Reading & Literacy

What the Numbers Say About the Drop in School Librarians

By Gina Tomko & Eesha Pendharkar — April 27, 2023 2 min read
Trish Belenson, the librarian at Bella Vista Elementary School, returns books to the shelves at the library in Oakland, Calif. on Jan. 30, 2019.
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Over the course of the pandemic, thousands of districts across the country reported losing dozens of school librarians, amounting to an overall loss of more than 1,800 full-time school librarians, which was a 5 percent drop compared to before the pandemic.

That’s according to a report by the School Librarian Investigation—Decline or Evolution?, otherwise known as the SLIDE project. The project tracks school librarian employment trends based on federal data. The analysis includes data over the past decade from more than 13,000 school districts across 46 states and the District of Columbia.

The 1,800 number is almost certainly higher, according to SLIDE, since data from four states—California, Illinois, New York, and Utah—were either unavailable or unusable because of inconsistencies for SLIDE’s analysis.

The decline in school librarian employment predated the pandemic, according to a 2022 report by SLIDE. It found that, between the 2016-17 and 2018-19 school years, districts lost more than 1,000 librarians. The pandemic not only exacerbated the losses, but also increased inequities in students’ access to school librarians, the report found.

During the 2020-21 school year, more than 10 percent of the country’s public K-12 students—at least 5.6 million—attended school districts that don’t employ any librarians to manage the catalog and help students navigate available resources, according to an analysis of federal data by the SLIDE project researchers.

The loss of librarians is not because of an overall decrease in school staff, according to the SLIDE report. At the same time that districts were losing librarians, they might have been gaining other employees. Of the districts that reported losing school librarians, almost half gained teachers, nearly 2 out of 5 gained school or district administrators, and a third gained instructional coordinators.

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Photo of librarian pushing book cart.
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The losses of school librarians impact mostly non-white districts, and districts with larger percentages of economically disadvantaged students, the report found.

Pandemic-related librarian losses were almost twice as likely to occur in majority-Black districts as in other districts, the report found.

The poorest districts were not only most likely to lose librarians, but also most likely to gain them. However, the losses always surpassed the gains, amounting to an overall decline.

The shrinking of school librarians is not just related to school funding, according to the SLIDE project. This data indicates that over the course of the pandemic, staffing money was directed toward administrators, rather than toward teachers and librarians.

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