S6 E2: School Librarians Are Essential, So Why Are These Jobs Disappearing?

There’s a quiet epidemic wiping out school librarian positions across the U.S. Between 2015 and 2019, the number of librarians declined by 20%, and one in five school librarian positions was eliminated entirely. But why is nobody noticing? According to researcher and Antioch faculty Deb Kachel, it might be because there hasn’t been a nationwide data set showing the staggering numbers—until now. In this conversation, we talk with Kachel about the SLIDE project, the way marginalized communities are hit hardest by the loss of school librarians, and how communities can fight back. 

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Episode Notes

Visit the SLIDE project’s website, libslide.org, and don’t miss their data browser, where you can look up your local school district and see how many librarians it currently employs. You can also read the article that Deb and her co-authors recently published in the Peabody Journal of Education: “The School Librarian Equity Gap: Inequities Associated with Race and Ethnicity Compounded by Poverty, Locale, and Enrollment.” 

Deb teaches in Antioch University’s School of Education

This episode was recorded October 30, 2023, via Riverside.fm and released November 15, 2023. 

The Seed Field Podcast is produced by Antioch University.

Host: Jasper Nighthawk

Editor: Johanna Case

Digital Design: Mira Mead

Web Content Coordination: Jen Mont

Work-Study Interns: Sierra-Nicole E. DeBinion, Carrie Hawthorn, Stefanie Paredes, and Georgia Bermingham.  

A special thanks to Karen Hamilton, Amelia Bryan, and Melinda Garland.


Debra Kachel

Deb Kachel is an Affiliate Faculty living in Pennsylvania and teaching online graduate courses in AUS’s School Library Media Endorsement program. She was a high school librarian and supervisor of a Pennsylvania K-12 school district library program for over 30 years. She has taught face-to-face and online courses for over 15 years at Drexel University (PA), Mansfield University (PA), and McDaniel College (MD).

S6 Episode 2 Transcript

[00:00] Jasper Nighthawk: This is the Seed Field Podcast, the show where Antiochians share their knowledge, tell their stories, and come together to win victories for humanity. I’m your host Jasper Nighthawk. And today we are joined by Deb Kachel for a conversation about school librarians and an alarming trend that Deb is bringing to light.

This trend is that across the U.S. school librarians are disappearing. I don’t mean literally disappearing. This isn’t a Nancy Drew mystery that your favorite elementary school librarian would hand you titled The Case of the Disappearing Librarian, and then the 15-year-old amateur detective would crack the case and find where the evil mastermind was holding all of the librarians captive, and then they would be freed and come back to work. 

No, what Deb has found is less dramatic, but ultimately, I think, even more destructive. Between 2015 and 2019, the number of school librarians nationwide declined by 20 percent. Over that time, one in five school librarian positions was entirely eliminated. It wasn’t like there were a lot of jobs, and there just weren’t enough school librarians trained who could fill them. Four years later, the trend has continued. 

And if we look at school year 2021, which was a few years ago, but we have good data for that, 5.6 million students at the grade school, middle school, and high school level were studying in school districts that didn’t employ a single librarian. And of that 5.6 million figure, 3 million of these students were in majority non-white districts. 

This is a trend that’s hitting majority non-white schools the hardest, though it’s by no means isolated to these districts and this 5.6 million students number, that’s just looking at ones that don’t have one librarian. There are many others that have diminished, maybe just have a single librarian on staff, often serving thousands of students. These are distressing figures but let me introduce Deb and her project and why I’m excited to talk with her specifically today.

Deb Kachel is affiliate faculty in Antioch School of Education. And she’s project director of SLIDE, a grant-funded project based out of Antioch University. SLIDE is an acronym and it stands for School Library Investigation Decline or Evolution. Over the last three years, as part of SLIDE, Deb and the researcher Keith Curry Lance have been collecting the first nationwide data set on school librarian positions and the trends in this field.

The SLIDE team recently published some of their findings in the Peabody Journal of Education. We’ll link to that article in our show notes as well as to their own website. But these findings, they put numbers behind what librarians and all those who care about public education have been raising alarms about for years.

Librarian positions are being eliminated across the nation, and for the most part, they’re not coming back, at least not right now. As librarians retire or are laid off, new ones are not being hired to take their place. So why is this happening, and why does this matter, and what can we do about it? To explore these questions, I’m delighted to welcome Deb Kachel to the Seed Field Podcast. So Deb, we’re really happy to have you here.

[03:22] Deb Kachel: Oh, thank you.

[03:24] Jasper: So, we always start the show by asking guests to disclose their positionality, especially when it’s relevant to what we’re discussing. So today we’re going to talk about a decline in school librarians that’s disproportionately impacting poor school districts, and especially those that serve Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian-American student bodies.

So, I think it’s really useful for listeners to know that I, the person asking most of the questions here, I’m white, I’m a cisgendered man, I grew up in a relatively poor and rural place and went through public schools there, and then I went to a very rich private college. And then went to graduate school here at Antioch.

I’ve seen many different flavors of how schooling can be run. I currently have steady housing and income, and I’m not currently living with a disability. So, Deb, as much as you’re comfortable, can you share your position and where you’re coming to this conversation from?

[04:21] Deb: Sure. So, I am a white, cisgendered female and I live in a condo outside of Philadelphia and have a graduate level education.

[04:38] Jasper: That’s great. And you teach in Antioch’s Seattle programs because our Philadelphia campus closed several decades ago, unfortunately.

[04:48] Deb: Yes. It’s wonderful to be able to teach online graduate courses. So I can live anywhere and the faculty that we have on staff is actually all over the United States.

[05:04] Jasper: Yeah, that’s such a cool feature of so many of Antioch’s programs. So I gave this introduction, where I laid out some of the headline numbers, I think, from your report that you published in the Peabody Journal of Education, but I’m hoping you can give us some more context and numbers around this decline and where you see it most impacting people.

[05:26] Deb: One of the reasons that we wanted to do this research was really to highlight the exact numbers. It’s no secret that school librarian positions have been declining. But where those positions have been declining is really important. So, what we saw in our research is that small, rural, and very poor areas had the least number of school librarians. Areas that were more urban, larger student enrollment, spend more per student, those schools had what we refer to as the library privilege.

[06:12] Jasper: So, your findings broke down across those different demographics. Can you tell us a little bit about this tool that you made for people to explore this giant data set? You have data in there for 12,537 school districts, and that’s covering 47 different states.

And that’s just an impressively enormous amount of data, and I was struck by some of the figures that you found. You found that in majority Hispanic school districts, only 8.2 percent of those school districts had a full-time librarian in every school. And for majority non-Hispanic districts that went from 8 percent all the way up to over 20 percent. These findings are fairly dramatic in showing these racial disparities.

[07:03] Deb: Right. We knew that we would find a great disparity in race, but we actually weren’t expecting that the ethnicity, the Hispanic/non-Hispanic districts would show such a diverse response. And, you know, the data tools that we have published on our website, libslide.org, we are actually very proud that we were able to get all 50 states and D.C. are now in the website.

You can go in and get a state profile as well as individual district profiles, that really look at the number of FTEs of school librarians, and also compare that to similar districts. Similar size, similar racial and ethnicity, so there’s a lot of ways that you can manipulate the tools, and then also we have a PDF for each school district and you can print out spreadsheets of all kinds of data that you’d like to take a look at.

[08:24] Jasper: Yeah. And I think often people hear that there’s a tool out there to explore data and it’s like, okay, I don’t know when I’m going to have time to do that. That doesn’t sound like how I’m going to spend my Saturday morning. I think many people listening to this may have the response that I had, which is, I’m immediately going to plug in my school district where I went to school as a kid, or where I worked, or where my kids go to school.

I went to a rural school district in Northern California. And when I ran it through your data tools, I found out they employ a single librarian anymore, even a part-time librarian.

And it caused me to reflect back to when I was a student 15 to 25 years ago, and my elementary school had a librarian, Marcy. I remember when she retired actually, five years ago, and her position hasn’t been filled since. The middle school, I believe, had two librarians, they might have been part-time.

And then at the high school, there were three librarians and I got to know all of them and would go sit in there during lunch. These were people who helped me write my first research papers, showed me how to use an encyclopedia, and showed me how to find sources online. They showed me books to read, they’d be like, Oh Jasper, here’s this new exciting book you might like, because I know what else you like.

I found it distressing that this school district that used to have multiple librarians serving over 1,600 students now has zero. And it made me feel like it would also be harder to be a teacher there without these people supplementing and supporting your work. So maybe that’s a place to transition and say, why does it matter for schools to not have librarians?

[10:10] Deb: Well, actually, I think now it makes more sense to have school librarians because of the internet. You know, we have students that are searching all kinds of things on the internet. And if they don’t know how to find reliable, authoritative sources, they could be making all kinds of decisions, even post school, like financial, medical, even purchasing a house or a car.

They can get a lot of misinformation, a lot of scams, on the internet. And one of the things school librarians really work on is how you can find authoritative sources that you can count on to make those kinds of important decisions.

[11:04] Jasper: Yeah, that’s so important. And here I want to ask you to tell us a little bit about your own passion for this subject, because I know that your background is as a school librarian yourself. I’m curious what your experience as a school librarian was. And like the role that you saw yourself playing in these schools where you taught.

[11:23] Deb: Well, I was very fortunate to be a high school librarian for almost 34 years. Then I transitioned into higher ed and taught at several different universities in school library certification programs so that we could get more school librarians out there. My own story is that I kind of fell into school librarianship.

I was studying linguistics, which I loved, but as I approached my senior year I realized what kind of a job could I get and at the time they were really hiring school librarians, so I kind of transitioned into that profession. What I discovered is that being a librarian is wonderful because you get to interact with all the teachers, all the students, and I didn’t really have to know a whole lot about any one subject, I just had to be able to find information. And, you know, I was really good at finding. 

And then, as I started to work in higher ed and certification programs, what I really want to do is to leave this profession stronger than when I got into it. And, making sure that we have really highly qualified school librarians is kind of a passion of mine and watching over the last decade as school librarians have been declining really got me into the area of researching why is this happening and what are the pieces that we have to put back together so that all students can experience quality school library programs and having the instruction and the reading guidance of a school librarian?

[13:37] Jasper: First, I just want to say, thank you for sharing your story. I think it’s wonderful when somebody with deep experience in a field then transitions to training other people about that field. And in your case, also being a researcher trying to study what exactly is going on in that field, but I was curious, in your own experience as a librarian, you mentioned being very good at helping people identify sources, and identify where they could learn more about something. In your English class, you’re being exposed to a specific set of knowledge, but at the library, you have access to the entire universe of knowledge.

And, with the internet, that’s true as well, but I’m curious how you would support students becoming better researchers themselves, and developing that kind of media literacy to tell what is bogus and what isn’t, out there in the world.

[14:33] Deb: Well, actually, a number of states now have a required written curriculum that starts at kindergarten and builds all the way to grade 12, in information, literacy skills, media literacy skills, internet skills. So we start when they’re little, identifying what is an author, who wrote this information, all the way to seniors in high school where we’re asking them to interpret priorities and preferences of the authors that they’re reading and how to figure out bias. Looking at all of those different aspects of what they’re seeing in media and social media. 

So, it’s sort of a curriculum that is integrated with English and social studies and science all the way from kindergarten to grade 12, but as we see in a lot of these school districts that have absolutely no school librarians, none of these skills are getting taught, occasionally a computer teacher or an English teacher might teach some of these skills, but there is no comprehensive, continual and gradual program of skills that are built K-12.

[16:05] Jasper: That makes a lot of sense. That’s interesting that this is a key piece of curriculum across most states, but it’s not necessarily one that’s being supported by the people best equipped to instruct in it. It makes me think of the rise of conspiracy theories, and also just people trying to get people to hate each other.

I was recently reading a long piece about the rise of Facebook in Myanmar and how it led pretty directly to the genocide and forced exodus of the Rohingya people, millions of people of an ethnic minority in that country who were killed and then the rest of them forced to flee to Bangladesh. What struck me most is that these were people who hadn’t had access to any kind of media and who were abruptly given cell phones with internet connectivity and Facebook and they had zero media literacy skills and the ethnic majority in Myanmar ended up being manipulated by a few bad actors because by and large, people just had no training or capacity to see those bad actors.

[17:16] Deb: Well, you know and we do see now a number of school administrators, school boards that believe that if students have smartphones, they do not need school libraries and they don’t need anyone to teach them how to filter all that information. And it’s very hard to get that message out, especially as the age of school administrators gets younger and younger.

And many of them went through K-12 schools that had no school librarians. It’s hard to sell something when these people haven’t even experienced it themselves.

[18:01] Jasper: Yeah. So, that brings me to my question. That’s basically, why is this happening? I mean, it’s a dramatic shift. It’s nationwide. It’s affecting everyone, though obviously these non white school districts, most severely. You mentioned school administrators who don’t necessarily understand the importance of librarians and aren’t necessarily willing to go to bat for it. But what are some of the other forces behind this decline?

[18:26] Deb: Well, in this last year of our research, we attempted to interview a hundred school leaders from across the United States. Because COVID hit just as we were starting this process, we only ended up with 49 people. But of those 49, a lot of them told us that the reason their districts either added or cut school library positions was because of a change of administration and a change of priorities.

What we are seeing right now is a lot of volatility in superintendents, assistant superintendents, school leaders, school boards are radically changing right now. And as new leaders come in with new ideas and preconceived ideas about school libraries, directions radically change. For example, the Houston Independent School District had a superintendent that was gradually adding school librarians each year.

This past year, a new superintendent came in. He decided we don’t need school libraries. And he’s moved librarians out into teaching positions and the libraries are becoming detention centers for kids. We see these kinds of radical changes that we as school librarians have very little control over.

The other huge issue is school funding. And with that, priorities, for example, in the last 20 years, we’ve seen a huge uptick in school districts hiring instructional consultants, they might be reading coaches, technology integration specialists. These people usually work more with faculty versus students.

And so a lot of money that used to go into teachers and school librarians has been diverted into this middle layer of instructional specialists. And the other issue too is library skills are not tested, so we’ve got English and math, and in some areas, science and social studies are being tested.

And so in order to keep those test scores high, people have been funneling money into faculty in that area, as well as computer programs, new curricula, and that money has to come from somewhere. And we’ve seen a lot where school library programs and the staff that supports them have been cut. One of the models that we’re seeing emerging right now is what you talked about previously where there is one certified school librarian in charge of all of the schools in the district.

And then each library has a classified person or a paraprofessional checking books in and out. But unfortunately, that person is not trained to teach. And it is the skills that we’re trying to teach that are so important and are missing.

[22:08] Jasper: There’s so much there that you brought up that I want to ask you more about. What’s interesting is when I asked this question, I think that I assumed that a big part of the answer would be that funding overall for schools has been declining and is very unequal between different school districts because it’s largely raised through taxes on property, so in areas where property values are lower, there’s less money for schools, so there’s radically poorer and richer school districts.

So I wasn’t expecting that the main driver is just different prioritization within that funding, but that makes sense. And also is distressing, especially that funds are going to consultants who are there supposedly to support teachers, be it with technology or reading support, but that the librarian position is a student focused position and therefore is receiving a lot less support.

[23:05] Deb: Yeah. And you know, you would think that staffing dollars would be prioritized to classroom teachers and librarians and those people that work most directly with students. But in our SLIDE project, when we looked at national averages over those 13,000 school districts, what we discovered is the staffing dollars are going to administrators and instructional coordinators.

Teachers were flatlined over the last decade, and then, of course, school librarians declined by almost 20%.

[23:46] Jasper: Yeah, that is such a continuation of forces that we see in the broader American economy, where the people doing the actual work on the ground are seeing flat or declining wages, and meanwhile, management and capital are accumulating most of the money, but it’s such a transparent public good.

And here at Antioch, our founding president was Horace Mann, who was the originator of public education in the U.S. He’s the father of public education, and public education is something that we’ve built over two centuries here in the U.S. as a good that exists outside of the market.

It’s a promise to every student, even students who may not have immigration papers, or who are from the poorest of communities are supposed to be able to access a good public education that will equip them to become citizens in our democracy. I don’t know, I just feel so upset hearing that these same forces are applying there.

[24:44] Deb: I sometimes call it the dirty little secret, because I’m working with a grassroots group here in Philadelphia trying to reinstate school librarians in the city schools. And when I talk to parents and I talk to even legislators and city council people, and I say, almost 90 percent of the schools in our cities have no school librarians, which means they most likely have no school library.

And people are shocked. They say, what do you mean? Of course our schools have school libraries and librarians. And I say, no, quietly over the past decade, more and more of those positions are gone. They then try to run the school library with volunteers when they can’t get volunteers, like over COVID.

All of those programs closed down, and now you have a dusty closet full of old books that nobody wants because there’s been no budget money to add new things, no one to select new things, and kids are told, search on your smartphone.

You know, it’s interesting to me how many people I talk to who are shocked that the schools no longer have school libraries. I hear the same stories that you’ve related. When I was in elementary school, Mrs. So and So read us books, and that inspired me to read. And I’ve been a reader ever since. Or my high school story where I helped a high school student win the science fair project, because I helped him with his research and how to present it and it’s those stories that people say, I can’t believe we’ve lost this. And we very quietly have lost that service to our students.

[26:52] Jasper: There was never like a nationwide ballot initiative that said, should we get rid of school librarians? Maybe somebody who had a bad experience would mark yes. But I think overwhelmingly people feel positively about school librarians. And the fact that this has kind of happened while people are paying attention to other things is distressing.

I’m so glad you and your co-authors have brought attention to this. I wanted to go back to the Houston school district and the way that these librarian positions have been eliminated across the board, and the staff serving in those roles transitioned into serving as classroom teachers.

And then the libraries themselves were turned into detention centers. And it strikes me that this is a pattern that we see in schools, and particularly in schools like the Houston school district that serve largely non-white students where librarians are eliminated.

But now we have a police officer or a police resource officer on campus, or multiple armed agents of state violence on campus, or where we see the school districts working very closely with the criminal justice system to have students arrested, and we see police budgets expanding across the country. 

I live in California and there was a story about a year ago of the very poor and largely Hispanic, Central Valley of California. There was a small town where the police department was preparing to take over the only other public service in this town, which was a beautiful library that had been built by the public through a campaign of donations.

And they said, well, we just need more space because we have more crime and we need to hire more detectives and we’re running out of space at the police station. And also, the police station is so ugly and this is such a beautiful space. And then the largely Latinx people who were using the services of this library, it wasn’t just, you know, you can go check out a book, but it was a safe space for children to stay after school if their parents were both working and there was nobody at home to take care of them.

There were all of these enrichment activities and students who were accessing services that would keep them from turning to crime, potentially. It just strikes me that what you’re describing is a piece of the destruction of systems of support because libraries are a way that students are supported outside of the classroom and the replacement of them with systems of punishment, made very literal in Houston.

[29:36] Deb: Somewhere along the last 10 years or so, we’ve lost track of preparing the whole child and now, after Covid people are finally paying attention to the social and emotional learning of children, but we’ve worried so much about test scores and other factors, and safety factors, staffing dollars have been diverted to add those people to schools, that we’ve kind of lost sight of what a total library program can bring to kids. 

It’s the one place in the school that they’re not judged. They’re not graded. They can just go to chill out and relax and find something that interests them to read, or to view, or to study. And when you eliminate that place, it really does a lot to the students in terms of their liking to come to school, enjoying learning, all of those things, I think strong school library programs really support. And too many districts, particularly in our most marginalized communities, no longer have this support.

[31:03] Jasper: You mentioned earlier the emphasis on test scores and things that can be directly tested by, you know, filling in 50 bubbles over a two week period when instruction is suspended so that we can assess all of the students. It strikes me that while libraries don’t directly impact things like test scores, uh, they indirectly support the overall well being of students. We shouldn’t be surprised to see that as libraries are eliminated, that test scores along with everything else, including student outcomes, their likelihood to go on to rewarding careers or to lives of crime, or whatever, are impacted.

[31:47] Deb: The other aspect of a school library is when you have a trained professional librarian who knows how to select resources for a certain school. We select all kinds of perspectives, all kinds of cultures, all kinds of races because we want students to read and learn about other people. And when those options are all gone, people are not understanding one another.

And today, more than ever, we need people and children and teenagers to understand people who aren’t like them. Because we all have to live and work together in the same world.

[32:38] Jasper: I can’t say it any better than that. I feel like you’ve laid out the case of why school librarians are essential and why we should have them in our schools. You’ve at least convinced me. And so I want to leave a little bit of room to talk about the path forward.

What can we do now? You brought up your advocacy work in Philadelphia. But what do you see people doing and what can maybe our listeners do to help fight this trend?

[33:05] Deb: Well, you know, on an individual level, I would say to parents and citizens and business people, go to your school board and demand to know how many schools have school librarians and how many schools have functioning school libraries. Because too many people just take for granted that it’s there, and guess what?

It’s not. And the other thing that we’ve discovered is when a school librarian is gone, they are seldom ever reinstated. I think one in ten, from our research, was where a school district reinstated a school librarian position once it was gone. But, it costs money to have a functioning school library as well as pay for the staff, and there’s technology, there’s computers, there’s shelving, tables, chairs, all of those things cost money. 

So once the school library is gone, it seldom comes back. So I think on an individual level, people need to go to their schools. And find out what’s happening. And if the answer is, oh, we just tell the kids to use their smartphones, well, A: not every kid can afford a smartphone, and B: they still need to have the services of an instructional school librarian showing them how to find reliable information on that smartphone. And they need to demand that funding goes into school library programs. But then, even at a larger level, at the state level, there are approximately ten states that actually have a requirement that schools must have a school librarian.

It doesn’t have to be a full-time person. Sometimes it’s just one per school district, but at least there are some states that have requirements. In states like Pennsylvania, where we have no requirement, we are working to try to pass legislation that will mandate school librarians in schools. That is the only way we are going to achieve any sense of equity.

[35:36] Jasper: Yes.

[35:36] Deb: then the other thing that, that I find very, disheartening is that even within large school districts, what we see are the schools located in the wealthier communities have school librarians and libraries. Within the same district, schools in the poor part of town don’t have anything. That is a real equity issue that I think school leaders have to address.

They’ve got to make school library services equitable, even within a district. And then with supportive state legislation, like New Jersey just passed an information literacy bill, Delaware passed a media literacy bill. So they’re requiring someone to teach these skills to students.

Hopefully it will be school librarians. But, we just need to have better oversight and we have to have a focus on equity. And as states are doling out the education dollars, they’ve got to make this issue an issue of equity.

[36:57] Jasper: You brought up much earlier in our conversation, the term of library privilege and the concept that being a grade, or middle school, or high school student and accessing a library staffed by a knowledgeable and kind school librarian is no longer a right in our country, it’s a privilege, just strikes me as such a wrong being done to our youth and something that we’re going to just see the effects of moving forward until we address it.

[37:28] Deb: And often the schools that have the least school library services, those without the library privilege, are also located in areas where they have less other educational supports, like public libraries, museums, aquariums, all of those kinds of things. So, our most marginalized students are the ones that are having the least of these services. And we’ve got to do something about the equity.

[38:01] Jasper: I think this is a good place to leave it. You’ve given us so many tangible actions that we can take in our communities. And as a parent of a one-year-old who is starting to think about where my kid’s going to go to school and also is very committed to the project of public education and the idea that in a democracy, we should go to school with our neighbors.

I am interested to follow these leads myself, and I’m so grateful, Deb, for you sharing them.

[38:28] Deb: It’s been a pleasure.

[38:32] Jasper: The SLIDE project’s data browser is available on the SLIDE website. And that is libslide.org, lib as in library, libslide.org. And I invite you to go there and look up your own local school district, and you might be surprised to learn about the trends in librarians there. We’re going to put that link in our show notes, and we’ll also link to the article that Deb and her co-authors recently published in the Peabody Journal of Education.

And we’ll link to the education programs that Deb teaches in here at Antioch. We post these show notes on our website, theseedfield.org, where you’ll also find full episode transcripts, prior episodes, and more. 

The Seed Field Podcast is produced by Antioch University. Our editor is Johanna Case. I’m your host, Jasper Nighthawk. Our digital designer is Mira Mead, Jen Mont is our web content coordinator, Carrie Hawthorne, Stefanie Paredes, and Georgia Birmingham are our work study interns. A special thanks to Karen Hamilton, Amelia Bryan, and Melinda Garland. Thank you for spending your time with us today. That’s it for this episode.

We hope to see you next time. And don’t forget to plant a seed, sow a cause, and win a victory for humanity. From Antioch University, this has been the Seed Field Podcast.