Cardboard boxes teeming with workbooks and other publications line a corner of Aliamanu Elementary School’s library, a colorful, retrofitted classroom that has that classic musty smell of aging paper.

The boxes, a few of which are also scattered across large wooden desks, contain brand-new McGraw Hill materials that will be distributed among the school’s 760 or so children this fall to help them meet the Common Core standards. 

Patty Louis, the school’s longtime librarian, apologizes for the mess as she sits next to a cluster of bright-white iMac computers with headphones suspended from them. But she’s quick to point out that school libraries these days aren’t the silent, stodgy places they used to be. 

“The library of today is not always this ‘quiet place,’” says an enthusiastic Louis, describing it instead as a hub where students collaborate, conduct research and do projects, a “makerspace” where kids get together and create all kinds of stuff. “It’s more like organized chaos.”

Aliamanu Elementary Librarian Patty Lewis

As a full-time librarian at Aliamanu Elementary Librarian, Patty Lewis may be part of a dying breed.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Louis, 48, expects that trend to continue as the state fully implements the Common Core standards, universal math and language arts benchmarks that are upping the ante on what kids are expected to know to succeed in college and their careers.

The standards, which are going into effect in 42 states and Washington, D.C., emphasize research skills and the ability to use explanatory texts to answer all kinds of questions. The standardized tests, which will assess how well Hawaii’s students are meeting those expectations, are going live this coming school year — and with high stakes attached to them. Student performance on the computerized tests, which are all conducted online, is slated to affect teacher pay and schools’ rankings, among other things.

This tectonic shift in public education could make access to campus library resources all the more critical for students, says Louis, who until recently served as president of the Hawaii Association of School Librarians. Libraries connect students with the information needed to advance their learning: not only books, of course, but also computers and other high-tech equipment for research.

The state requires school librarians to have degrees in both teaching and library science. Librarians bring with them the background of a classroom teacher and the savvy of a technological resource specialist, Louis says, proudly noting that she created the school library’s website years ago and enjoys keeping up to speed on Twitter. 

School Librarians in Decline

Ironically, just when they’re needed to help students master newly required skills, librarians seem to have become a low priority at many schools, particularly at the elementary level.

As is happening across the country, budget cuts and increasing expectations are forcing Hawaii schools to make sacrifices. In many cases, one of the first expenditures to go on the chopping block are librarians, who earn the same salaries as classroom teachers. People like Louis could be a dying breed. 

Two out of every five regular public schools in Hawaii lack qualified full-time librarians, according to Department of Education data. More than half of those schools are on the neighbor islands, meaning the shortfall is more concentrated in the places with the most limited access to library resources in the first place. While 25 percent of Oahu’s 167 regular public schools lack certified librarians, the percentage on the Big Island, for example, is 55 percent. Lanai doesn’t have any school librarians.

And those numbers are on the rise. The DOE recently told Civil Beat of an additional 10 vacancies as of late June, six of which are at neighbor-island schools. Oahu schools with newly announced vacancies include Waianae Intermediate and Castle High.

(Red indicates schools without a full-time librarian; map reflects data from the 2013-14 school year.)

The decline in school librarians can be traced to landmark legislation passed in 2004 — widely known as Act 51, or the Reinventing Education Act — which aimed to give more educational decision making to individual schools. Principals got more flexibility over how to spend their per-student budget allocation, gaining more control over expenditures on employee positions, programs and supplies. 

The measure also eliminated a requirement that each school maintain one full-time librarian. That contributed to great discrepancies in access to librarians and library materials across the state’s public schools, according to a resolution that was introduced last session requesting the DOE to adopt a per-pupil funding formula that reserves money for at least one librarian at each school. 

The decline in librarians could have significant consequences on student learning given the correlations between achievement and access to these resources. A 2012 study of schools in Pennsylvania, for example, revealed that the percentage of students scoring “Advanced” on the state’s standardized exam was two and a half times higher for schools with full-time, certified librarians than for schools without them. 

In a state where most public school students read below grade level, libraries play an important role in boosting writing and reading scores, Louis says. 

‘An Image Problem’

Louis describes herself as a lifelong bookworm. Unlike most school librarians, she started off working in a public library — in the accounting department, no less — before she got into education. 

Fresh out of the University of Hawaii at Hilo and equipped with a degree in sociology, Louis instantly realized that libraries were her calling. She eventually pursued her master’s degree in library science degree at UH Manoa, after which she got a job at Alu Like, a nonprofit devoted to Native Hawaiians’ educational and social advancement.

It was then that Louis decided she wanted to serve students and decided to go back to school to get a teaching degree. She’s been working at Aliamanu Elementary’s library for 17 years. 

Most of what librarians do, according to Louis, is research — and they often play a key role in ensuring kids and classrooms teachers are well-versed in those skills, too.

Advocates warn against dismissing librarians as clerks who simply catalogue books and check out materials at the circulation desk. As Louis notes, school librarians “have an image problem.”

Nearly all of the state’s 255 public schools have their own libraries, according to DOE records, but Louis and others stress that libraries serve little purpose without librarians running them. Moreover, Louis says that having a library building on campus doesn’t actually mean a school has a fully stocked, operating library. Many schools co-opt the libraries for other purposes once their librarians retire or leave the school, Louis said. 

The DOE isn’t actively recruiting or hiring librarians, according to department spokeswoman Dara Young.

Louis lists off the newest trends in education, most of them tech-related: “gamification” — using games to help kids solve academic problems — and a Facebook-like site on which students create profiles for historical figures, for example.

Most of what librarians do, according to Louis, is research — and they often play a key role in ensuring kids and classrooms teachers are well-versed in those skills, too. 

Louis recalls when she tested Aliamanu children on their research skills, telling them to Google a species of octopus that lives in the trees in South America.

Many of them encountered a sham blog site and were convinced it contained accurate information.  

Librarians also teach “digital citizenship” — how to respectfully and ethically use online intellectual property — and craft arguments and develop a thesis, an underlying tenet in the Common Core standards. Without learning the proper research skill set, students can easily advance through school — and into college — without ever having those tools.

“We’re not doing them a service when they go out into the world and don’t know what to do,” Louis says. “This follows them up the chain.”

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