The hub of the school

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The hub of the school

Voice: July 2017

College-level research assignments for AP classes, resources for terms papers, learning credible sources on the internet, access to laptops and iPads for students who don’t have their own.

That is a short list of the key roles libraries play for high school students.

Middle school students are starting to get research assignments for the first time in some of their subject areas and learning what libraries can do in the 21st century; elementary students are honing reading skills and getting help with reading choices.

The libraries of their grandparents – card catalogs, librarians mainly signing out books, directing students to shelves of encyclopedias – are long gone in the digital and information ages of the early 21st century. “Shhh’’ is another relic. Collaboration and socialization are fine.

In some school districts, libraries are not only a center of technical tools, data, group learning, or maybe just “hanging out,’’ they are referred to emphatically as the “hub of the school’’ by more enlightened administrators.

“Students aren’t just there consuming things anymore,’’ said Robin Burns, head librarian at Salisbury Twp. High School, Lehigh County. “They are producing podcasts and movies. They are working on research projects. They are collaborating with each other, and they are producing content, whether digital or on paper.’’

Libraries and librarians, it would seem, are indispensable. They are a top priority in some districts, but unfortunately that is far from the rule.

There are currently 28 school districts in Pennsylvania, educating 54,329 students, without a single librarian. Another 100 school districts have only one librarian for the entire district. That’s more than one-fourth of the state’s 500 school districts.

There has been a steady decline in librarians and library aides since the 2012-13 school year – not coincidentally a year after the state cut nearly $1 billion in funding to public schools. Among the first cuts in some districts – foolishly many educators say – were librarians, aides, and resources.

That has resulted in some librarians’ being spread thin trying to cover multiple buildings, or picking up the work of library aides who are gone.

“If you are going to cut aides, I’m going to be doing that work instead of working with students,’’ said Ann Schmidt, librarian at Conrad Weiser High School, Berks County. “Why would you want me checking out books when I could be in classrooms collaborating and curating resources with students and teachers?’’

A ray of hope is that state lawmakers of both parties are noticing, thanks in large part to a strong push by the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association. The House Education Committee held a hearing on public school libraries last year, leading to a bipartisan bill recently introduced (House Bill 740) that calls for a certified librarian in every school.

And librarians and teachers are not alone in their quest. Many administrators, some of whom are active in the association, are among librarians’ biggest champions.

Cathy Fuhrman, K-12 department supervisor in the Hempfield School District, Lancaster County, makes library funding and staffing a top priority in her annual budget presentation.

“The pitch I make is that libraries and librarians are the biggest bargain when it comes to a district’s budget,’’ she said. “You’ve got a librarian, who is also going to be a teacher, who is also going to be an information specialist, and who is going to help teachers with resources.’’