Library Spending Regains Some Lost Ground

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — October 27, 1999 4 min read

School library budgets are up; salaries, too. Yet there appears to be little else to celebrate about the state of library media centers in the public schools, a biennial study suggests.

While the recently released survey signals a positive reversal in library spending, reaction to that news among experts in the field has been muted.

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“All it really shows is that we’ve restored some of the budget losses we’ve had in the past,” said Marilyn L. Shontz, one of the authors of the School Library Journal‘s biennial survey of expenditures. “Although it’s hopeful, all we’re really doing is getting back to where we were four years ago. We haven’t really gained anything.”

At a time when researchers are touting the potential role of school libraries in fostering information literacy and helping students meet high academic standards, the print and media centers still appear to take a back seat when it comes to budget allocations, according to the results of the survey. The study was conducted in late 1997 and printed in this month’s issue of the journal.

While average annual library-materials budgets increased by about $1,000, to $12,185--regaining ground lost since 1994--the purchase of print materials lagged. And although the average salary for certified library-media specialists climbed to $41,016, a $4,000 increase over the previous survey, the number of staff members assigned to libraries remained stagnant.

About three-fourths of the schools surveyed reported having access to the Internet--up from about half two years ago--yet spending on audio-visual materials, software, and CD-ROMS has declined.

Some bright spots have emerged since the journal’s previous survey. Mississippi has pumped millions of dollars into initiatives aimed at improving library and media centers. California, the state with the worst record for school library expenditures, has devoted more than $150 million to restock shelves that have been depleted for more than a decade. But the windfall is not expected to have a dramatic impact.

“It is a hopeful sign for California and the nation ... but it will take them years to catch up,” said Sharon Coatney, a past president of the American Association of School Librarians, a branch of the Chicago-based American Library Association. “With all of the new technologies that school libraries are required to have, they have to maintain [financial support] all along.”

Embarrassing Resources

School libraries have been suffering financially since the 1970s, when federal Title I money previously earmarked for the facilities was reallocated into block grants. Many states and districts used the money to bolster other areas, such as instruction and technology. A second blow came in the 1980s, when state funding diminished with budget crises.

In many places, particularly poor urban and rural areas, school libraries suffer an embarrassing lack of resources.

“Our district’s libraries, for the most part, are filled with books that are racist, sexist, and filled with stereotypes,” said Debra Lyman Gniewek, the activity manager for library programs and services for the 215,000-student Philadelphia public schools. The district leaves such funding decisions up to principals, most of whom have failed to direct significant sums for library books, Ms. Gniewek added.

“They are insect-infested, and quite repulsive,” she said of the books. “It has had a serious impact on learning.”

Philadelphia’s per-pupil spending on library resources is less than one-fifth the national average of $28. More than 60 percent of the district’s 180 elementary schools do not have a full-time librarian, according to a recent report by the district’s librarians. Some of the schools have closed their libraries to make way for new classrooms.

Collaboration Wanting

Nationally, other resources have also diminished. Respondents to the School Library Journal survey indicated that planning time and interaction with teachers--activities that observers say are critical to enhancing the library’s role in the curriculum--were at a premium. Only 45 percent of the 537 librarians responding to the survey reported that they met with teachers at least once a month to discuss how library resources can be integrated into lessons. And just 30 percent of elementary and middle school librarians, and 43 percent of those in high schools, conduct formal workshops for teachers.

“We believe that student outcomes are affected directly by the library media specialist collaborating with teachers to improve instructional methods,” said Ms. Shontz, an associate professor in the library education program at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J. She wrote the report with Marilyn L. Miller, a professor emeritus of library education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “But there are just not enough professionals, and they don’t have time to do professional work.”

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