School Librarians on Chopping Block?

Paul McIntosh's role as school librarian goes beyond books. (Photo by Madeleine Cummings via City Limits)

Paul McIntosh’s role as school librarian goes beyond books. (Photo by Madeleine Cummings via City Limits)

Librarian Paul McIntosh does more than provide books to students at Wadleigh Secondary School in Harlem. He holds talks, publishes a yearly poetry anthology and lends an open ear to teens in need of someone to talk to, becoming a de facto counselor. But for his fellow librarians across the city, their role may be in limbo as the NYC Department of Education (DOE) looks to cut down on school library expenses in spite of state requirements, reports Madeleine Cummings for City Limits.

While McIntosh isn’t worried about losing his job, librarians across the city fear for their profession’s future. The state has rules stipulating the presence of certified librarians in middle and high schools of certain sizes, but for the past few years, the DOE has failed to abide by the regulation and for several years the number of certified librarians in schools has declined. As of May, the department employed 333 certified school librarians who serve a fraction of the city’s schools. Four years ago, that number was 399.

The DOE asked for a “variance” in August from New York State, requesting permission to have fewer librarians in schools.

While the DOE says it recognizes librarians’ value, in the face of fiscal challenges and technological changes the department is looking for alternative ways to provide students with library services. In place of hiring certified librarians, schools could train teachers to offer the same services, bring in parent volunteers or have librarians circulate between schools.

As the state requirement of certified librarians in schools does not apply to elementary schools, some schools have teachers or non-certified libraries running the library or they don’t have librarians at all, as is the case in P.S. 197, P.S. 200, and P.S. 242 in Central Harlem. The presence of a librarian is in most cases up to the principal.

As an alternative to librarians, the DOE is also pushing for classroom libraries but the head of an advocate group scoffs at the idea of doing away with the role of a librarian, echoing McIntosh’s emphasis on the emotional and social guidance someone in his profession can provide.

“The idea that a shelf full of a books somehow replaces a librarian is wrong,” says Christian, Zabriskie, Executive Director of Urban Librarians Unite, a professional group that supports librarianship in urban settings. “If I’m exploring things about, say, my sexuality, drug issues, health issues, I can’t grab those books in front of my peers,” he adds. Zabriskie’s own middle school librarian had a significant impact on his life by supporting him when he was being bullied and teaching him how to stand up for others.

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