Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

Public and School Libraries in Decline: When We Need Them

Publication Date: 2011-09-21

This important commentary by NCTE President Yvonne Siu-Runyan is from the NCTE Chronicle, Sept. 2011

Libraries are not antiquated and are vital for communities
and schools! An informed citizenry is the foundation
of a democratic society.

Children use libraries.

Surveys done in the United States and the United Kingdom
show that children get a surprisingly large percentage
of their books from libraries. When asked where they
got the book they were reading now, between 30 percent
and 99 percent of the children interviewed mentioned
some kind of library.1

The school library is especially important as a source
of books. A survey of 40,000 teachers conducted by
Scholastic, Inc., and the Gates Foundation2 included the
following question: "Where do your students get books
for their independent reading most often? Select all that
apply." The school library was the clear winner. According
to the teachers, 83 percent of all students said they
got books from the school library, compared to 38 percent
from public libraries and 20 percent from retailers.
For high school students, 80 percent got books from the
school library, compared to 46 percent from public libraries
and 35 percent from retailers.

Adults use libraries.

According to the January 2011 Harris Poll of over 1000
adults,3 an astounding 58 percent said that they had a
library card, and 62 percent said they had visited a public
library in person during the last year; 23 percent had visited
the library more than ten times. Nearly all of those
interviewed (94 percent) agreed with this statement: "Because
it provides free access to materials and resources,
the public library plays an important role in giving everyone
a chance to succeed," and 79 percent agreed that "my
public library deserves more funding."

Better libraries mean better reading.

Studies show that higher quality school and public
libraries correlate with higher scores on reading tests
done at the US state level,4 at the national level,5 and at
the international level.6 Aspects of school library quality
relate to reading achievement include the size of the
collection, the presence of a credentialed librarian, and
overall staffing.7

All this makes sense. There is consistent evidence
showing that when children have access to books, they
read them, and when they read a lot, all aspects of literacy

High levels of poverty mean little access to

Study after study reveals that children of poverty have
very little access to books at home and in their communitiesâ€"
fewer bookstores and fewer, less well-stocked
public libraries that are open fewer hours.9 Tragically,
school is not helping. Schools in high-poverty areas have
inferior school libraries and inferior classroom libraries.10
Children of poverty are blocked from access to books everywhere
in their lives. Lack of access to books is a major
reason why children of poverty consistently do poorly on
reading tests.

Access to books appears to offset the
impact of poverty.

A number of studies have appeared in the last few years
indicating that access to books not only has a positive
effect on reading achievement, but also that the positive
impact of access is as large as the negative impact of
poverty.11 This suggests that a good library can offset the
effects of poverty on reading achievement.

Public library funding has declined.

In the years 2008â€"2010, more than half the states that
responded to a survey from the American Library Association
reported a decrease in funding.12 A Library Journal
survey published in January 2011 revealed similar findings.
In cities with populations above one million, 86 percent of
public librarians responding reported budget cuts.13

School library funding has declined.

The American Library Association reported that school
library funding is declining and the decline is more severe
in places where school libraries are needed the mostâ€"in
high-poverty areas. Overall, school expenditures on information
resources from 2009 to 2010 decreased 9.4 percent,
but in high-poverty areas, the decrease was 25 percent.14

The results of this decrease have been felt in books and
periodicals collection sizes. The overall decline in number
of books was 2.6 percent, but in high poverty areas it was
4 percent.15 The overall decline in periodical subscriptions
was 11 percent, but in high poverty areas it was 22 percent.16

The US Department of Education recently eliminated
the Literacy through School Libraries grant, which provides
about $20 million per year to school libraries in high
poverty areas.17

Why we still need books and libraries

Only a small percentage of information contained in print is
on the Internet18. The Web is not a substitute for libraries.

A popular argument these days is that computers and
the Internet will eliminate the need for traditional libraries
filled with books and magazines. But for “Kindle-ization”
to take over libraries, or even be a significant threat, the
costs must go down enormously. E-book readers such as
the Kindle cost at least $100, and individual e-books cost
around $10.

The high cost of e-readers and e-books makes it difficult
for libraries to lend them out. At this time, only 6 percent
of school libraries circulate books on e-book readers,
and one publisher (HarperCollins) has announced limits
on how many times an e-book can be checked out from
a library.19 E-book ownership is much higher among the
affluent. According to a recent report, 12 percent of those
earning $75,000 or more owned e-books, but only 3 percent
of those earning less than $30,000 did.20


All of language education is in crisis because of the decline
of libraries. We now know that libraries are utilized,
that they contribute powerfully to literacy development,
and have the potential of closing the gap between children
from high and low-income families in reading achievement.

Yet library funding is declining, and the situation is the
most serious in high-poverty areas. Library funding should
be expanded, not cut.

Democratic societies need libraries.21

The time has come for organizations such as NCTE
to campaign vigorously to strengthen public and school

1. Krashen, S. (2004). Chapter 2 in The power of reading
(Libraries Unlimited, Heinemann).
2. "Primary Sources: America's Teachers on America's
Schools.” http://www.scholastic.com/primarysources/
download.asp (March, 2010).
3. Harris Poll Quorum. (January 26, 2011). Created for the
American Library Association. Presented by Harris Interactive.
4. See, e.g., work by Keith Curry Lance and associates,
5. McQuillan, J. (1998). The literacy crisis: False claims and
real solutions. Heinemann.
6. Krashen, S., Lee, Sy, McQuillan, J. (2010). An analysis of
the PIRLS (2006) data: Can the school library reduce the
effect of poverty on reading achievement? CSLA Journal
(California Association for School Librarians), 34.
7. Keith Curry Lance, op cit.
8. Krashen, op cit.
9. A good example is Neuman, S., and Celano, D. (2001).
Access to print in low-income and middle-income communities.
Reading Research Quarterly, 36(1): 8-26.
10. Ibid.
11. Krashen, S. (2011). Protecting students against the effects
of poverty: Libraries. New England Reading Association
Journal 46 (2): 17-21.
12. American Library Association (2010). The state of America's
libraries. American Libraries (Special Issue).
13. Kelley, M. (2010). Budget survey: Bottoming out? Library
Journal. http://www.libraryjournal.com/lj/home/888434264/
14. American Library Association, op cit.
15. American Association of School Librarians. (2010).
Libraries count! National longitudinal survey of school
library programs. American Library Association.
16. American Library Association, op cit.
17. Whelen, D. (2011). DOE zeroes out Improving Literacy
Through Libraries program. School Library Journal. http://
18. American Library Association, op cit, p. 18.
19. Herring, M.Y. (2001). 10 reasons why the Internet is no
substitute for a library. American Library Association.
20. Jansen, J. (2010). Use of the Internet in higher-income
households. Pew Research Center. http://pewinternet.
21. Kranisch, N., Ed. (2001). Libraries & libraries: The cornerstone
of liberty. American Library Association.

Note: I thank Stephen Krashen for his helpful discussion
regarding the research on libraries, and my husband, Daniel
Runyan, for his editorial suggestions.

Yvonne Siu-Runyan is NCTE President and professor emerita
from the University of Northern Colorado. She can be reached at

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.