The change happened gradually, but the result has often been the same across Oregon's classrooms: At the same time that students were being introduced to digital platforms for learning, cash-strapped school districts across Oregon cut back on the very positions meant to guide them through the advantages — and pitfalls — of web-based information.
Between 1980 and 2017, the state of Oregon lost 659 full-time teacher/librarian positions — individuals who obtained a teaching license and then completed graduate work to earn a library media endorsement. In terms of raw numbers, Oregon schools in 1980 had 818 licensed school librarians; by 2017, the last year for which data was available, the number had fallen to 159.
The shift meant that the librarian-to-student ratio moved from 1-to-547 in 1980 to 1-to-3,652 in 2017.
The Greater Albany Public Schools ratio is a little higher: The district's two teacher/librarians are responsible for approximately 4,500 students each after years of budgetary struggles contributed to the decline in those positions over the last 20 years.
“It was a long, slow transition,” said West Albany High School librarian Jean Gritter. “People didn’t feel the impact right away. But then, in addition to information literacy training kids weren’t getting anymore, there’s also collection management and making sure we got rid of the books that said Pluto was a planet, things like that. People didn’t know there was this whole other piece.”
“We had this huge cultural shift with technology recently,” Gritter said. “And people assume librarians are about books, and the reality is that librarians are about information and it used to be that information came to us through books. But what most people don’t realize is that librarians move with the information, not necessarily the medium. It’s still information, just in a different format.”
In 2016, the Pew Research Center — a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that studies societal issues and trends — noted that 14% of adults were unprepared to live in a world where information was so readily available and distributed through digital platforms. The study went on to state that 33% of adults were reluctant to make the transitions but nevertheless had higher levels of digital skills.
“They have very low levels of awareness of new ‘education tech’ concepts and relatively lower levels of performing personal learning activities of any kind,” the report found. “This correlated with their general lack of use of the internet in learning.”
In a society where information is not only available 24/7 but can also reach individuals unsolicited, Gritter said preparing students to go out into the world and understanding how information works are no longer mutually exclusive goals.
“These aren’t just college readiness skills,” she said. “These are life skills.”
Life skills that have to be taught. And at West Albany High School, Gritter, who worked as an English teacher before completing her library graduate work, is operating under the ideal model — one not found in many schools statewide.
According to the Quality Education Model, a state of Oregon measurement that estimates optimum staffing levels for effective schools, there should be a full time teacher/librarian and library assistant (who is part of the classified staff) at both the middle- and high-school level. At the elementary level, those roles are designated to part-time employees. At West, Gritter has a library assistant, and because she does, students get the chance to learn media literary, information technology and research methods.
“I’m able to go out and collaborate with teachers, I teach a media literacy program with our journalism teacher. I’m out getting stuff to kids and the library assistant is checking books in and out and doing the daily management stuff which frees me up to go out and do the instruction we really need to be doing.”
However, as budgets for schools get crunched statewide, districts are turning more frequently to a third position: the library manager.
The library manager is also part of the classified staff and may not having a teaching license. And more often than not, that person is alone in the library.
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“They’re doing a fantastic job, but they’re not teachers,” Gritter said. “And they’re not paid to be teachers. They’re having a very large role asked of them. It’s like a classroom aide being asked to teach the class. Not that they wouldn’t try, but it’s being asked to do a different job.”
Schools not operating under the Quality Education Model for librarians may not have the same level of instruction, meaning students are left to sort through a tidal wave of information without a life jacket.
“Some teachers may take that on but they also have their own curriculum so it depends. If you have a teacher who does that, great, but in the classroom next door, those students may not so it’s inconsistent.”
In Corvallis, the district employs 14 library media technicians who work under one district-wide licensed librarian. According to communications coordinator Brenda Downum, media specialists must have at least an associate's degree, knowledge and experience in library or media programs and functions, the ability to understand the building's instructional goals and have a mastery of library and office systems and equipment. All Corvallis school libraries will have a media specialist this year, which according to Downum represents an increase for the district's elementary schools.
The issue, though, is not isolated to Albany, Corvallis or even the state of Oregon. According to American Association of School Librarians President Mary Keeling, it’s a national issue.
She said her organization believes that every student should have access to a staffed, up-to-date library. Keeling said the association is working with local school librarians to offer additional training on how to help students navigate digital learning.
At West Albany, Gritter said she focuses on teaching students the basics, starting with the Google search.
“They may not understand that just because it’s the first result listed, it doesn’t mean it’s the best, most accurate source,” she said.
But even teaching the basics has become more difficult as technology continues to advance.
“There’s not like there’s a checklist anymore,” Gritter said. “We show them how to evaluate the source, what is the purpose of the information, are they trying to sell us something or persuade us of something? But some of these sources are good at making themselves look like the real deal,” she said, noting the change in webpage design and the ease by which false sources can appear legitimate.
“We start with a database that’s really like it was in the library when you went and got an encyclopedia and looked up the information that had been vetted, someone has gone through to ensure the legitimacy, so that they understand what information looks like,” she said. “Then as they go along and they get used to finding that information then we want to teach them to sift the information coming at them out in the world.”
The level at which students understand information, Gritter said, has been all over the board in her experience. Some students inherently understand how to find accurate information via the web or have had some instruction in previous grades. Some, need a little more help.
Gritter is hoping that help is on the way.
Earlier this year, the Legislature passed the Student Success Act, an additional $2 billion in funding for Oregon K-12 schools. Those funds can be used to increase resources, materials and staffing at district levels.
“Informational literacy is so much more important than it ever has been,” Gritter said. “This is the time, across the state, to reinvest in teacher/librarians.”