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.
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.
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.
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.