The Mysterious Case of the Vanishing School Library

A quiet trend is emerging in many schools as our culture has shifted almost completely towards technology as the main source of information: the demise of the school library.

Our youngest children have never attended a traditional school. They have been exclusively home educated, with additional supplemental instructions provided through enrollment in educational programs and cooperatives which we pay tuition and fees for them to attend.

Our oldest children, however, attended traditional school from Kindergarten through 12th grade, and the school library as well as its librarian, was a large part of the life of their schools. Because we have been disconnected from the happenings at our local schools for most of the past 7 years, I was quite surprised to read this by Krysta at Pages Unbound:

Years ago, my school library closed. The administration declared that no one was using the library and that it had become “obsolete” with the age of the Internet. The room that was once a library is now a computer lab. And the administration probably still feels proud that they are being “innovative” and keeping up with modern technology. The irony, however, is that the school library was only ever as obsolete as the administration and faculty made it. And, if they had wanted to, they could have saved the school library within a few months.

My school library closed because no students ever used it. No students used the library because it was primarily open during school hours and briefly after–and no teacher ever seemed to think about bringing their classes to the library. Students were not allowed out of class for essentially any reason (except, of course, sports), so could not go to the library by themselves. In short, the school itself prevented students from using the library because they blocked access to it.

I was completely incredulous of this as a trend. I usually am when I read about the disdain supposedly smart people have for libraries. Leaving aside for the moment fiscal issues or drag queen story times, a library is useful for all kinds of things and to all kinds of people no matter what our particular ideological bent might be. Our local library branches nearly always have brisk traffic and our family’s use of its services is so frequent, the fiscal argument is lost on me anyway. My tax dollars may be wasted with regard to the public school system, but I more than make up for it with our use of the local library.

After reading the Pages Unbound post, my incredulity remained, so I decided to do a bit of clicking to find out if it was really true: Are school libraries becoming obsolete even as school districts clamor for greater and greater tax increases and gambling legislations to pump more money into education? Have we really decided, as we simultaneously learn how damaging excessive screen time is at young ages, that access to books is unimportant and the printed word is obsolete?

Unfortunately, it seems Krysta was not being Chicken Little here. (I never really thought she was!) This is a real and troubling trend. One of the most enlightening articles I found was a piece at Architecture and Education’s Disappearing School Libraries-Why?

An interesting question posed by an Australian researcher, Terry Byers, on Twitter got me thinking. He asked, “Why do architects and school leaders see them [libraries] as redundant spaces?”

Is part of the redundant libraries issue a bigger problem with teaching spaces winning ground (quite literally) from more social, perhaps less official learning spaces then?

My guess is yes. In this logic, it’s not just that space is redundant but that if that space can’t be directly and demonstrably linked to pre-established assessment-oriented learning activities it is now seen as an opportunity cost – get rid of it, use the space elsewhere.

The moral injunction that schools do all they can to improve learning when learning is tied to increasingly narrow definitional pressures and measures, and teachers’ and principals’ own careers being pegged to the visibility of student progression puts pressure on how physical space is seen. It changes what kinds of space are efficient in this logic. As Lyotard put it, “be operational (that is, commensurable) or disappear” (1984:xxiv also online here). If your library or staff space cannot be shown to contribute to the performance of the system and so its efficiency or value (within the terms of the system) remains an unknown, it loses out. This is the “terror” of which Lyotard writes. To be unvalued is to be anyway devalued. To be value-able means changing what you are.

Architecture and Education is a UK website. Interestingly enough, most of the articles I found initially were from English publications. Apparently, we’re not the only ones closing school libraries. However, this author’s point about pre-established assessment oriented activities rings true here. If there isn’t a clear connection between the use and presence of a library and the scores produced on the standardized tests, then the library occupies a space that would be much more efficient if put to use in a way that shores up the bottom line. Everything today, including education, is all about the bottom line. All the talk about doing things “for the children” is just that; cheap talk.

This cognitive dissonance is deafening to anyone who bothers to hear it.  The people who are most likely to clamor for more money to boost student achievement are also among the people to pretend to champion the plight of the poor and downtrodden: the families of children who are least able to afford to buy their children books. I’ll go back and pick up those ideological concerns that I initially laid aside because there actually is a direct link between academic achievement and library access.

The data shows that children with access to school libraries and librarians do better in school, so one has to wonder how the educational powers that be (who also primarily inhabit the political class which pretends to defend the poor) arbitrarily destroy school libraries rather than trying to revitalize them for the sake of the students. The data as present by Kappanonline:

Data from more than 34 statewide studies suggest that students tend to earn better standardized test scores in schools that have strong library programs. Further, when administrators, teachers, and librarians themselves rated the importance and frequency of various library practices associated with student learning, their ratings correlated with student test scores, further substantiating claims of libraries’ benefits. In addition, newer studies, conducted over the last several years, show that strong school libraries are also linked to other important indicators of student success, including graduation rates and mastery of academic standards.

Skeptics might assume that these benefits are associated mainly with wealthier schools, where well-resourced libraries serve affluent students. However, researchers have been careful to control for school and community socioeconomic factors, and they have found that these correlations cannot be explained away by student demographics, school funding levels, teacher-pupil ratios, or teacher qualifications. In fact, they have often found that the benefits associated with good library programs are strongest for the most vulnerable and at-risk learners, including students of color, low-income students, and students with disabilities.

Funny that I, with my conservative values and money to buy my homeschooled kids a book whenever I feel like it, care more about student access to libraries than the people whose job it is to serve those students’ interests.

17 thoughts on “The Mysterious Case of the Vanishing School Library

  1. bikebubba says:

    It’s been 32 years since I’ve been in high school, but one thing that strikes me is that while my school had a decent library, it was all but irrelevant because our days were so full of everything else, we could never go there. It is almost as if the English teachers and such worked overtime to make it that way by spoon feeding everything to young people.


  2. hearthie says:

    I remember spending lots of time in the school library in sixth grade, and I think that was the only school library that made any attempt to have books for casual reading – or open hours during recess/lunch where kids might, you know, check out books on their own?

    The library at the kids’ school before we pulled them out was not geared towards anything other than class trips and assignments. It’s no wonder it wasn’t used much.


  3. Elspeth says:

    I polled my young adult kids. They said their school libraries were used a lot in elementary and middle school. Not as much if ever in high school. Also that the quality of the HS library reflected its lack of use.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. smkoseki says:

    I probably spent more time my school library than any other kid in my school – I stayed in at recess (seriously), read most everything they had (sans romance). I even read encyclopedias! Today, me and mine utilize our local excellent public library to the max (average of 20 books out at any time). My kids love it and go weekly (and would go more often if I let them).

    Yet: if I had my druthers I would defund all libraries tomorrow & subsidize poor people’s web access & Amazon books, plus coordinate the local small home box libraries (with a web catalog) for all the Luddites; we use those boxes a lot too. I think this will all happen eventually anyway. I just hope I live long enough to see all the libraries gone so I can relish the wailing and gnashing of teeth of blue-haired librarians everywhere.

    I confess I’m a bit surprised how fast the pro-school crowd has folded on libraries. But I shouldn’t be; it’s more cash for the unions plus it’s a white-boomer thing and their days are over due to their lack of children and travel to FL. But boy am I happy with the pace of change I’m seeing and I’ll watch our local funding votes with more interest and hope from here on. Thanks for the article links, very interesting reading and very exciting times.


  5. Elspeth says:

    if I had my druthers I would defund all libraries tomorrow & subsidize poor people’s web access & Amazon books, plus coordinate the local small home box libraries (with a web catalog) for all the Luddites; we use those boxes a lot too. I think this will all happen eventually anyway. I just hope I live long enough to see all the libraries gone so I can relish the wailing and gnashing of teeth of blue-haired librarians everywhere.

    That’s an interesting contradiction: on the one hand, you use the library far more than the average person, yet you simultaneously want to see it go away, because…??

    I have our kids signed up for a slew of free library camps this summer. 3D printing, crochet (level 3 because they can already crochet), sewing, and entrepreneurship to name a few. Every week that we aren’t traveling, getting together with friends, or having family outings? They’ll be at the library learning new skills and being exposed to new ideas.

    We do a lot more than check out books, although we do a lot of that too. Our libraries offer things far beyond what you can get online.

    I’ve come to terms with the fact that my love of public libraries and my belief that they serve a purpose makes me at odds with many libertarian types. Hasn’t changed my mind though.

    But public libraries are a far different thing that closing school libraries, which was what really inspired the post. No amount of subsidy for technology can replace a gathering spot for students to study, do research, and have a person on hand with knowledge about books.

    And yes, I recognize that libraries (like most educational institutions in our country at present, lean liberal). How much of that is our fault?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Elspeth says:

    I’ve been having conversations about this topic with lots of other people over the past couple of days, SMK, and one person I talked to made a very salient point.

    Internet research and information is hugely biased towards current media. You only have access to stuff from the past which people in the present have chosen to share. Access to older books with authentic information and cultural notes relevant to a particular era is not as easy to come by online and in digital media as you might think. For instance, when Betty Friedan repeatedly referenced Marriage for Moderns in her book The Feminine Mystique, I looked high and low for that information online so I’d have some relevant context in which to place her complaints.

    I eventually found the book, but only in hard copy and there were only a few editions left available for purchase. Thankfully, I got a copy, but even information about the author was super hard to come by. I even reached out to my more tech-savvy people (TPC among them) to help me find out something about this guy, and they also came up empty. If I hadn’t gotten the hard copy, I’d still be in the dark. The older the more obscure material, the harder it is to get a hand on it, and I think that old stuff is extremely relevant.

    And of course, as we’re all learning, considering the way the big tech companies are playing gatekeeper and “deleters-in-chief” with any politically incorrect content, books become more important than ever. There have been several instances of books that I reviewed right here that were unavailable in any digital format. I had to buy them, and some were pretty pricey for what they were.

    It works against us to buy into the notion that the Internet powers that be and Amazon can provide what is needed to inform and educate the population in this rapidly changing and degenerating culture which seeks to demonize the old virtues and replace them with new ones.

    Libraries aren’t perfect, but so long as I can walk into one and find pick up books which extol the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, I’ll remain a supporter.

    Also, I am a big supporter of used bookstores. We have one in our city that is an excellent resource for old material. Love that place!


  7. smkoseki says:

    …you use the library far more than the average yet you want to see it go away, because…??

    I generally oppose government over free-market. I don’t call this libertarian, just common sense I thought we had figured out post USSR. Why not just give everyone a subsidy and let them buy their own damn books? I oppose all school funding too for the same reasons. But what really offends? The books being selected by our blue-haired harridans which is a deliberate form of propaganda. So I can’t wait to see it all burn. Exciting times.

    Internet research and information is hugely biased towards current media.

    This doesn’t worry me – I’ve been introduced to more older media due to the web exposure of it than I ever did pre-web. The good stuff is talked about, and so it can’t be hidden. It’s a totally new era, where information is free and impossible to hide. Even conspiracy theories. I do agree the average IQ person is doomed here because they can’t tell the good from the bad, but that’s life.


  8. Elspeth says:

    I generally oppose government over free-market.

    In the purest sense, I agree with you. I have grown very, very wary of the people in politics and media who claim to champion “free markets”. A lot of them have begun to disgust me, frankly, But that’s a rant for another day.

    There are, in my opinion, so many other more heinous sources of government overreach to hack away at (beginning with the schools you mentioned), that I am very hesitant to go there about libraries.

    Whether or not it is impossible to hide information is a subject we can agree to disagree on for now. I think in another 20 years or so, should the earth remain, we’ll be able to see which one of us is right about that, P)


  9. smkoseki says:

    Why are you using a service which you are opposed to on principle? I don’t follow.

    I don’t oppose government “on principle”. I just prefer products I use (say school or books or food or medical care) to be allocated by the free market (so would Venezuelans, methinks). But I’m realistic and can play in whatever system comes my way.

    Look, I’m not some angry moralist saying folk shouldn’t take whatever they can claw back from government. I say: get as much as one can as a public service as it greatly helps to break the back of the liberal state (which will then return fathers to the family when single mothers start going hungry). I hope conservatives do indeed go on the dole as often as possible to get tax dollars moving into healthy families. Myself, I’m wealthy yet pretty dang good at playing the game & I use every gov service I can. And also vote against every one.

    Whether or not it is impossible to hide information is a subject we can agree to disagree on for now. I think in another 20 years or so, should the earth remain, we’ll be able to see which one of us is right about that, P)

    I think it possible for the average but not for the elite. Say IQ 140-160 is going to e tough to hoodwink. Check out Ron Unz as an example of where the elite slip the net and spill the beans to the lower set. Can’t be stopped.


  10. bikebubba says:

    I am getting off topic, but one thing that strikes me regarding SMK’s most recent comment is that when we “angry moralist folk” do claw things back from government, it generally doesn’t work out very well for us. It is as if FDR was right when he said that welfare was a narcotic that destroyed the human spirit.

    But I like libraries. Except for the fact that too many of them are getting rid of a lot of the good, old stuff for new junk–I’d guess that about a quarter of my personal library, including my kids’ books, consists of castoffs from libraries. My gain, but my town’s loss.


  11. Joy O'Toole says:

    I work in a public library. It’s been an eyeopener for me as to how many people need help in so many areas and come to the library for help. Many of them aren’t in a church or other community and so the library tends to fill that gap to some extent. It’s a privilege to help them with their need to find jobs, get information on medical issues, find information for work or school, get help with homework, etc. It’s also a safe place for many children whose parents work in the time between school ending and mom or dad coming home. We also teach people skills that are being lost as well as help with literacy, the arts, history, and other subjects. Yes, there are a lot of liberal thinkers in libraries, but there are many conservatives and Christians as well. Some of my colleagues have a different view of Christianity after working with those of us who walk out our Christian beliefs with integrity and love towards all of the people of the community. It’s been a ministry as much as it’s been a job.


  12. Elspeth says:

    And here I thought your former handle (Magistra) pointed to the profession of a teacher. maybe even a classical or Latin teacher.

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Joy! Learning something new about you after all these years is kind of neat!

    Our libraries also provide a lot of services, including English language classes for immigrants (legal immigrants).

    I appreciate the arguments of the free market/libertarian purists. I really do but to the extent that we are in this current iteration of government with its mix of capitalism and socialism (whatever the technical name for that is) I’m not prepared to gore libraries while we’re still spending billions of dollars to indoctrinate kids every day, 7 hours a day, for 13 years. Or the student loan racket. Or planned parenthood.

    There are so many other places to start, and since incrementalism is the best way to go if we’re ever going to turn this spending tide around, then I would put libraries at or near the bottom of the “must abolish” list.

    Good to hear form you, Joy!


  13. Joy O'Toole says:

    Well, the library gig is more recent. When I first started hanging out with you all at Traditional Christianity many moons ago, I was classically homeschooling full-time, which is why my name is Magistra. I started working part-time and continued to homeschool when my oldest went to college. What started as a small extra job turned into something more. As soon as my youngest son started college a few years ago, the library brought me in full-time. It turns out that years of researching, teaching, learning, and growing intellectually is attractive to employers. 🙂

    Yes, I understand where free market/libertarian purists are coming from, too, but I also think that community is important, first in the Body of Christ, and then with our neighbors and city/town/county. I’m still a believer in being salt and light to a dying world any way possible (except sending my children to PS). In my case, the Lord definitely led the way and opened tons of doors for me in our local library system. I’m quite sure this is where I’m supposed to be with teaching the women in my church and writing on the side.

    Yes, I think there are a lot of things that need addressing before we take away libraries. Our local library is how I afforded to homeschool as a single mother since I could borrow almost everything I needed instead of buying it.

    I don’t have much time to read or comment online these days but it’s a holiday so I thought I’d peek at your site, which is one of the ones I do look at from time to time.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Elspeth says:

    I know several homeschool families (intact families) who use their libraries as a supplement to curriculums and save money using the library as a resource.


  15. Krysta says:

    I just saw this! I like to read the School Library Journal website and they speak frequently about the struggles for school librarians to maintain funding (and their jobs). Yet, as you note, the research suggests that school libraries and schools with credentialed librarians result in higher academic achievement! So it seems truly short-sighted to stop funding libraries in the name of….what? Helping students? It seems like school administrators maybe don’t know what their librarians even do! And like they may have forgotten that many of their students may not have access to books at home or transportation to the public library. But it’s incumbent upon schools to serve everyone, and not to assume that everyone shares their wealth or circumstances.

    Liked by 1 person

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.