The “Black Hole” School Library

First a warning: this is a rant. If you are looking for fun, or exciting, stop reading.

Today was one of those days of frustration and regret. Regret due to lost opportunity for about 1,500 students. It’s happened too many times before and it happened again this week. A struggling small school district, with a typical single elementary, middle and high school arrangement. They are struggling to meet achievement goals – only 50% of the kids can read at grade level or worse. A committed staff, caring parents, seemingly concerned admistrators and school board. The all too typical – diversity achievement gap issues and lack of general readiness to begin school. A weak local tax base but extra support from the state for funding based on need and poor achievement results. The actual spending per pupil is significantly above the state average due to the extra state financial support. Now here come the typical bright eyed, energetic, happy, playful kids coming to start another day at school.

Why a rant you say?. Can you say – they have lousy school libraries! Imagine an elementary school library with tired, old books, a dull, lifeless, neglected room and a “librarian” who is way past ready to retire. I am sure if we looked hard enough we might find a “newer” biography in black and white text about a long dead president, or that futuristic space book that marvels about when we might get to the moon or maybe that 50 year old “classic” picture book filled with dull prose and pencil sketch black/white drawings. How about a middle school library that is a library in name only. No staff, a few thousand old books, no computers, no scheduled time in the room (of course you can’t, there is no staff), with a door that is usually locked. I won’t even talk about the high school, you already get the picture.

How does this happen? When did it become OK to let school libraries become a joke, a travesty? After working with school and public libraries for 8 years, I have seen magnificent and modern and welcoming and enthusiastic and exciting school libraries. Unfortunately, they are offset by nearly as many libraries as described above – the “black hole” libraries. The “black hole” libraries are so depressing – so as to suck the “reading is fun” completely out of all but the best students. If we think of libraries as “place”, as “collection” as “people”, these “black hole” libraries have none of the above. With more than 10 years of research that proves that a great school library positively improves student achievement – why do schools and districts allow this to happen? We all talk about helping our kids to be “lifelong learners”. Some districts use a motto of “Excellence in Education”, yes that was their motto, but how can those same people allow the school library program to be such a disaster?

Districts and schools try so many things: new basal reading programs, reconfigured instructional methodologies, curriculum rewrites, school day schedule changes, reading coaches, team leaders, tutoring, mentors,  electronic reading programs and sometimes, new, crazy gimmicks – all to try and improve the achievement tests scores and hopefully the skills of their students.

Districts invest hundreds and thousands of dollars on the “new” or “promising” programs that they hope will improve the skills and corresponding test results for their students. They pay for these “new programs” by cutting a program that already has been proven to positively affect student achievement – their libraries. They cut and cut and cut library programs and hurt the libraries’ impact on achievement results. They invest those savings in new programs to hopefully raise scores. Then they wonder why the total scores never improve.

Cut and dimish then invest and improve = a zero sum result.

Even with the research to the contary, school library programs regularly face: consolidation (1 librarian – managing more than 1 library), elimination of support staff, reduced collection budgets, hand me down computers and peripherals, and no funds for support of the library as “place”. Over time, these struggling libraries, faced with these continuing cuts, become “black holes”.

Why does this happen?

I can reach only one conclusion: the public library and school library communities have done a poor job at “validating their worth” to their respective administrators and funders. Librarians have allowed their program to become – “unimportant”. You are sceptical???  You think it is about the money? In this same tight finances era – we invest hundred or thousands of dollars, sometimes millions, on the newest, the best, the most expensive equipment, facilities, coaches and technology so we can have successful high school football teams. So much for the “lack of money” as root cause.

There are plenty of groups that can share this “failure to validate” culture that has spread through out the school and public library communities:

  • How about academic library schools who teach and train librarians for an old, outdated library era.  
  • How about school administrators who haven’t kept up with the research about the impact of libraries on achievement?
  • How about those librarians who actively refused to become technology literate? Rather than lead the charge and advancement for teaching information literacy skills, some librarians clung to “we prefer the books”. 
  • What about those librarians that spend their time whining about all the reasons they “can’t” have a good library program: no money, no time, no staff – so they curl up in a corner and give up and become bitter?
  • How about vendors and publishers who have stood by idly watching the library market spiral downward? Some vendors have been clinging to an old, declining  business model – cutting their costs and services in the hopes of preserving profits – all to no avail.
  • What about those teachers and librarians who can see the retirement door waiting to swing open and have given up on their kids and are just marking time?
  • How about academic education institutions that turn out education graduates who have no clue about the positive impact of collaborating with their school and public librarian?

And with all of this, is there any wonder why many school libraries are in serious trouble???

Now that many school libraries are in this mess, what are we to do? 

I think the primary answer lies within the library community itself. One librarian, one library at a time, individually and collectively we all need to stand up for school and public libraries and the library profession. Stand up for the impact we can have, stand up for the tools we teach, stand up for the learning that we can inspire. Speak out for positive change, build collaboration bridges, market and promote your program, teach information literacy skills and most importantly: advocate that “reading is fun”.

What else needs to change:

School libraries need “teacher librarians”. Principals and all administrators should demand this type of librarian. Teacher librarians must teach the information literacy skills our kids will need as adults.

Librarians must be “certified librarians” who have instructional and oversight responsibilities. Librarians should not cover the planning periods for teachers. Librarians need to be collaborating in planning periods with teachers.

Libraries must have current, engaging, quality materials, resources and collections of diverse formats that inform, and promote reading and learning as fun. Lets not forget we need support staff to run a library. Technology: of course we need current tools and resources to actually do the things required in out 21st century world. But it’s not about only having stuff. It is about “learning and doing skills”.

The library as “place” must be warm, inviting, inspirational, cozy and practical. It needs to support individual, small group and large group learning and working needs of all the students and staff.

Library schools need to train and motivate their students to be prepared to lead and manage the libraries of the future – not – the libraries of the past. Fix the curriculum, teach and then demand that newly certified librarians have the 21st century skills of creative collaboration, aggressive management, advocacy and yes library skills.

Academic Education departments need to train new teachers the importance and impact of aligning their classrooms to the resources of the school and public library. Any teacher who isn’t using all the connections and resources available isn’t being as effective as they could be. Collaboration with the librarians is a “must do”. Integration of information literacy skills into all subject areas is a “must have”.

Publishers and vendors should be encouraging and supporting innovation and extending the reach of the library through the use of their products and their relationships. If your vendor doesn’t think this way – find another one who does.

Librraians need to build effective Librarian networks. Those librarians who accept this challenge to be leaders in this new teacher librarian movement should band together. Share your ideas, challenges, pain and suffering. Sharing the success stories will build the foundation for the library communities to reinvent themselves as true leaders and innovators that positively affect their students. Go to  and and  to find your partners and collaborators.

Finally for librarians: Don’t forget to improve your own personal skills. Your library can be dramatically better in the next 2-4 years. Will you have the skills needed to manage it well? All of the above will be difficult – you must have courage. Librarians Must Be Brave!

I know that my world is filled with fabulous, aggressive, energetic school and public librarians who fight every day to make their library program great! I have already acknowledged all those wonderful libraries and library programs I see….I know you are out there. I believe that we must all work together to help eliminate those “black hole” libraries that we all know about. These libraries reflect badly on all of us. What can we do together to makes this situation better?

Every school needs to have a great school library. The library as that “special place”  – where students want to come, where students get excited to take another magical journey through books, where all kids can feel welcome, challenged and encouraged. The “place” where kids get connected to learning and ideas and to new places and to each other. The library – the place where “reading is fun”.

Well, I finally feel better. Now we all need to work together to start making the changes that will make this situation better. I promise to do my part. Will you?

Fight for your library program!  Build a great library!


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5 Responses to “The “Black Hole” School Library”

  1. 0regret Says:

    Sometimes ranting feels good, doesn’t it? Anyway, for some help in validating the worth of public libraries, the PA Library Association has commissioned a Return On Investment study; you can read more at: Almost concurrently, the big public library in the area, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh received a grant to fund their own ROI study; more details are available at If these studies don’t seem applicable, there’s always the NEA’s recent report on reading; check the study’s executive summary (or download the whole 98 page document) for such enlightening tidbits as “Good readers generally have more financially rewarding jobs” (60% are in management/professional positions vs. only 18% of “basic” readers), and income declines as reading proficiency declines. Maybe if we all start spouting some of this stuff at a PTA meetings, the library will move to the top of the priority list. (A gal can hope, right?)

  2. Brad Fish Says:

    Oregret – thanks for leaving us the links to the studies. I knew they were out there. I had read some bits and pieces. I love the tidbits you mentioned.
    I agree – we have to keep up the message for the public and school libraries: the benefits of good libraries far exceed the costs – both for students, families and adults. I do think you have a good idea – school PTA groups usually have a very positive impact on their buildings. Maybe we could get some PTA groups to become advocates and funding partners for their school libraries. Thanks!

  3. Kelley Says:

    This was a great rant – I have a soft spot for a good rant! In this month’s School Library Journal there’s a great article: “The Evidence-Based Manifesto: If School Librarians Can’t Prove They Make a Difference, They May Cease to Exist” and it’s got some great insight into the changes that need to happen – including a whole ‘to-do list’ that can help keep school libraries in existence! So some of the onus is on the librarians – not always the funding sources or administration!

  4. Panther70 Says:

    Thanks for your ranting. It was just what I needed the read tonight. My district moved from a six day rotating schedule for elementary students to a five day schedule increasing my number of classes per week to 31. Then they cut a librarian so now in addition to 31 classes I must take care of 2 libraries.
    I was glad to see you mentioned academic programs as part of the problem. Several years ago we had some older librarians in the District. I looked forward to their retirement to get some fresh blood. But be careful what you wish for. The young blood that replaced them seems to have no concept of the librarian as a resource for staff etc. They see their role only as babysitters to teach so teachers can have planning.
    As school librarians we are evaluated on the same form as teachers. So we are only evaluated on our teaching abilities. If principals were required to evaluate all parts of our job, they would be required to have a better understanding of what we do and all librarians would be required to do all parts of the job.

  5. Brad Fish Says:

    Panther70… raise a really important point……how are the current library school programs training their students to be successful in today’s very challenging library environment???

    I might argue that current library programs are in fact ” historical” based programs. I fear we are training new librarians for yesterdays libraries.

    Are new graduating librarians: prepared to operate in a 1/2 book – 1/2 web based information world, are they ready to advocate, politic for, ruffle the necessary feathers, fight for adequate funding, collaborate with teachers, administrators, local politicians and most importantly – be information teachers and professionals??? Teaching information literacy skills and building a love of reading and lifelong learning are required skill sets for librarians to have as they enter the library workforce today. I fear without these skills, new librarians will be faced with a mid life career change crisis as the library world and the library jobs consistently disappear.

    Thanks for your comments.

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