By Elizabeth Perry
At the Sto-Rox Junior/Senior High School Librarian Julie Himmelstein built a library desk out of outdated books, just to repurpose the massive amount of material she had to take out of circulation.
Himmelstein inherited the library collection in 2016 and since then has had to downsize about 70% of the materials, because of outdated information and damaged books.
She is not alone – local school libraries in Avonworth School District are also cleaning house and they don’t readily have funding available to replace outgoing material.
“Budgeting is one of the top challenges facing librarians,” said David Bechtold, librarian for Sto-Rox Primary Center and Upper Elementary School.
Aimee Emerson, president of the Pennsylvania School Library Association, said 52 school districts in Pennsylvania are without certified school librarians. When budgets are cut in order to save money, Himmelstein said libraries are often the first programs to suffer cuts.
"Libraries are kind of seen as icing on the cake instead of being necessary," Himmelstein said.
Between 2019-2020, more than 30 districts state-wide reported reducing or eliminating librarian positions, despite receiving the same state funding as the previous year, according to the Pennsylvania School Library Association.
“This is not about school funding; this is about local priorities,” the PSLA said via statement.
Around the year 2000, City of Philadelphia schools closed libraries with the mindset it's better to have “none than wrong” – that having outdated, incorrect books was worse than having none at all, Himmelstein said.
Of 214 schools in Philadelphia, only seven have operational school libraries, according to educational company Follett.
Himmelstein said that for the “currency of information,” knowing how to look up and find out when a story was written is critical. She teaches media literacy programs in the library which go into how news is created and how it can change as new information is discovered.
School library programs have a positive impact on learning when they champion intellectual freedom, according to guidelines laid out for PA schools by the Commonwealth.
The PSLA cited a study conducted in 2010 which found school’s PSSA Reading test scores tended to go up by 10 to 15 points based on all “maximized library predictors.”
That means adequate staffing, funding, current information resources, technology and information literacy activities by library staff.
Reading and writing test scores for Black, Hispanic, and students with disabilities or who were economically disadvantaged benefited proportionally more than students in general with certified librarians in their schools, according to a 2012 library study.
Operations at the Sto-Rox School District were taken over by the state and are currently under an economic recovery plan.
One of the requirements of the plan is to increase students' test scores.
At the Jan. 19 school board workshop meeting, Director Samantha Levitzki-Wright discussed the overview of the Pennsylvania System School Assessment standardized test results in reading.
“Overall, there’s a lot of work to be done,” Levitzki-Wright said.
Directors DaLisha Hoszowski and Alice Cooper suggested early intervention measures to get students up to state standards for kindergarten.
“They’re not coming in ready,” Levitzki-Wright said.
Himmelstein said her administrators are very supportive of her and understand the value the library brings to students’ lives.
“My administrators don't see libraries as being an aside,” Himmelstein said.