In Legislature, a push for a librarian in every school

School librarians made a passionate case Thursday against the perception that they just read stories to children and help them check out books, arguing the job is necessary to meet state educational standards and key to sparking a lifelong love of learning.

Some three dozen librarians sent emails supporting a bill backed by Republican Sen. Becky Harris that would make it mandatory for schools to maintain a school library and staff it with a licensed librarian. Several others spoke out in person against what they’ve characterized as a quiet crisis — schools not keeping their libraries open or staffing it with employees who aren’t certified librarians as they shift funding elsewhere.

“I believe this bill’s passage is a necessity. It’s not a luxury,” said Robin Carpenter, a librarian at Johnston Middle School in North Las Vegas. “I’m sure this committee would be horrified if they ever heard a school forgo hiring licensed math teachers to keep class sizes lower in science classes, or decided to have a music teacher teach reading. But this is akin to what’s being done in schools without a teacher librarian.”

The Clark County School Librarians Association said that as of December, there are 27 elementary schools, eight middle schools and six high schools in the county that don’t have a certified teacher librarian — a professional who has training as a teacher and also as a librarian.

Under the ongoing Clark County School District reorganization, the librarian position can be filled by a media specialist or teachers on their prep period, rather than someone with training as a librarian. Leadership teams at each school can decide how they want to spend the funds.

“We certainly believe reading is essential for student success,” said lobbyist Brad Keating of the Clark County School District, which opposed the measure. “The librarian position is a flexible position in each school’s budget that allows them to maintain the literacy program in the way the school deems fit. They look for unique ways to staff the library … We believe it certainly should be a local decision.”

But librarians said their specialized training is key, and argued against cutting budgetary corners on library programs.

Susan Slykerman, president of the Clark County School Librarians Association, painted a picture of libraries as dynamic places where you might see students performing dramas in the corner, working on crafts, reading in book clubs and participating in poetry jams. She described the librarian as a co-teacher who helps other staff with literacy strategies and teaches students how to navigate their digital world.

“A school library is just a place unless it is superpowered by an information literate, tech-savvy, book-loving, kid-caring, lifelong learner, namely — a professional licensed teacher-librarian,” she said. “One who charges forth with leadership — someone who inspires and excites students to learn about their global world, who brings technology to better prepare students for the future, who promotes reading for critical analysis as well as reading to build empathy in everyday life.”

Harris, a literacy advocate who championed Nevada’s Read by Grade 3 program last session, said she was open to adjusting the bill to accommodate tiny rural schools that are essentially one-room schoolhouses and can't hire a dedicated librarian, or online institutions that physically can’t open libraries. But she said librarians are uniquely qualified to help students build digital literacy and would fight for adequate funding to make sure  each school has one.

“One may believe the emergence of digital technologies makes libraries redundant or even a little less necessary,” she testified. “In many ways the internet is an extension of the school library, but it has useful and useless information. School librarians can help students tell the difference.”