, she pointed to 1931, when “Library Hero” S. R. Ranganathan proposed his famous five laws of library science:

  1. Books are for use.
  2. Every person his or her book.
  3. Every book its reader.
  4. Save the time of the reader.
  5. A library is a growing organism.

The ethos of competition and the advance of digital technologies into education work together to undermine these principles. The former fosters neglect of the library’s physical space, while the latter is changing the definitions of “book” and “literacy.” The result is that we are losing sight of the purpose of a library: to be a physical space where members of a community can participate in a knowledge commons. The mandate for media literacy in schools and the pressing of school librarians into that work has drained the profession of its vital force. The creative work of librarians is being optimized out of existence in favor of frictionless delivery of content — eliminating the emotional and physical inefficiencies of a room full of books. 

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