In 2010, Whittier Elementary parents staged a 43-day sit-in to prevent CPS from demolishing the school field house, where they had created a school and community library. Three years later, CPS bulldozed the building, which was in ill repair. Credit: Catalyst file photo


School libraries in Chicago Public Schools have been struggling for decades. The district hasn’t had a central budget line dedicated to libraries since 1991. The central office department that oversaw school libraries was dismantled that year and not rebuilt until 1996. Though CPS restored central oversight of school libraries, it never restored central funding, forcing schools to use discretionary funds to maintain them.

In 2002, the district surveyed its school library collections and found that 71 percent were in bad shape, with ratings of fair, poor or nonexistent. Only 50 schools — 9 percent of the 576 schools surveyed — had “exemplary” or “excellent” collections.

By the mid-2000s, the district was allocating a staff position that could be split between a part-time physical education teacher and a part-time librarian. The district was also offering mini matching grants of up to $5,000 to schools that were spending at least that much of their own money on libraries. In 2006, about 200 schools received a total of $850,000 in district matching grants, Paul Whitsitt, then CPS director of libraries, told Catalyst.

Principals had final say over how much to invest in a library, if anything.

See “Better off schools to get more Title I, poorest will receive less,” Catalyst April 2005 and “Too few top-notch libraries,” Catalyst July 2005


Meanwhile, the number of librarians in CPS is dwindling. In 2012, the district budgeted staff positions for 454 librarians. By 2014, that number was down to 254.

Periodically, the school library issue reaches a school-level crisis that highlights the systemic problem. In 2010, Whittier Elementary parents staged a 43-day sit in to prevent CPS from demolishing the school field house, where they had built a library for both school and community use. Though the parents stopped the 2010 demolition, three years later CPS took down the building, which was in ill repair.

Last week, students from the three high schools on the DuSable Campus staged a read-in to protest the impending layoff of school librarian Sara Sayigh and the resulting closure of the campus library.

According to a new study by the Chicago Teachers Union, released this past week, racial gaps in access to library services in high schools have widened considerably over just the last two years. In 2012, more than 40 percent of high schools with a majority of African-American students had librarians on staff, compared with 25 percent of such schools today. Other high schools also took a hit on library staff, but the drop was not as steep.

This year, for the first time, school librarians were given formal representation on the CTU negotiation committee.

See “Parent group decries demolition of Whittier field house,” Catalyst August 2013 and “Losing school librarians in Chicago Public Schools,” WBEZ July 2014


Given the district’s dire financial straits, the prognosis for libraries is bleak.

The advent of student-based budgeting has only aggravated the Hobson’s choice that schools face.  Without a dedicated librarian position, principals and local school councils must decide whether to pay for a librarian or some other position from their lump-sum budgets. At the same time, the district has adopted new requirements for daily physical education and more arts instruction, which also draw on lump-sum budgets.

Yet some schools still manage to maintain a staffed library.

Morrill Elementary in the Gage Park neighborhood, is using a federal grant for a library makeover that includes state-of-the-art Macs and new furniture for flexible grouping. This month, librarian Jennifer Gladkowski will be giving every Morrill student a book to take home, thanks to a successful Amazon-based book drive that brought in $8,000 worth of books.

See “Budget critics air laundry list of school cuts,” Catalyst July 2015 and “How important are libraries in elementary schools?” (podcast) WBEZ January 2015

Freelancer Maureen Kelleher's work has appeared in Education Week and the Harvard Education Letter. She was an associate editor with Catalyst Chicago from 1998-2006.

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