BELLEVUE, Wash. — Students who wished their school librarians a nice summer on the last day of school may be surprised this fall when they're no longer around to recommend a good book or help with homework.
As the school budget crisis deepens, administrators across the nation have started to view school libraries as luxuries that can be axed rather than places where kids learn to love reading and do research.
No one will know exactly how many jobs are lost until fall, but the American Association of School Administrators projects 19 percent of the nation's school districts will have fewer librarians next year, based on a survey this spring. Ten percent said they cut library staff for the 2009-2010 school year.
A trip to the school library may be a weekly highlight for children who love to read, but for kids from low-income families, it's more of the necessity than a treat, according to literacy experts and the librarians who help kids struggling in high school without a home computer.
Unlike the overflowing bookshelves of wealthier families, 61 percent of low-income families own no age-appropriate books, according to a 2009 study commissioned by Jumpstart on "America's Early Childhood Literacy Gap." They depend on libraries to keep them from falling behind in school.
While the American Association of School Librarians says some states like California, Michigan and Arizona have been hit especially hard, a map of cutbacks on the organization's website shows jobs are disappearing across the nation.
"We're doing a disservice to our kids, especially those in poverty, if we don't have the resources they need," said association president Cassandra Barnett, who is also the school librarian at the Fayetteville, Ark., High School library.
Since few state or federal laws mandate school libraries or librarians, and their job losses are small compared with classroom teacher layoffs, library layoffs may seem minor to some observers. But librarians say few administrators or parents understand how involved they are in classroom learning and school technology.
"We have really cut off our noses to spite our face because we are denying access to the very resources we say our kids need," Barnett said.
Rosemarie Bernier, president of the California School Library Association, says she doesn't know how students doing complex online research projects could complete their assignments without the guidance they get in school libraries.
"The people who control the purse strings are out of touch. They don't understand what the kids really need," said Bernier, who is the librarian at Hamilton High School in Los Angeles.
She spoke of a student with a first period English class who came to her in tears because she didn't have enough time to transfer and reformat the essay she had written on her cell phone. Since she doesn't have a computer at home, the student's cell phone is her only hope of completing assignments that need to be typed.
The number of California school libraries that won't have teacher librarians next year is changing daily, but she says many students will be surprised next fall when they find their school library closed or staffed by someone who can check out books but not help them with their school work.
Los Angeles eliminated all its elementary school librarians a few years ago and has left next year's staffing of middle school libraries up to the schools. Of 77 middle schools, about 50 have found the money to pay for a teacher librarian, according to Esther Sinofsky, who is in charge of libraries for the district.
Sinofsky, a former school librarian, says Los Angeles Unified School District recognizes the connection between student achievement and school libraries, but the district is also struggling to close a $640 million budget gap for the 2010-2011 school year.
Teacher-librarians have been disappearing from Michigan schools gradually over the past decade, with a drop of nearly 1,500 to not quite 500 since 2000, according to Tim Staal, executive director of the Michigan Association for Media in Education.
Those who remain are doing the jobs done by two or three people a few years ago.
Gigi Lincoln, the librarian at Lakeview High School in Battle Creek, Mich., since 1973, was told she would have to leave the library and start teaching French because the district needed to make drastic cuts in the middle of the school year.
Lincoln, who was honored in 2008 by the American Library Association with one of just 10 national "I love my librarian" awards, hasn't taught French since 1972, when she and her husband were living in Australia.
"That was a real wake-up call," said Lincoln, 61, who called the ALA for help and managed to keep her job. Now she's working part-time at two school libraries and says she will do her best to do more than just check out books.
Even wealthy Seattle suburbs have identified the library as a target for budget cuts so they could avoid increases in class sizes.
Sandy Livingston retired this year after the Bellevue School District eliminated all its high school and middle school librarians.
"Information literacy is just so important for kids to be more successful in college," said Livingston, 66, who worked in the Sammamish High School library for about a decade. "The kids are being hurt."