When Kyle Asberry was hired two years ago as a library aide at two public elementary schools in the lower-income Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, he faced a sorry state of affairs.
Both of the Los Angeles Unified School District schools—which he won’t name out of fear of reprisal—had shut down their libraries for at least a year owing to staffing shortages resulting from budget cuts. One library was even used as a storage facility for boxes.
“I tried to do what I could. Once I cleaned the libraries up [and] dusted off the shelves, teachers and kids came in, and were waiting to come in. That was the high point,” he said. “They were looking for the books. In both libraries, though, most of the books are old. There are no new titles at all.”
As dire and damaging as it is, Asberry's situation is among the best-case scenarios in today's school libraries.
His positions are funded through a 2011 civil rights settlement with the federal government to promote performance in black and immigrant communities.
Across the country, public school libraries, including those elementary and middle school ones serving kids in the prime of jump-starting their literacy, have been hit hard by budget cuts that have eliminated qualified librarian and library aide positions and access to new books. Financial restraints have led to facilities locking their doors or being run by parents and volunteers.
Out of the 545 elementary and middle school libraries in the L.A. district, the country’s second-largest public school district, roughly half—316 schools—are staffed with library aides, according to numbers provided by the district. There are 200 vacancies alone in the district’s 457 elementary schools.
“There should be someone staffing the library who knows what they’re doing,” said Asberry. “I love to see these kids light up. When you see a kid that doesn’t read too well, and you can guide them to a book more on their level, you see their progress each year.”
While there are no national figures detailing the total number of public schools affected by library staff cuts and closures, according to the American Association of School Librarians, data for individual cities beyond Los Angeles suggest an alarming trend.
In Philadelphia, out of 214 public schools, only 16 have a certified school librarian, compared with 65 in 2011, according to the association. That means more than 93 percent of that city’s school district lacks a library staffed by a qualified candidate.
"School libraries play a vital educational role in our nation's schools," said the association's president, Gail Dickinson. "Eliminating school library positions and reducing funding for school library materials is not only short-sighted but will have a negative impact on the quality of education our youth receive in public schools. School administrators and local officials may save money now, but in the long run the effects will be lasting, as low literacy rates are linked to poverty and crime."
According to a 2012 World Literacy Foundation report, up to 85 percent of juvenile offenders who face trial are functionally illiterate. More than 80 percent of children qualifying for free lunch programs for lower-income students scored below proficiency on the 2011 National Assessment of Education Progress fourth-grade reading assessment test.
The New York City Department of Education could not provide TakePart data on the exact number of area schools lacking librarians and library aides, but longtime public school librarian Audrey Fraenkel said she and other NYC public school librarians on an online listserv constantly compare stories about slashed positions.
“The exact same thing is happening in New York. I speak from experience,” said Fraenkel. “It’s such a small community that when someone is put out of their job, they share.”
Fraenkel started working at Lower Manhattan public school P.S. 140 as a librarian four years ago, after budget cuts ended her librarian job at P.S. 110, where she'd worked for 14 years. Before she lost the job, the school—which is more than 50 percent Latino and low-income—landed a grant for $1 million in 2005 from the anti-poverty Robin Hood Foundation. The school used the money to gut and transform three classrooms into a modern library, complete with new books and computers.
After her position was cut in 2010, that beautiful library has continued to be unstaffed, she said.
Many students from lower-income backgrounds do not have safe access to public city libraries in their neighborhood or money for books, printers, and computers at home to complete assignments, said both Asberry and Fraenkel. For those reasons and more, school libraries are critical. Still, school principals look to other areas in need of funding.
“Library aides are up against nurses and counselors. Schools will vote to have a nurse rather than a library aide,” said Asberry. “It’s more of a need.”
Rebecca Constantino’s privately sponsored organization Access Books has donated more than a million high-quality books, such as the ever-popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid, to inner-city elementary and middle schools in Southern California since 1999. Public school libraries filled with interesting and new books can fill a void in a child’s life or create a hole when gone, said Constantino, who holds a Ph.D. in language, literacy, and learning from the University of Southern California. Books become a form of escape.
Two years ago, for instance, Vine Street Elementary School in Hollywood lost its library aide because of budget cuts, and the library was closed.
“Kids afterwards would say to me, ‘I would rather go without pizza the rest of my life than go without a library,’ ” Constantino said. “One little boy told me, ‘I feel like I’m slowly dying.’ Wealthy kids have books at home. With the kids we serve, if schools can’t afford the books, they close the library. I’ve personally seen that when kids have access to libraries, they’re happier and read better.”