When Chicago Public Schools administrators abruptly decided last year that Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis was not appropriate for some students, the directive to ban it initially went to school librarians. But instead of following the order, some of the librarians quickly spread the word to teacher colleagues and citizen journalists, and told the central office in no uncertain terms that such an action would be highly unconstitutional. Within days the administration backpedaled, claiming that it never intended for the book to be removed from libraries but only from some classrooms. In light of this saga, it was very troubling to hear last week that Chicago schools are increasingly losing their first line of defense against censorship as librarians are reassigned to be classroom teachers.
Chicago has more than 600 public schools but only 254 full or part-time librarians. That number has dropped precipitously from only two years ago, when there were 454 librarians in the district. But the loss is mostly not due to attrition; instead librarians are simply being moved into jobs they never intended to have. This is possible because in Illinois as in most states, public school librarians are required to have teacher certification. Most librarians also hold a Master of Library Science degree, but since there is no equivalent at the undergraduate level they hold a Bachelor’s in some other subject area like English or Education. So when budgets are cut, principals and school councils see librarians as unused teachers who might as well be in the classroom.
But the truth is that school librarians already have a vitally important classroom: the library. Perhaps the quickest way to get a librarian’s dander up is to suggest that all she does is stamp books and read. School librarians in particular are often stretched thin already as they carry out tasks that would be covered by multiple people in public or post-secondary libraries: collection development and acquisitions, cataloging and processing of materials, reference and readers’ advisory, literacy activities such as storytime and book groups, and information literacy instruction which requires just as much planning and assessment as any other sort of teaching.
Every librarian has heard the uninformed opinion that the profession is headed for extinction because “everything’s online now,” but that simply demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of what librarians actually do, which is connect people with information in whatever format it may be. School librarians who teach students to love reading, be effective researchers, and carefully assess the validity of sources are actually needed now more than ever. For proof, just look to CPS’ own Wendell Phillips Academy High School, where the number of students meeting or exceeding state literacy standards nearly tripled in the two years after school librarian K.C. Boyd arrived.
Librarians’ mission to connect people and information goes hand in hand with a strong commitment to intellectual freedom, and the school library should be a safe place for students to explore literature or research topics that might be deemed controversial. Some Chicago public schools lack any central library at all, while others have previously existing libraries which are now staffed by aides or parent volunteers since the librarian was reassigned. Parents’ desire to at least keep some sort of library available in their childrens’ schools is laudable, but many of the volunteers would probably be among the first to say that students would be much better served by a full-time professional librarian. Aside from the various tasks listed above, librarians are also well-versed in legal precedents pertaining to students’ right to read. Without Chicago school librarians in libraries where they belong, there is a strong chance that the Persepolis fiasco will be repeated with other books–only this time there may be no one to raise the alarm in the first place.
We reached out for comment from Chi School Librarians, a group that has organized on Facebook and Twitter to advocate for a return to full library services in the CPS district. Here is their reply:
School librarians are specifically trained to select and curate a wide range of resources that meet students’ academic and personal information needs. We believe that nurturing readers who are critical thinkers about a wide range of issues builds student capacities and encourages thoughtful participation in a democratic society. With more than half of CPS schools lacking a school librarian, we are concerned that many of our students’ right to read is diminished.
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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.