Association of Texas Professional Educators
Association of Texas Professional Educators
/getmedia/7f6d07f7-0a42-49ad-9e35-62747d476f04/24_News_Spring_Feature_Libraries.jpg?width=1110&height=700&ext=.jpg /getmedia/7f6d07f7-0a42-49ad-9e35-62747d476f04/24_News_Spring_Feature_Libraries.jpg?width=1110&height=700&ext=.jpg

The Future of School Libraries

Today, thousands of librarians working in Texas schools are at a critical juncture, and school libraries are facing a host of challenges that call into question what their future will look like. Some of these challenges, such as dwindling budgets and staffing shortages, have existed for years but have recently increased in severity. Others—such as growing movements to ban library books and rising animosity from vocal parents and politicians toward their work—are new. How librarians, administrators, and school districts navigate these challenges will determine the future of school libraries and their role in Texas education.

More Than Just Books

School librarians perform a variety of duties each day beyond checking out books to students. Andrea Keller has worked as a librarian at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels in Irving ISD for the past eight years. While each of those positions was unique, they all shared a common trait.

“One of the reasons I actually love being a librarian is because every day looks a little bit different,” Keller says.

On any given day, her responsibilities could range from collaborating with teachers to co-teaching lessons, helping students learn how to use new technology, or even helping them create resumes. But whatever she is doing, it centers on helping her students.

“I co-teach with teachers to enhance lessons that they’re doing in their classrooms because the library is the largest classroom in the school,” Keller explains. “It gives students a different way to address their own learning, and the school library is an integral part of learning in the 21st-century classroom.”

Beyond helping students with their lessons, school libraries with a certified librarian help build a sense of community that is tailored to each school.

“When I am curating resources, I’m making sure that I’m listening to my population,” Keller says. “Each community is so very different. There are 36 campuses here in Irving ISD, and each campus has its own unique needs and community. The things I am doing in my library are going to look different than the library next door.”

Additionally, the presence of a school library on campus can help fight inequity.

“People are always saying, ‘just go buy the book,’ or ‘go to the public library,’ but some of these students don’t have the ability to do that,” Keller says. “The public library may be too far. They may not have transportation. Their parents may not have the extra income to purchase these books for them. So not having access to a school library is an equity issue.”

A Wave of Book Bans

School librarians have for many years seen and dealt with controversies over whether certain books are appropriate for schoolchildren to read. Some titles have faced repeated calls to be banned again and again, while it seems there is always a new work poised to join the ranks of controversial books. However, what has changed in the past few years are both the frequency and number of complaints from parents, school boards, and organized groups over book titles.

According to a report by the free speech organization PEN America, the number of public school book bans across the country increased 33% during the 2022-23 school year compared with 2021-22. The organization has recorded nearly 6,000 instances of banned books since it began tracking them in July 2021. In that time, Texas has ranked second only to Florida in number of book ban cases.

This increasingly hostile environment has taken its toll on school librarians as well.

“The book challenges we have seen over the last couple of years have been hard for them,” Brooke King, chair of the Texas Association of School Librarians, explains. “There has just been a bombardment of challenges in some districts. You also have people attacking school librarians on social media and calling them names, accusing them of not considering what’s in the best interest of students when librarians would say that is the only thing they think about.”

Facing this type of criticism is especially hard because it represents an abrupt change from the praise school librarians received just a few years ago as the pandemic began. Like their fellow educators, librarians worked to facilitate at-home learning by helping ensure students had access to resources and organizing curbside service for books.

Additionally, a recent bill passed by the Texas Legislature has already increased the debate over this issue. In 2023, lawmakers passed House Bill (HB) 900, which, among other stipulations, would have required booksellers to rate public school library books based largely on their depictions of or references to gender or sexuality. Schools would have been barred from purchasing books from vendors that did not rate their books. In January, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that requiring booksellers to rate their materials as “sexually explicit” or “sexually relevant” based on vague statutory definitions was unconstitutional. Regardless of the fate of this particular law and future court cases, school librarians will surely continue to navigate the issue of book bans in school libraries for the foreseeable future.

Efforts to ban individual books or lists of books frustrate school librarians because, as King explains, it disregards their role in helping select book collections for their schools and circumvents existing processes for objecting to a book’s inclusion in a library.

“A certified librarian has a master’s degree and has taken multiple classes on selecting children’s literature,” King says. “Additionally, librarians are constantly reading journal reviews, completing professional development, and attending conferences to find out about new books.

“If someone finds a book objectionable, there is a process in place to address it. Libraries purchase hundreds, if not thousands, of books every year making it impossible to read every one before purchasing it. Once somebody objects to a book, an entire committee consisting of librarians, teachers, parents, and, if appropriate, students read it and discuss the age-appropriateness of it. I think the biggest problem is that school districts are either not following their reconsideration policies or changing them.”

When this happens, however, King explains it is not a failure of a school librarian. Libraries are not intended to please everyone—a characteristic that actually makes them better. Banning a book so nobody can use it is often not the best course of action.

“What’s great about libraries is they are for independent, voluntary inquiry,” King says. “Librarians are happy to work with individual parents and help them choose the appropriate books for their children. If an individual parent objects to certain books, we can make notes in the child’s library accounts. We are happy to work with those parents and to help their child choose books that they feel are appropriate. If a student checks out a book that their family doesn’t feel is appropriate for them, they can return it and get a different one.”

Library Closures, Staffing Shortages Pose Challenges

Last year, the Texas Education Agency seized control of the Houston Independent School District, citing poor academic performance. The state removed the elected board of trustees, replacing it with an appointed board of managers, and replacing the district’s superintendent with former Dallas ISD Superintendent Mike Miles. In his new role at the helm of HISD, Miles announced dozens of low-performing schools would become a part of his New Education System reform plan. Several dozen more campuses opted to participate in this plan.

Part of this plan involved eliminating librarian positions and media specialists on those campuses. The libraries would then be converted into “team centers” where students who misbehave in classrooms would either watch virtual lessons or work in groups. The library’s book collection would remain on the shelves—but there would no longer be a librarian at the school to maintain the collections or work with students.

According to Miles, this change was needed to prioritize resources at the NES schools. Before the state takeover, the district had worked to invest more in its school libraries, spending millions of dollars to purchase new library books and announcing plans to put a librarian or media specialist on every campus.

The post-TEA takeover plan generated national headlines and drew widespread criticism from both parents and community leaders. Unfortunately, other schools across Texas have also seen their libraries close, but with fewer people paying attention. The staffing shortages that have affected schools as educators leave the profession have affected school libraries, too—only when a librarian leaves, they are not always replaced.

“When a certified school librarian retires, they’re not always replacing them with another certified school librarian,” King explains. “They either don’t fill the position or do so with a paraprofessional or a certified teacher, but they’re not certified as a librarian. They don’t have all the training, especially in selecting books for the collection. This makes it even more difficult in the face of all these book challenges. If you don’t have that kind of background knowledge to support your decisions on what books you’re selecting, it makes it harder to do the job.”

Ultimately, those districts that remove libraries from their schools could wind up harming their students, even if the consequences are not apparent right away.

“I really do think that those districts that are getting rid of librarians or libraries will feel that decision,” King predicts. “It may take a year or two, or even 10, but I believe it will hurt their campuses and hurt their students.”

What Does the Future Hold?

Librarians will likely continue facing these challenges for the foreseeable future. So how will they adjust and continue their vital work going forward? One possible answer would require school librarians to increase the visibility of their work and more publicly advocate for their profession than in the past. King and her organization TASL have been working with their members to promote their work publicly through efforts such as social media campaigns.

“They need to be advocates for themselves and for the profession,” King says. “They need to show the wonderful things that are happening in their libraries to stakeholders, including parents, principals, and district officials. And don’t forget about your school board as well. We are trying to still stay on the positive side, sharing things like what a typical day in the life of a librarian is like. We explain this is what it takes for me to develop my collection, to buy books. This is what that process looks like.”

Keller has embraced this form of advocacy, building up a following on her social media channels by sharing glimpses of her work.

“I use Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok to advocate by sharing what we are doing in the library,” Keller says. “Social media is a valuable tool to advocate for libraries.”

School librarians, like other educators, will also need to become much more involved in the process to help effect positive change. This is something TASL already began to do in the most recent legislative session. TASL mobilized its members to contact their legislators directly via phone calls, by writing emails, and by even testifying directly in front of legislative committees to share their stories and needs.

“I feel like most people support their school librarian and are appreciative of them,” King adds. “We went to the PTA conference this last summer, and people were stopping by left and right just saying how much they appreciate their school librarian. What we really need is those people to speak out on behalf of the school libraries and librarians—most people are appreciative if you just talk to them one-on-one about it.”

However, going forward, the emergence and adoption of new technologies will likely change the look of libraries as well. With so many ways to access information—from e-books to the internet—some might wonder if the advance of technology itself could render the traditional library as we know it obsolete. Keller does not believe that will happen, and in fact, she thinks new technology is improving traditional libraries.

“I don’t think physical books are ever going away,” Keller says. “However, one of the changes I have seen in the past few years is the increasing access to books. I’m here from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., but after I leave, a student’s access to physical books goes away. But they still could have access to audio books and e-books.”

Additionally, Keller says the digital resources help enhance the current library experience.

“If I had a book on the moon, that’s great. But that book may have been written in 2005. Well, there may be much more updated information on the digital resources that have been curated for us.”

In fact, rather than replacing the job of school librarians, helping students make sense of new resources and information is now one of Keller’s most important jobs.

“I’m that extra support person who knows the importance of understanding information but also how to find it,” Keller says. “A student might say, ‘Oh, let me just Google that.’ Google is great and everything, but is that always our best resource? I am helping students understand how to gather information and make sure it makes sense. Having a library on campus helps students navigate the excess of information.”

King also agrees that going forward the role of librarian will remain an important part of schools. Librarians have adapted to change before, but the heart of the profession remains helping students.

“Libraries have been around for thousands of years and in schools since at least the 1800s,” King says. “We always evolve with what’s happening. Librarians are resilient, and I think we will get through this period. There is a correlation between students’ test scores and having a certified librarian on the school campus. So, I think we must keep pushing advocacy and showing that it’s an important component of school.

“I am choosing to believe the future is bright. We just have to stay positive as much as possible.”

Author: Michael Spurlin