School libraries hit by the loss of a dying breed as teacher librarians enter 'survival mode'
Researchers have reported an "alarming" loss in the number of qualified teacher librarians in schools, warning student literacy will continue to suffer if the trend is not reversed.
- There are concerns the number of teacher librarians has fallen to a critical low
- Experts say they are vital to school literacy outcomes and should be mandatory
- Education officials say library staffing in government schools is up to principals
Once a staple of schools, the roles have been branded a dying breed with many principals opting to replace them with cheaper "library officers" and "library assistants", often with no qualifications or educational training.
Literary researcher Margaret Merga said while teacher librarian numbers had been in decline for some time, they appeared to have hit a critical low, which she warned would have serious implications for students, particularly struggling readers.
PHOTO Experts say qualified school library staff are vital to good literacy results among students.
"We know that positions and funding are both dwindling."
Last year, the Edith Cowan University researcher interviewed 30 teacher librarians in WA public and private schools and many told her they did not feel secure in their jobs.
PHOTO Researcher Margaret Merga says a teacher librarian should be mandatory in all schools.
They said the library was often the first place principals looked when they needed to cut costs.
They complained of teacher librarians — qualified teachers with Masters degrees in librarianship — either not being replaced or replaced with well-intentioned library officers with no qualifications, and spoke of being in "survival mode".
Lack of data hides a problem
Dr Merga's interviews provide a valuable insight into what is going on in schools, as the WA Education Department does not keep statistics on the number of teacher librarians it employs.
PHOTO Libraries have pride of place at Mel Maria Catholic Primary School's two Perth campuses.
In her interview, "Francesca" was grim about her career prospects:
"We don't exist. Most schools don't even have us."
"Rosie" was similarly pessimistic:
"I think in many ways we're not perceived as teachers, and sometimes I suspect, particularly in the later years, we've been seen as more of a luxury. I have been told by a principal that because I'm not in front of a class, I'm vulnerable."
"Libba" believed the demise of teacher librarians was worse in the Government sector:
"I can see they're extremely highly valued in private schools. The sheer weight of numbers and seeing the ratio of teachers to students in those schools is amazing. I don't feel that they're terribly revered in state schools."
'Eddie' said his principal was reluctant to spend on the library, but millions had been spent elsewhere on non-essential building works:
"When I started here, our budget was less than $40,000 … it's been reduced to just over $10,000 in the three years I've been here. Our principal says it's for budgetary, financial reasons. My heart sort of drops."
School library budgets slashed
Dr Merga said despite her best efforts, she had been unable to identify a single Government primary school in WA that employed a teacher librarian.
She said the positions should be mandatory, as was the case in the New South Wales public education system.
PHOTO It is obvious within the library walls at Mel Maria just how much reading is valued.
"They do play an important role and research suggests a strong association between the presence of qualified library staff, between regular access to the library and student performance in literacy outcomes," she said.
"They are a resource that's incredibly, incredibly important for schools."
After hearing stories about jobs disappearing, the WA School Library Association (WASLA) recently surveyed its members, hoping to gain a clearer picture of what was going on.
PHOTO Despite the digital age, experts say school libraries remain vital to education outcomes.
It conducted a sample survey of 52 public and private schools and identified 42 full-time library positions that had been abolished in the past five years alone.
Teacher librarians were the biggest casualties in the sample.
Of the 52 schools, six reported having their library budgets cut by 50 per cent, with two reporting a loss of 80 per cent.
Overall, 32 schools reported budget cuts and one school library did not receive any budget last financial year.
Vibrant safe havens for students
WASLA president Barbara Combes said the findings were "alarming" and indicative of what was happening at schools all over the country.
PHOTO The WA School Library Association says libraries have become dynamic places for pupils.
"With falling literacy and numeracy scores in NAPLAN tests around Australia, the lack of professional staff, and even a library, is of great concern," she said.
"A lack of understanding by principals of why the library is there in the first place is becoming an all too common feature of new schools.
"The idea of the silent library managed by a dragon lady in a twinset and pearls disappeared 50 years ago.
"Libraries are dynamic spaces where clubs, makerspaces, coding workshops, debates, art displays, author talks and workshops are now the norm rather than the exception.
"They are also safe havens in schools where students can go to escape the rigours of the schoolyard."
PHOTO Apart from the obvious benefits, libraries can offer students a quiet space to relax.
Dr Combes said a well-stocked, professionally staffed library could make a huge difference to the educational outcomes of a school, as proven by more than 50 years of research.
"It is interesting that the decline of literacy and numeracy in Australian schools has coincided with the decline of libraries and professional staff in government schools," she said.
"The independent school sector presents a picture that is the opposite of the government school sector."
Where the library is 'the centre of the school'
Elizabeth Martini is one of the so-called dying breed.
She works as a teacher librarian at Mel Maria Catholic Primary in Perth, where the libraries have pride of place at the school's two campuses and where its staff are highly valued.
"It's essential. It's the centre of the school," Ms Martini said.
PHOTO Teacher librarian Elizabeth Martini says there's no greater gift than the gift of reading.
At Mel Maria, the shelves are well stocked with books meticulously chosen to engage readers of all levels.
Literary milestones are celebrated, the walls abound with eye-catching displays and authors drop in to inspire the students.
To stay relevant in the digital age, library staff also teach cyber safety and online search skills during their hour-long lessons.
"We work very hard at making it wonderful. You can never rest on your laurels and say, 'I've done my job'," Ms Martini said.
PHOTO Pupils at Mel Maria's Pater Noster campus have a one-hour lesson in the library each week.
And while she was saddened by the loss of so many teacher librarian positions, she had no regrets about her own career choice.
"When you see children totally engrossed in what they're reading, you've given them a gift," she said.
"We try to say yes to everything. We say yes and then we make it work because the library is the centre of the school."
Fears education divide could grow
Charles Sturt University (CSU) is the only tertiary institution in Australia offering a Master of Education (Teacher Librarianship) after QUT phased out its course last year.
PHOTO Mel Maria's library shelves are well-stocked with books to engage readers of all levels.
There are about 460 students currently studying the online course at Charles Sturt, with approximately 350 of those coming from New South Wales where government schools are required to have a qualified teacher librarian.
CSU course director Mary Carroll she was astonished schools would not employ teacher librarians, given concerns around literacy.
"Libraries aim to address and resource disadvantage, however it is schools where there is already considerable advantage who will have the capacity to continue to employ qualified teacher librarians and invest in library services for the long term," she said.
"Will this become a further divide between advantaged and disadvantaged students?"
Library staff skills 'expanding', department says
The WA Education Department said every government school, primary and secondary, was equipped with a library but staffing was a matter for principals.
PHOTO The Education Department says library staff can access professional learning and specialist training.
"We know that over time, school libraries have evolved and changed," deputy director general Stephen Baxter said.
"They have become hubs that are often equipped with the latest technology, housing innovative teaching resources and, of course, also displaying a wide range of interesting books.
"As our libraries have developed and advanced, the skills of the library staff schools are now recruiting have also expanded.
"Library staff can access professional learning and specialist training to equip them with the skills they need to perform their important role."
PHOTO The library is a central hub at Mel Maria Catholic Primary School.
POSTED SUN AT 6:31AM