The average school library today is a well-connected facility with significant numbers of computers for students and staff to do research, according to a major survey of school library media centers. But the survey also suggests that school district leaders need to pay more attention to their elementary school libraries and that larger schools should be spending more per pupil on their libraries than they do now.

The survey, called “Sizing Up America’s Libraries,” comes from the American Association of School Librarians (AASL). It is the first of what AASL intends as an annual series of snapshots on the state of school library media centers (LMCs) in the United States.

As school library media specialists strive to make a multitude of resources–books, online databases, networked computers, and study programs–available to students, they have one big problem: There is no comprehensive source of data available to them for comparative purposes, AASL says.

Only with ample information about how various LMCs function will school district leaders nationwide know how to manage their LMCs effectively, ask for more carefully targeted funding, and consequently improve student performance, said Sara Kelly Johns, AASL president and library media specialist for New York’s Lake Placid Middle/Senior High School.

And that’s just what AASL aims to provide with its research.

“There really is no single source of statistics on school library media programs anywhere else,” Johns says. “AASL needs [these statistics] for its advocacy efforts, and decision makers need to know the numbers to be aware of what … makes up high-quality school library program that is well-staffed and well-stocked, with a program built on collaboration with teachers.”

She added: “There is a growing body of research that documents the effect of a strong school library program on student achievement, and we need the data on staffing, size and age of collections, and budgets spent on resources to get a picture of a strong program that makes a difference for students.”

The report is compiled from an online poll, sent to about 5,000 school librarians across the United States.

The average school library now has approximately 15 computers, and the top 5 percent of libraries in the survey have 65 or more, the study revealed.

The data show that today’s school libraries “are connected,” Johns said. “School libraries, especially the top 25 percent, have significant numbers of computers for in-library student and staff access to databases, print resources that can be searched in electronic catalogs, and web resources that are selected and recommended by a person trained to select high-quality resources.”

But the survey also revealed that the average elementary school library is staffed about five hours less per week than the typical middle or high school library. And high school librarians spend twice as much time, on average, planning and collaborating with teachers than do elementary school librarians.

This is a concern, Johns said, because research shows that reading scores tend to be higher in schools with full-time library media specialists who conduct training and outreach programs with their teachers and students.

“Elementary schools’ needs are particularly falling short,” she said, despite the nation’s focus on raising literacy. “Librarians who are in place often do not have paraprofessional staff to process materials and provide the clerical support, leaving a lack of time in the librarians’ schedules to provide instruction or to collaborate with teachers for project-based learning and promotion of reading.”

The average school library spends about $11 per student, per year. But there is a wide gap between the average per-pupil expenditure of school libraries serving fewer than 300 students ($15) and those serving 2,000 students or more (less than $8).

“From this year’s data we see that [average] copyright dates drop with the size of the school, and so do budgets,” Johns said. “A fair per-pupil expenditure needs to be in place” to ensure that all students have access to up-to-date resources.

School libraries in the top fifth percentile of those surveyed share the following characteristics:

  • Their library staff work an average of 115 hours per week–a number that increases with enrollment size.

  • Their staff spend six or more hours per week in planning and collaborating with teachers, and 30 or more hours per week delivering instruction to students.

  • They provide access to up-to-date materials, resources, and as many networked computers as possible.

  • They receive $30 to $50 per student.

    AASL’s survey did not collect information on student test scores or other measures of achievement, so there is no way to correlate these data with their affect on school performance. But other research suggests that libraries sharing these characteristics can have a significant impact on student achievement.

    For example, students in Colorado schools with well-staffed libraries performed better on the reading portions of the Colorado Student Assessment Program than their counterparts in schools without well-staffed libraries–68.5 percent versus 57.5 percent. In Florida, high schools whose library media programs were staffed at least 60 hours per week had test scores that were 22 percent higher than those staffed fewer than 60 hours per week. And New Mexico middle schools with the highest language-arts scores were twice as likely as the lowest-scoring schools to provide access to licensed databases via a school library network.

    AASL will repeat its survey in future years to provide longitudinal data about what makes a high-quality library media center and to track how school LMCs evolve over time.

    “We’re so lucky to have [these] data,” says Johns. “Now, we can try and reach our goals for advocacy … We have something to show now.”


    American Association of School Librarians