Freedom to Read? Part Four: Certified Librarians Becoming Scarcer in School Libraries

Editor’s note: This article is the fourth in a series about State Superintendent Ryan Walters and the erosion of intellectual freedom in Oklahoma’s public-school libraries. Since taking office, Walters has called on lawmakers to remove books from school libraries, instituted book-banning rules, shunned the American Library Association, and recommended deregulating over 200 districts from state library staffing standards.

February 14, 2024

Since 2021, hundreds of Oklahoma school districts have been granted deregulation from state accreditation standards regarding certified school librarian staffing. The exemption of these districts from state law allows public-school libraries, mostly rural, to be operated by teachers, paraprofessionals, and administrators who are not certified librarians. The number of school librarians in the U.S. decreased from 52,545 in 2009 to 42,279 in 2019—a 19.5 percent drop, said ALA past president Patricia Wong in an article published in American Libraries, a publication of the ALA. “Strong school libraries and certified school librarians play an essential role in student learning. And for decades, school librarians, teachers, parents, and students have advocated their importance to school board members, as well as to local, state, and national lawmakers. Nevertheless, positions for school librarians have declined,” Wong said.

Each year, Oklahoma school sites which cannot meet current library staffing standards may apply for deregulation from those standards, subject to approval by OSDE. In 2023, a total of 202 out of 509 state districts have asked for deregulation, according to Oklahoma State Board of Education meeting minutes. In all, 114 of those were three-year requests, and eighty-eight were one-year requests. In 2022, 146 one-year requests and sixteen three-year requests were granted. In 2021, eighty-one one-year requests and forty-three three-year requests were granted.

OSDE accreditation standards dictate that school library staffing requirements are determined by the number of students enrolled. For example, a high school with less than 300 students must have at least a half-time certified librarian, while a high school with more than 1,500 students must have at least two full-time certified librarians. Various staffing levels exist between these examples. Schools that employ staff who are currently working toward their Master of Library Information Science (MLIS) degree may be exempted from the standards. The school library standards were last updated for the 2017-18 school year.

A lack of certified librarian candidates and budgetary constraints were the two most often given reasons for seeking deregulation, an analysis of such requests from 2023 state school board agenda packets revealed.

Agra Public Schools requested deregulation in September for its elementary, junior high, and high school sites. In its written request, the district said it had been unable to find a certified librarian, and to hire one would mean laying off its reading coach. “Generally speaking, when we as administrators ask the certified librarians to work with students as an extra reading tutor it is not well received,” Agra Superintendent Jeff Kelly said in an email to Kirkpatrick Policy Group. “The money we save can be spent on a reading specialist/interventionist and/or paraprofessionals who are hired specifically to assist students with reading.”

Ponca City’s Garfield Elementary School applied for a one-year deregulation in September “due to a lack of personnel and potential cost savings.” When Berryhill Public Schools Superintendent Mark Batt requested a three-year deregulation in September, he noted that “even with the slight increase in funding this year, Berryhill Schools continues to function on a very tight budget and with a staffing deficit. These obstacles present a continuing need to place the restoration of classroom teaching positions ahead of filling the library media positions.”

Schools not meeting the standards might supplement library staff with non-certified aides, teachers, and support staff – or employ one certified librarian to cover multiple sites – to keep their libraries open, leaving some libraries stocked with aging books and outdated materials.

School librarians a necessary part of public education

According to the American Association of School Librarians, a division of the ALA, “every learner in every school, including private schools and public charter schools, should have access to an updated school library with a full-time, certified school librarian.”

“The success of a school library, no matter how well designed, ultimately depends on the quality and number of personnel responsible for managing the instructional program and the school library’s physical and virtual resources,” a policy statement on appropriate staffing for school libraries published on the AASL website says. “A full-time certified school librarian, supported by dedicated technical and clerical staff, is crucial to an effective school library for a school’s learning environment. Every learner, classroom educator, and administrator in every school building at every grade level should have access to a fully staffed school library throughout the school day.”

Besides being the mere keepers of books, school librarians ensure access to high-quality, diverse books for all students, says the International Literacy Association, a professional organization that connects research and practice to improve the quality of literacy instruction around the world.

School librarians have many roles, the ILA says, including:

·      Curating culturally relevant materials;

·      Supporting students with various learning needs;

·      Stocking their libraries with a variety of texts and genres that address current social issues, and;

·       Helping students learn to be responsible with digital and online media.

“Qualitative research provides valuable insights on how school librarians draw upon their skills and knowledge to enhance student literacy learning, particularly for those falling behind in reading attainment,” the ILA wrote in its 2022 report, “The Essential Leadership of School Librarians.”

In two weeks, our series will conclude with Part Five, an op-ed looking at the larger picture of what’s really happening at OSDE under State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters.


Kirkpatrick Policy Group is a non-partisan, independent, 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization established in 2017 to identify, support, and advocate for positions on issues affecting all Oklahomans, including concern for the arts and arts education, animals, women’s reproductive health, and protecting the state’s initiative and referendum process. Improving the quality of life for Oklahomans is KPG’s primary vision, seeking to accomplish this through its values of collaboration, respect, education, and stewardship.