New York City is Supposed to Have a Librarian in Every Secondary School- So Where Are They?

When I came to my school library in 2018, it was a dump. And I don’t mean that metaphorically. I mean that literally. Once a gorgeous centerpiece of a school built in the 1930s, the library had become a desolate wasteland filled with trash and abandoned textbooks.

Old books filled the school library. Posters were still up from the last time students or school librarians had occupied the space. That was 2006, when the original high school was broken into smaller high schools during New York City’s restructuring of its high school system.

I attempted to save this poster, and it disintegrated in my hands! (We also have no idea where the card catalog went. We left a sign instructing the workers to leave it in the space, but it vanished.)

An out of date phone directory.

None of these numbers are applicable on our campus now, and most of these departments do not exist!


School Libraries are a Sign of Equity

As a new school librarian, it was overwhelming. It’s a reasonably typical story in New York City, where most schools do not have a library. And in  even fewer number are certified school librarians. There are two Commissioner’s Regulations set in place by the New York State Education Department regarding school librarians and school libraries’ maintenance. Section 91.1 of the Commissioner’s Regulations mandate that every school in the state must have a functioning library. Section 91.2 of the Commissioner’s Regulations establishes that every library in a secondary school should have a certified school librarian; the Commissioner of Education defines a secondary school as any school between elementary level and college.

Inherently, this is an issue of equality in New York City, where we have the most segregated school system in the country, according to the UCLA. Consider the following, a map of school librarians based upon a survey conducted by the NYCDOE Office of Library Services:

This map might seem quite prolific, but New York City has over 1,800 schools. Those are not 1,800 school librarians. Zoom in, and you will see more and more disparity in neighborhoods with primarily BIPOC populations. Significantly impacted are those with subsidized housing. Only two things can guarantee a child in New York City access to a school library: affluence or a passionate administration. I’m lucky to have the second. But in schools where the administration does not see the value in a library, the school library will often get cut. In a vicious cycle, this is probably because they’ve never worked with a school librarian themselves. Or it could be similar to what happened to my campus: structural changes made the school library defunct.

Issues Faced By School Libraries in NYC

As it stands, these are the current issues facing school libraries in NYC:

  • State-provided school library book funds are being moved out of the appropriate budget line to be spent on everything but library books, in violation of state law.
  • School Construction Authority designates the library a non-instructional space, despite school librarians being certified teachers and classes being taught in the space by the school librarian (including classes for which the school librarian is the teacher of record). This non-designation means that many school libraries do not have air conditioning, creating unsafe conditions for students and staff during the COVID pandemic and the warmer months.
  • Schools list a random teacher or administrator as the librarian on the annual Basic Educational Data Survey to avoid accountability for not staffing the school library.
  • Administrators pull school librarians from their libraries for excessive coverages or maternity leave replacements rather than hiring a substitute. Both create a barrier to access to the school library and deny employment opportunities for UFT members who are substitute teachers.
  • School libraries have been turned into storage rooms and garbage dumps for decades, resulting in literal rats’ nests and safety hazards.

Positive Impacts

Things have been slowly improving through tireless work by strong advocates for students’ rights to access school libraries. The Office of Library Services has a program called Teacher 2 Librarian, an initiative in partnership with New Visions for Public Schools, allowing classroom teachers to transition from the classroom to the library. I used this program to transition my license to meet New York State Requirements. The Office of Library Services also has several grant opportunities which support building a library program. One such program is the VITAL Libraries Grant, which supports the rebuilding of school libraries in disrepair, such as my school library was previously.

A group of people sit in a library.

P177Q was a recipient of a VITAL Libraries Grant.

Students Deserve Libraries

“Mrs. Hawkins, you’re the first librarian I’ve ever had!”

“Wait, we have a library?!”

“So, uh, how much do I have to pay for this book?”

These are common statements I hear in my school library. And ultimately, it comes down to the fact that students in NYC need access to school libraries. The benefits are exponential and documented. According to Coker’s study of school libraries, “the one key factor distinguishing high-performing high-poverty schools from low-performing high-poverty schools is a quality library program.” If NYC wants to position itself as a champion of equity, diversity, and students, it must start in the school library. 


Author: Ashley Hawkins

Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion


5 replies

  1. Not just in NYC but in NYS, it is mandated to have a librarian in secondary schools. is the shortage simply because of budget or also because of a lack of people going into the profession?

  2. I am a former Teacher Librarian in Long Beach USD Long Beach CA. Over thirteen years I was posted to eleven different K-8 schools. All with half time at a site. One year I had three sites. While accrediting may require a librarian one should not assume that is full time. I lost my library media assistant who services the lower grades and kept the library organized. We did all of our book processing through a central school district facility until they were all never replaced due to attrition. Then our books were just preprocessed through the venders who later worked directly with our LIS to download the catalog records. There was little respect for the facility as printers and their supplies would go missing, books would go missing as the facility was used for school and public meetings and there were no security gates or RFID tags. Each year became more difficult just to operate and teach. When one school’s portable handheld scanner needed a new battery I was told to purchase it and I’d be reimbursed. Having experienced that nightmare before in purchasing books, I decided to let them take care of it as they were supposed to with the lost books fund. The scanner let alone the battery pack was lost by the end of the year. I own three on my own so I used them and removed them with me when I left daily as they would have been subject to theft as well since the textbook distribution classified staff used them as well. At one school I returned from the summer break to realize a whole case of baby wipes that I’d just received from the PTA for book cleaning was missing. After cleaning and reorganizing my work room, I discovered that the Principal had noticed all the open space and took it over for their storage. I was doing the work of several people and exhausted after my normal eight hour daily assignment (not the typical five hour workday of a classroom teacher). I was fighting the district about the books that I received from the Library Curriculum Leader that should not have been in my schools (the most recent one about explicit sex of homosexuals for a middle school that was not in any way aligned to the curriculum). In the thirteen years, I received one substantial $30K budget for new books and the rest of the years there may’ve been a pittance via the results of the Scholastic Book Fairs. This was just the end. Time to move on to other growth zones as this offered no path or ladder. Just a dead end of trying to endure. I believe the answer is to utilize the public libraries as they have huge budgets for purchasing, staff, supplies, facilities, teaching tools like projectors, computer access, SMART boards for teaching.
    This is culture. If the district has this culture you won’t keep the librarians even if you can get them to take an eight hour job over the five hour classroom teacher job. Where classrooms do not get pirated or abused. Culture can seldom be known ahead of time. I chose to work in a district that had had a reputation for greatness. I can not imagine what is going on elsewhere.

  3. In the early nineties I worked on school outreach and support as part the Connecting Schools and Libraries Project in NYC. While I have seen some improvement, many things have not changed. It saddens me whenever I speak to someone who I once knew as a passionate educator and hear that they are burnt out or going though the motions to retirement.

    What is needed is a recognition already realized in the IBS curriculum that the libraries are more than book lenders, test monitors and study hall sites. We are and should be active partners in literacy and inquiry based learning.
    Unfortunately, our districts/teaching partners do not have the time, budget or resources to implement the type of practices we know will make a difference. Building partnerships and leveraging local resources is great but in the end it does not address the basic problem.

  4. As a librarian who has worked in higher education and transitioned to working in K-12 I think it is becoming abundantly clear that education is NOT valued in our country. I mean it is if you are affluent, but if you are poor, working class, or BIPOC you don’t make the cut and you will have to take out six figures in loans that you will never be able to pay back just to get your college education (if you are able to persist until graduation). If you look at how K-12 schools are funded, the common core curriculum, and the amount of corruption involved it is staggering. Look at what Abbott wants to do in Texas, he wants to challenge the 1982 Supreme Court case that granted every child in the U.S. a free public education, because he doesn’t want to educate “Illegals”. When you found a country and run it on the principles of capitalism, profit is always the final goal of any enterprise. Public goods don’t create profit, that is why you are seeing the defunding or down right end of all things related to the public good. We are in late state capitalism and we are becoming more fascist by the day. You can’t keep track of all the mass shootings, or the names of the unarmed black folks being gunned down by police in the streets for merely existing. We are taking away the rights of half of the population and gleefully voting against funding to literally feed the babies we will be forced to birth. Do you see a path forward in this climate for libraries? Why do you think all of these book challenges are happening right now? The power structures don’t want us to know the truth, they do not want us to be able to critically think, they want easy to control bodies to do their bidding whether that is work endless hours without bathroom breaks in an Amazon warehouse, or die on one of the battlefields of our endless wars. We are living in the dystopias we have read about, we are just in the early stages. Buckle up, it will be a very bumpy ride!

  5. Hi Ashley,
    Would love to talk more. I’m a parent and author who has been working on school librarian advocacy in NYC since last year. Please feel free to reach out.
    My website:


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