Testimony of Alithia Rodriguez-Rolon, Director of Legislation, New York State United Teachers, to the Assembly Committee on Libraries and Education Technology , Kimberly Jean-Pierre, Chair, on the future of New York State’s libraries. December 15, 2022.
Chairperson Jean-Pierre, honorable members of the Legislature and distinguished staff, I am Alithia Rodriguez-Rolon, Director of Legislation for New York State United Teachers.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify on the future of New York state’s libraries. NYSUT represents a number of public libraries around the state. Each year NYSUT advocates for full funding of the state’s commitment to libraries, as well as increased capital funding for public libraries so they may grow, expand and adapt to meet the needs of their local communities. My testimony today will focus primarily on school libraries and library media specialists — or school librarians, as they are commonly referred to — and their importance to our students and to healthy school communities.
The role of public and school libraries in our state is more important as we move forward into a new future, as education and communities work to re-work themselves and workers re-define their workplaces and find their voice and unionize.
Certified library media specialists assist with technology, language and reading skills. These skills are often critically important in a world where news is often obtained from non-traditional sources such as Facebook, Twitter, websites, as well as traditional media like newspapers and network news.
Combined with the ever-increasing threat of misinformation and news manufactured by bad actors, library media specialists assist students in retrieving, analyzing and evaluating background and reference materials as they learn to think critically and independently.
Currently, state law does not require a certified library media specialist to be in each elementary and secondary school in New York state. NYSUT supports S.53 (Kaplan)/A.5055 (Solages), a bill that would require each school building to employ a certified library media specialist and provide flexibility of staffing depending on the size of the student population, the financial health of the district and the availability of certified school librarians.
If you allow me, I would like to use this metaphor. All medical doctors go to medical school and then a residency, they will tell you that there are typically 206 bones in the human body. When you are going to have your knee replaced, though, you do not go to an ear, nose and throat specialist — you seek out an orthopedic doctor. The same goes with educators who have chosen to become certified library media specialists, rather than an English or science educator. Over time, school districts have cut, not replaced, or have attempted to put a teacher assistance or someone not certified as a library media specialist into that position. Some districts have even gotten rid of their school libraries entirely. In the New York Statistical Yearbook, a database published by the Rockefeller Institute for Government, noted that in 2013, New York State had 7,647 professional staff working in public school libraries. By 2016, the last year that data is available, that number had fallen to 4,765 and, as NYSUT has testified many times before, the decrease in admissions in candidates entering educator preparation courses, along with attacks on educators, compounded with COVID-related stressors and retirements have led to an even sharper decline in the amount of library media specialists entering the profession. This number does not include clerks or secretarial staff.
Candidates wishing to becoming library media specialists have also declined over the past several years, along with the rest of the teaching profession and we look forward to working with you, madame chair and the chair of the Assembly Education Committee to address this and the larger educator shortage.
NYSUT firmly believes that the important work of a school librarian, from media and digital literacy to being able to identify and critically evaluate source materials, be taught by someone who studied and is certified in that field. We also support those educators who wish to gain a dual certification in the school library sciences. A school library must be staffed by someone who is competent and professionally trained to select and acquire the proper resources and age and developmentally appropriate materials for the students in the school community and professionally astute enough to assist individual students as they learn and grow using their school library resources.
Professionally trained certified library media specialists who are part of their school community play a critical role in the current environment. Our school librarians are facing the largest number of book challenges in recent memory. Most of these book challenges are coordinated by national and state special interests, employing form letters, generating lists of books to be pulled and attempting to limit what types of stories and information are available to students in school libraries. NYSUT’s library media specialists have found over time that these book challenges attempt to limit, restrict and censor women authors, authors of color, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender authors, indigenous authors and bilingual books. Our certified library media specialists are professionals who provide age and developmentally appropriate library materials to students in their schools.
Having a certified library media specialist in every school building to ensure that students have access to a wide array of stories, authors, viewpoints, languages, histories and accessibility levels is what students require, not censorship and limiting knowledge. NYSUT fully supports the freedom to learn, the freedom to read and the freedom to teach.
Lastly, I would like to discuss the issue of funding, specifically Instructional Materials Aids, which is an expense-based aid that has not been adjusted to reflect increased costs or inflation, for many years. Instructional Materials Aids includes textbook, computer hardware and software and library materials aids. Library Materials Aid increased at a steady pace in the early 1990s, topping out at $6.00 per pupil in 1998. In 2007, it was increased to $6.25 per pupil.
Dara Berkwits, a library media specialist in the Mahopac High School in Mahopac, New York and a member of NYSUT’s Library Media Specialist Subject Area Committee said, “It is becoming increasingly more difficult to serve our populations with the print rich materials our students so desperately need. Quality collections should be continuously analyzed, books removed and added and supplemented to meet the needs of the students who utilize them. Unfortunately, many school library collections, where they exist are not being analyzed and having additions and removals as they should due to a lack of sufficient funding to replace materials and add to collections. As a result, school library collections may become outdated and have old, inaccurate information. This does the exact opposite of what we aim to do for our students. Our students deserve accurate information along with quality pleasure reading materials.”
When schools switched to remote learning in March of 2020, due to COVID-19, many library materials went home “for two weeks.” Across the state, many of these materials never made it back into our school libraries and are considered “unrecoverable.” The current reimbursement rate of $6.25 per student is making it nearly impossible for our school librarians to both replace items from their collections that left due to COVID-19 and provide new, updated resources and materials that will help their students achieve. NYSUT is in full support of the New York State Board of Regents’ December 2022 aid proposal seeking an increase in Library Materials Aid from $6.25 to $10.55 per pupil. This would go a long way in helping to replenish, grow and broaden the resources available in our school libraries.
Thank you for being a passionate champion for our library media specialists and our school libraries and for the freedom to read. Our students must have access to certified school librarians who provide the professional guidance to ensure that age and developmentally appropriate materials of all kinds are available. School libraries and school librarians must be available to rural, urban and suburban students, to help instill a lifelong love and reading and literature. We must ensure that our school and public libraries remain beacons of information, available to everyone who seeks to broaden their understanding through the pursuit of knowledge.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today.