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Wednesday, September 12, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Key to literacy, librarians now "highly endangered"

Times Snohomish County Bureau

When Monroe High School librarian Lorraine Monprode took her first job, she was checking out filmstrips and cassette tape players. She knew when a class report on World War I was due because a clutch of students fought over the same volume of the encyclopedia.

Flash forward about 25 years. Monprode guides students researching World War I bunkers to online resources that include video tours of actual bunkers, audio recollections of soldiers who fought in the war, and hyperlinks to other electronic sources, all at the same time a classmate on another library computer searches the same materials.

In the age of information overload, librarians say their skills at finding authoritative and accurate sources and helping students think critically about what they read are more important than ever. But some districts around the state, including Darrington and Granite Falls, have cut librarian positions to balance their budgets.

"The reality is that some districts and principals try to get test scores up by spending more time on test-taking and less time on open-ended projects, what we call discovery learning," said Marianne Hunter, president of the Washington Library Media Association and a high-school librarian in Lacey, Thurston County.

An American Library Association task force last year called school librarians "highly endangered." The task force said laying all accountability for school success on reading and math scores denies the instructional value of libraries and the teaching role of librarians.

"We know the research shows that students who go to schools with strong library programs do better on state tests," Hunter said. "The general trend, unfortunately, is toward cutting."

Last year, the Darrington School District cut two librarians. This year, Granite Falls cut 1.5 librarians, leaving 1.5 to staff its four schools. Monroe didn't replace one retiring librarian, so some librarians now travel between schools. Marysville cut one elementary-school librarian. Around the state, Federal Way schools cut 20 librarians, and the Spokane School District made 10 elementary-school librarian positions half-time.

So far, most Snohomish County school districts have preserved their librarians. Edmonds, Everett, Lake Stevens, Mukilteo, Stanwood-Camano and Sultan all have full-time, certificated teacher librarians in all but some alternative schools. In Arlington, one librarian divides her time between two middle schools and a small, rural school has a part-time librarian. Snohomish has part-time librarians only at two small elementary schools.

And some small districts which once relied partly on library aides have made adding professional librarians a priority.

"Our librarians have become central to our literacy efforts," said Lakewood superintendent Larry François. "They support the classroom teachers and reading instructors. They get texts at the right reading level and interest area into the hands of individual students."

But he said at budget-cutting time, librarians and counselors are vulnerable.

"When your back is against the wall and you're trying to keep reductions out of the classroom, those are the positions you turn to," François said.

Monroe officials say district libraries are crucial for teaching students research and critical-thinking skills. The district last year adopted an information-literacy curriculum called Big 6 developed by the University of Washington.

Under the program, librarians are trained on how to work with teachers and students to define a research question, gather relevant information, synthesize their findings and evaluate its accuracy and usefulness.

"Less than 10 percent of information on the Internet is educational and authoritative," said Monroe's Monprode, who is also library program coordinator for the district. "Do you really want to go through 3.4 million hits on Google?"

At Edmonds-Woodway High School, librarian Becky Endlich said teenagers who have grown up with computers may seem sophisticated in their use of technology, but critical-thinking skills still have to be taught.

"Their mental processes are still being built. They still need help in selecting resources; they still need someone to talk it over with and guide their thinking," she said.

And while electronic-reference works and databases are now available to school libraries, they're expensive and must be updated every year, librarians say.

Washington is one of the few states that doesn't fund school libraries; instead, they are supported by local levy dollars. Monroe spends about $4.80 annually per pupil; that hasn't changed in the past five years.

"The cost of books and subscriptions have dramatically increased, so we know this funding is not enough," said Monroe's Fran Mester, assistant superintendent for instruction.

Today's school library and media center also provides students access via computer when the school building is closed. Students typically log on to a library site and can use all of the databases and electronic books from home.

For students who don't have computers at home, time in the library and help from librarians can help bridge the technology gap, Mester said.

Mike Eisenberg, dean emeritus of the UW Information School (formerly the Graduate School of Library and Information Science), said that interviews with incoming freshman and outgoing seniors at the UW show that what students most value about their education isn't the content of a particular class but rather the life skills of problem-solving and critical thinking, the same skills librarians are trained to develop and promote.

"Librarians are reading advocates. They're book pushers. Isn't that what we want for our schools?"

Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or lthompson@seattletimes.com

Information in this story, originally published on September 12, 2007, was corrected on September 15, 2007. In the Arlington School District, one librarian divides her time between two middle schools, and Trafton Elementary School has a part-time librarian. An article last Wednesday (Sept. 12) about cuts in school librarian positions in the county contained incorrect information supplied by the district that said all Arlington schools had full-time librarians.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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