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When students at Dorchester’s McCormack Middle School feel overwhelmed by chaos in the cafeteria, or crave a quiet space where they can concentrate, they might slip away to the library, an oasis of calm anchored by cozy armchairs and heavy wooden bookshelves.
But this treasured refuge has no librarian to manage its collection, or to teach students vital research skills. The space, which sat dormant for years before a group of determined teachers brought it back to life, is run by volunteers from Boston’s Trinity Church two days a week when the pandemic allows; the rest of the time, busy teachers oversee it. Yet even this homespun operation is better than many students get in Boston: Among 125 campuses, 58 percent lack their own full-time libraries with staff. Only 52 schools have one.
Teachers and parents took heart in recent months as Superintendent Brenda Cassellius pushed ahead with an ambitious plan to restore library access at every city school by 2028. But with the announcement last week that she will leave the district in June, some worry the library plan — along with other fledgling initiatives to restore equity across the system — may fall victim to leadership churn, as a new system chief asserts new priorities.
“There aren’t many places in a school where you can curl up in a chair and read, or draw, or close your eyes — where you just get to be a person,” said Neema Avashia, a longtime McCormack teacher who helped reopen its library six years ago with grant money and unpaid labor. “There’s humanity in a library. … Students everywhere deserve that.”
For suburban families, a school library is a given, its presence simply assumed. In Boston, after years of shifting priorities, a school library with regular hours, expert staff, and an up-to-date collection has become a bonus amenity, found at exam schools and some other campuses with robust parent fund-raising efforts — and infrequently elsewhere.
Nationwide, school libraries and librarians have long been in decline, especially in places with diverse, less-affluent enrollments. But Boston ranks well below average even when compared to other large urban districts.
Boston had one full-time librarian for every 6,700 students in 2019-20, according to data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics and used in an Antioch University research project titled “School Librarian Investigation: Decline or Evolution?”(SLIDE, for short.) By contrast, schools in neighboring Cambridge boast one full-time librarian for every 295 students — 18 librarians at 17 schools, according to the district — while Worcester and Springfield each have between 2,000 and 2,300 students per librarian. Washington, D.C., has one librarian for every 548 students.
Stark disparities also run through the district: While schools like McCormack fight to keep their libraries open, Boston Latin School, a selective public high school known for sending dozens of graduates to Harvard, boasts two certified librarians at its Harry V. Keefe Library, and daily hours from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Endowed funds enable hundreds of new acquisitions every year.
District leaders say libraries are among the core resources that must be guaranteed at every school to ensure equity and promote literacy.
“Students need to read lots of books to become fluid and confident readers, and they need to develop research skills that support their learning,” said Christine Landry, assistant superintendent for academics. “Librarians are teachers, and we see libraries as an extension of the classroom.”
Restoring access to libraries will be a complex and costly endeavor. Professional librarians are in short supply, and command competitive salaries. Library collections must be updated regularly to remain relevant. Technology is critical.
At about 20 schools that lack space for their own libraries, the district instead plans to establish robust partnerships with nearby branches of the Boston Public Library, and integrate visits into student schedules.
In Roslindale, Lauren Peter is grateful that her second-grader’s school sits a short walk away from the freshly renovated Roslindale branch library, and that families and administrators have partnered to raise $20,000 to buy the school new books for its on-site “book room.” But students can’t access the room directly, and BPL visits were paused this winter due to the pandemic.
“Every school should have a nurse, a psychologist, a librarian,” she said. “Of six elementary schools in Roslindale, only one has a library. ... It bothers the heck out of us.”
Under Cassellius’s five-year plan, four of the six would get their own libraries, while the other two would partner with city branches.
Not everyone is convinced new libraries are the best use of district funding. Some observers suggest that intensive deployment of reading tutors might do more to boost student literacy, and some teachers and principals say small libraries in classrooms provide even better access to reading materials.
“A new mayor or superintendent might decide to use that money differently, to achieve the same goal a different way,” said Will Austin, chief executive officer of the Boston Schools Fund.
Library proponents cite lasting benefits. A 2015 study of 1,500 students in Washington state found those whose schools had library facilities and certified librarians performed better on standardized tests, and were more likely to graduate, even after controlling for family income.
For Xyra Mercer, a senior at Boston’s Henderson Inclusion School and the student representative on Boston’s School Committee, visits to her elementary school library were the gateway to a magical world of Greek gods and goddesses. Drawn to the eye-catching covers of Rick Riordan’s series based on Greek mythology, Mercer spent years immersed in tales of Zeus and Athena, where she acquired a love of language and history that inspired her plan to become a history teacher.
“Literature is such an important part of developing the mind, and the more kids interact with it at a young age, the more likely they are to take AP and honors classes later on,” said Mercer, who attended the Benjamin Banneker Charter Public School in Cambridge through sixth grade.
Complex forces have thinned the ranks of school librarians — and lack of money is not always the root cause. When Keith Curry Lance analyzed years of Massachusetts schools data for the SLIDE investigation and compared hiring trends for different jobs, he found growth in the number of teachers, administrators, and “instructional coordinators” statewide, at the same time the number of librarians steadily fell.
A consultant with Colorado-based RSL Research Group, Curry Lance said a shift over time from state to local control of school budgets has fueled the decline, as individual administrators prioritize other needs that may feel more pressing.
But one thing is clear: When librarians disappear, libraries follow.
“After they eliminate a librarian, the collection becomes hopelessly outdated, and then they eliminate the library because they need the space,” he said. “At that point it becomes very expensive to reverse.”
States with laws or policies requiring schools to have libraries or librarians show predictably better ratios, he said — even when those rules are not strictly enforced. Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont all have some type of state mandate on the books, according to the SLIDE project data, and all have better student-to-librarian ratios than Massachusetts, which has no such requirements.
In Boston a dozen years ago, 73 schools had libraries, according to the district — more than half its campuses. But from 2009 to 2021, one-third of those facilities were lost. (Some of the losses resulted from school closures.)
At McCormack Middle School, teachers said the school library shut down around 2008 after staffing was eliminated. The absence weighed heavily on the school, and around 2015, teachers rallied and began seeking grants to reopen the library, ultimately raising more than $20,000.
With soothing blue accents and armchairs, the revitalized library became a sanctuary, former teacher Adina Schecter said, especially for young immigrants, who take comfort in a collection that includes titles in Spanish as well as English. But the homegrown operation has presented challenges, from the limited staffing and re-shelving to the lack of connection to the district’s catalog system.
Teachers kept hoping, “Field of Dreams”-style, that if they kept the space alive, the district might staff it with a trained professional. In recent months, their dream seemed within reach. Now, they wonder if it can survive the transition to a new superintendent, the district’s fifth leader in 10 years.
“If we really want to make this change, we can get it done,” said Mercer, the high school senior. “But I wish it could have been done much sooner, way before the current superintendent.”