Where have all the librarians gone?
They've gone to dot coms, one by one

By Mary Lord
June 12 2000

Checked out a school library lately? You may be in for a shock. Creaky old card catalogs have given way to computers; massive rows of encyclopedia volumes have dwindled into single CD-ROMs or disappeared into online databases. And while books still abound, it's getting harder and harder to find that other familiar fixture: a qualified librarian (now known as a "media specialist").

For a century, school libraries have been nurturing young minds and broadening the public's horizons. But low pay, coupled with increased workloads, has rocked what industrialist Andrew Carnegie called "democracy's cradles." As the Information Age roars into high gear, and as new studies have found a compelling link between academic achievement and strong school libraries, the keepers of America's repositories of knowledge are bailing out. By 2005, researchers project a need for nearly 25,000 media specialists.

Long time passing. Some were eliminated in budget cuts, along with bus drivers and custodians. Many others have jumped–like their peers in public libraries–to lucrative perches as corporate information specialists or dot-com data sleuths. "Many library-science students are getting much better job offers from private companies," says Philip Turner, dean of the library science school at the University of North Texas.

Retirement is thinning the ranks as well. Pennsylvania, for example, expects to pension off nearly a third of its school librarians over the next five years. While the shortage is most acute in urban schools, where lower pay and poorer facilities make recruiting difficult, even more-affluent districts feel the pinch. Plano, Texas, public schools, for instance, limped through an entire school year with two vacancies, and Kansas's acclaimed Blue Valley School District–whose libraries were twice voted best in the country–now must lure media specialists with $1,000 signing bonuses.

Even then, it's a hard sell. "The job's too hard," says American Association of School Librarians President M. Ellen Jay, the media specialist at Damascus Elementary School in Maryland. She cites a nearby district where only four teachers among thousands accepted the county's offer of free library-science school tuition. "Why leave [a job] where you are responsible for one grade or content area to master all manner of topics and all manner of technologies–for the same teacher's salary?"

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