Philadelphia students navigate school without access to school libraries

The number of school librarians in Philadelphia has declined over the past decade, from about 57 in the 2012-13 school year to just one in the 2023-24 school year

Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools

By Ella Lathan

In 2020, Egypt Luckey graduated from Building 21, a high school in Northwest Philadelphia affiliated with the Learning Innovative network, which emphasizes real-world learning experiences. For the entirety of her high school career, Luckey never had a public school library available to her – and she thinks it put her at a disadvantage during the transition to college. 

“I never had a library in school where I could actually go, sit and enjoy reading … I am a bookworm. I love reading, writing, anything that has a creative expression,” Luckey said. “Not having that experience kind of set me back a little bit because I had these situations where I needed help but didn’t know what to do in those moments.”

A 2022 study by Rutgers University found that first-year college students who had prior high school research experience, especially those from schools with certified librarians, felt more confident in their academic research skills and performed better in using research tools and strategies, such as information and digital literacy, and the difference between a primary and secondary source of information. 

“Our students need to develop the skills to learn on their own. (They need) the thinking skills to be able to discern information that they can believe, in order to become digital citizens,” Barbara Stripling, cofounder of the Philadelphia Alliance to Restore School Libraries, said. “They need to be taught these skills, they need opportunities to practice them and it needs to become who they are. They need to understand the importance of looking at multiple perspectives.” 

PARSL is a nonprofit organization, staffed by retired educators and librarians, looking to improve academic performance by improving public school libraries in Philadelphia. Earlier this year, the organization produced a white paper that addressed the link between students’ reading abilities and the shortage of librarians, and proposed solutions that involve collaboration with the school district and City Council to secure additional funding.

In the School District of Philadelphia, the number of school librarians has declined over the past decade, from about 57 in the 2012-13 school year to just one in the 2023-24 school year. 

Marissa Orbanek, communications officer for the Philadelphia School District, said that the district does not have enough funds for all the positions that are ultimately needed and desired. 

“We will continue to advocate for adequate and equitable funding for education so that historically underfunded districts, like Philadelphia, have the resources necessary to provide all students with access to the 21st-century learning environments, including libraries and Instructional Media Centers,” Orbanek said.

Inside a Philadelphia classroom

Eric Hitchner, a half-time English teacher and English as a Second Language coordinator for grades 9-12 at Building 21 in Philadelphia, has created a do-it-yourself library in his classroom. Some extra books he had in his car proved a treasure trove for his students, he said. 

“It was like this light bulb moment,” Hitchner said. “There’s a dynamic that when we’re in the middle of a lesson, you’re not going to go to the back and borrow a book; we need that actual dedicated space. So, we started creating one. We don’t have a librarian, (and) we don’t have a budget. We don’t have books – those are all things I had to kind of scrounge.” 

Hitchner has since found donors, and has visited garage sales and thrift shops to find books to stock his DIY library. He added he couldn’t have done it without the help of students like Egypt Luckey. 

“Egypt is one of the amazing students I taught for English and creative writing who volunteered to be a library intern and get the library started all those years ago,” he said. With COVID-19 interrupting her high school career, Luckey wasn’t able to complete the work, he said, adding that “we would have never gotten that far without her help.”

Luckey said she did it because she wanted to be a part of something bigger than just Building 21. 

“We had so many ideas and things we wanted to do … talking about the lack of libraries in a lot of the public high schools and public schools in general just excites me,” Luckey said. She’s hopeful that her efforts might inspire others to do the same at other schools.

Other districts around the nation have rebuilt and restored their public school library programs. Former Superintendent of Boston Public Schools Brenda Cassellius worked in the district for three years to restore its libraries. School librarians do much more than just help children check out books, she noted; they’re media technology specialists, and they provide social service support for families who may not have internet at home.

“The library is the hub of learning in a school environment, and certified librarians know how to curate that learning experience and also offer their expertise to curriculum development, materials and resourcing to teachers,” Cassellius said. “They’re just an absolute glue to the learning experience that children have.” 

Ella Lathan is a correspondent for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story originally appeared.