Center for American Progress

Investing in School Libraries and Librarians To Improve Literacy Outcomes

Investing in School Libraries and Librarians To Improve Literacy Outcomes

Libraries and librarians not only spark a love of learning; they are crucial to reversing low reading assessment scores across the country.

In this article
Library bookshelves are pictured.
Library bookshelves are pictured in the media center of a Stamford, Connecticut, elementary school on August 31, 2020. (Getty/John Moore)

Since a shocking plunge in math and reading scores on the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), educators, administrators, and policymakers have grappled with how to address learning challenges following the pandemic.1 One factor that has largely escaped notice, however, is the role school libraries and librarians play in academic performance. School libraries are too often treated as a luxury rather than an essential part of the public education system with a proven impact on learning. It is time to turn around years of disinvestment in school libraries and librarians, taking steps to measure and report school library quality within holistic systems of accountability that can reflect the resources—or lack thereof—that underpin student outcomes and thus test scores.

More than 50 years of research across more than 60 studies show that students with access to well-resourced school libraries with certified librarians consistently perform better academically and score higher on standardized assessments.2 While underserved students see even bigger gains from robust library services, they are less likely to have access to these resources. Meanwhile, information literacy is becoming increasingly important in an age of misinformation and disinformation. Yet since 2000, there has been a nearly 20 percent drop in school librarian positions, which translates to 10,000 fewer full-time school librarians across the country.3 While more than 90 percent of schools in the United States have school libraries, only about 60 percent have full-time librarians, according to a 2019 report from the American Library Association (ALA).4

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Likely the most extreme example to date of this disregard for libraries came last fall when the state-controlled Houston Independent School District (HISD) shuttered 28 school libraries and laid off their librarians.5 The former libraries were repurposed as “team centers,”6 where, among other uses, students experiencing behavioral issues could watch their lessons virtually.7 Meanwhile, book bans and gag orders on topics such as race, LGBTQ+ themes, and other identity-related subjects have limited librarians’ abilities to do their jobs and students’ access to important material.8

Educators, administrators, and policymakers have increasingly recognized that test scores do not exist in a vacuum; they are often influenced by school environmental factors. Some states have established more holistic systems of accountability to better capture this picture—an approach well-suited for helping to shine a spotlight on the importance of school libraries.

This issue brief offers an overview of the role and impact of school libraries, followed by recommendations to increase school library funding at the local, state, and federal levels as well as to require the presence of a full-time librarian in every school. The brief also looks at mechanisms to collect and report data on school library resources as holistic measures of accountability.

The role of school libraries and librarians

The American Association of School Librarians (AASL), a division of the ALA, developed standards for effective school libraries to fulfill their role supporting college, career, and community readiness.9 These standards include a full-time state-certified school librarian, up-to-date print and digital materials, and frequent professional development and collaboration opportunities between classroom teachers and the school librarian. While states have varying standards for school librarian certification, many require a bachelor’s or master’s degree, a teaching license, and a passing score on a designated state exam.

Beyond promoting strong reading habits or serving as a quiet place for students to study,10 school libraries build research skills and digital literacy.11 They also offer many students their first experience with civics. Engaging in community service projects, encouraging fact-checking, and teaching students how to detect misinformation are just a few of the ways that school libraries promote civic literacy.12

These benefits are primarily set in motion by the school librarian. Over time, there have been efforts to move away from thinking about the school librarian’s role as simply a “keeper of books” and view them as more of a “chief information officer,” to fully capture their responsibilities in a school ecosystem.13 While books certainly play a role in a school library, school librarians ignite the sparks of interest in reading within their students by making students feel included through their library collections, helping increase reading stamina, and encouraging students to explore new genres.14 This is especially important because reading for pleasure has been shown to contribute to improved literacy outcomes.15

Data on the impact of school libraries

For decades, studies have shown a positive correlation between strong school library programs and student achievement.16 These measures of student achievement include, but are not limited to, increased standardized test scores17 in both reading and math,18 higher graduation rates,19 and academic mastery.20 Newer studies have also corroborated the link between strong school libraries and measures of student achievement.21 These findings persist even when controlling for socioeconomic status.22

More than 50 years of research across more than 60 studies show that students with access to well-resourced school libraries with certified librarians consistently perform better academically.

Diverse library materials are also essential to student achievement. State-by-state data released in 2007 from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) showed a significant correlation between NAEP reading scores and public libraries’ circulation of children’s reading materials available in their catalogs, in other words, the amount of books accessible for checkout.23 Similarly, research has historically demonstrated that a quality school library book collection is a strong predictor of student achievement.24 Time after time, the evidence has indicated that access to print reading material helps drive improved literacy outcomes.25 School libraries can increase access to reading materials, though their impact reaches beyond the books that line their shelves.

The school librarian effect

To truly invest in student literacy, it is necessary to treat librarians as indispensable staff members. In one study, when a full-time certified librarian was present, about 8 percent more students saw advanced reading scores in the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment.26 And this number rose to almost 9 percent when part-time support staff were added to support the full-time librarian. Meanwhile, the absence of school librarians has been shown to negatively affect student achievement.27 Indeed, a nationwide study using NCES and NAEP scores found that losses of school librarians are associated with decreases or lack of substantial increases in scores.28

Student populations seeing the greatest impacts

Although school libraries are advantageous to all students, vulnerable populations of students see even greater benefits. Reading data from the PA School Library Project showed that where schools had full-time certified school librarians, fewer Black students, Latino students, and students with disabilities tested below basic levels in reading—at 5.5 percent, 5.2 percent, and 4.6 percent, respectively.29 The same study showed that, on average, Black and Latino students who had access to larger school library collections saw their percentages of advanced writing scores more than double and their likelihood of scoring below basic levels cut in half, compared with their peers in schools with smaller collections.30 While it is important to examine the positive impact of the presence of school librarians, the negative impacts of their absence must also be taken into consideration. For instance, where states lost librarians between testing cycles, average NAEP scores for English-language learner (ELL) students decreased by about 3 percent.31

Limiting, defunding, or imposing unnecessary bureaucratic challenges on school library programs—as book bans have done in recent years—risks taking away these academic benefits, particularly for students residing in high-poverty32 and racially diverse communities, who already have reduced access to school library services.33

How holistic accountability can help advance school library quality

School-based indicators are measurable conditions that take place in classrooms or school buildings.34 These indicators can help national and state leaders better understand whether schools are working effectively on a local level to advance national education goals. States and districts also use these measures to better understand school-level needs and address them using evidence-based interventions.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to gather data on at least one school-based accountability indicator in its “Opportunity Dashboard.” But some states have embraced holistic accountability more fully. For example, in its Next Generation Accountability Dashboard, Connecticut has been measuring several variables, including chronic absenteeism, college and career readiness, and arts access since 2016.35 Over that time, the state has seen a major bump in students taking college and career readiness courses, such as Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), Career and Technical Education (CTE), or dual enrollment, as well as a small improvement in arts access.36 Chronic absenteeism, which has skyrocketed nationally in the wake of the pandemic,37 went up, although it dropped 5.5 percent for students with high needs in Connecticut in the most recent year available.38

Documenting holistic accountability measures alone is not a panacea for all of the struggles schools experience. For one thing, it is necessary to grapple with the results and take action when needed. But Connecticut’s results thus far suggest that it can be a helpful way for leaders to take a more nuanced look at what is happening in schools.

Policy recommendations

1. Increase funding for school libraries

Some school libraries receive direct funding from the state, while others receive their funding from the district or from the budget of the school they serve.39 Regardless of the available funding sources, school libraries tend to fall victim to budget cuts40 or, in the case of underresourced schools, a lack of overall funding.41 A 2021 survey by the School Library Journal reported that 15 percent of school librarians said they did not have access to funding to purchase new materials during the 2020-21 school year.42 In order for school libraries to be considered effective, funding streams should, at minimum, cover basic requirements, including:

  • A full-time state-certified school librarian
  • Up-to-date physical and digital materials, including, but not limited to, current books of interest and research databases
  • Professional development and collaborative opportunities for school librarians

The Right to Read Act

The Right to Read Act43 was introduced in April 2023 by Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) and Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) to increase access to effective school libraries, especially in underserved communities, and to combat censorship.44 The bill proposes to reauthorize and boost funding for both the Comprehensive Literacy State Development Grants program at $500 million and the Innovative Approach to Literacy program—the primary federal source of school library funding—at $100 million.45 Previously, the Comprehensive Literacy State Development Grants program was funded at $194 million for fiscal year 2023 and the Innovative Approach to Literacy Program was funded at $30 million in 2023.46 In addition to providing increased funding for school libraries, the act would codify official school library definitions in order to improve data collection standards.

This bill is a step in the right direction to expand federal investments in school libraries, but it is not a replacement for state and local funding. Given that the majority of school library funding is concentrated at the state and local level, state and local policymakers need to increase funding levels for school libraries in order to ensure that all students have access to a well-resourced library and certified librarian.47

2. Require the presence of school librarians

Some states, such as Maryland and Nebraska, require school districts to have certified school librarians at all of their schools.48 Data show that states employ more school librarians when they have school librarian mandates.49 Codifying the importance of school librarians, and ensuring that adequate funding is provided to staff their positions, would encourage more schools and districts to employ certified school librarians and thus increase the impact of their school libraries. To maximize their impact, policymakers should also ensure that their state mandates include the full-time presence of certified school librarians.

3. Require federal school library data updates with appropriate definitions

Currently, NCES uses an outdated definition of who qualifies as a school librarian that has the potential to negatively affect data accuracy.50 This has created situations where schools or districts report having a school librarian, but they actually just have a noncertified school staff member running the library. NCES should update its definition to clarify that a librarian must be state-certified.

There is also a need for survey data measuring librarians’ views on how their work is supported, offering additional perspective to what federal and state statistics can convey. Between 2007 and 2012, the AASL published a series of national longitudinal school library surveys titled “School Libraries Count!”.51 These surveys are an example of thorough, national school-library data collection that provides information on the number of hours school librarians have spent collaborating with teachers, the number of books available for checkout, and the number of class visits to the library per week, among many other relevant variables.52

4. Include school libraries as school-based indicators in state accountability plans

While having access to a qualified school librarian or media specialist can serve as a school-based indicator in ESSA’s Opportunity Dashboard, it is seldomly used. Michigan, however, has incorporated school librarian data as an accountability measure in its dashboard.53 This has allowed the state to acquire data on student access to school librarians and set workable goals for future school years.54

To better assess how school libraries serve their students and create actionable, measurable plans for improvement, more states should include school libraries and librarians as Opportunity Dashboard indicators. States should also include additional school library indicators that speak to resource availability and services, including, but not limited to, quantifying the number of books available for checkout, research database subscriptions, and instances of library lessons that are directly related to what students are doing in their classrooms. By including these indicators, states would be better equipped to provide interventions that address any disparities that surface in the data.

See also


School libraries, and the librarians that run them, offer a haven for students to establish or regain their passion for reading, study in a quiet environment, improve their digital literacy, enhance their research skills, and, in the process, improve in core academic skills. It is time to recognize their crucial role in educating strong and civically engaged students by investing in them and including them in systems of holistic accountability.

The author would like to thank Marcella Bombardieri and Paige Shoemaker DeMio of the Center for American Progress for their valuable contributions to this issue brief.


  1. The Nation’s Report Card, “NAEP Long-Term Trend Assessment Results: Reading and Mathematics,” available at (last accessed April 2024).
  2. Nijma Esad, “Could School Librarians Be the Secret to Increasing Literacy Scores?” (Riverside, IL: EveryLibrary Institute, 2022), available at
  3. Keith Curry Lance, “School Librarian, Where Art Thou?”, School Library Journal, March 16, 2018, available at
  4. International Literacy Association, “The Essential Leadership of School Librarians” (Newark, DE: 2022), available at
  5. Elizabeth Heubeck, “One of the Country’s Largest Districts Is Turning School Libraries Into Discipline Rooms,” Education Week, August 3, 2023, available at
  6. Ibid.
  7. Francine Prose, “Why is Houston shutting down libraries at some of its poorest public schools?”, The Guardian, August 15, 2023, available at
  8. Akilah Alleyne, “Book Banning, Curriculum Restrictions, and the Politicization of U.S. Schools” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2022), available at
  9. American Association of School Librarians, “Definition of an Effective School Library,” available at (last accessed April 2024).
  10. Wayne D’Orio, “Reading to the Rescue: Educators Use Time-Tested Strategies to Boost Literacy, Scores,” School Library Journal, January 3, 2023, available at
  11. Oakland Literacy Coalition, “The Power of School Libraries: Why Every Student Deserves Access,” February 16, 2023, available at
  12. Kathy Lester, “Civic Engagement in the School Library,” Knowledge Quest 51 (2) (2022): 4–6, available at
  13. Keith Curry Lance and Debra E. Kachel, “Why School Librarians Matter: What Years of Research Tell Us,” Phi Delta Kappan, March 26, 2018, available at
  14. Wayne D’Orio, “Reading to the Rescue: Educators Use Time-Tested Strategies to Boost Literacy, Scores,” School Library Journal, January 3, 2023, available at
  15. Stephen Krashen, “Free Voluntary reading: New Research, Applications, and Controversies” (2004), available at
  16. Lance and Kachel, “Why School Librarians Matter.”
  17. Ibid.
  18. Elizabeth Coker, “Certified Teacher-Librarians, Library Quality and Student Achievement in Washington State Public Schools” (Seattle: Washington Library Media Association, 2015), available at
  19. Lance and Kachel, “Why School Librarians Matter.”
  20. Keith Curry Lance, Bill Schwarz, and Marcia J. Rodney, “How Libraries Transform Schools by Contributing to Student Success: Evidence Linking South Carolina School Libraries and Pass & HSAP Results” (Louisville, CO: RSL Research Group, 2014), available at
  21. Lance and Kachel, “Why School Librarians Matter.”
  22. Ibid.
  23. Keith Curry Lance and Robbie Bravman Marks, “The Link Between Public Libraries and Early Reading Success,” School Library Journal, September 1, 2008, available at
  24. Stephen D. Krashen, “School Libraries, Public Libraries, and the NAEP Reading Scores,” School Library Media Quarterly 23 (4) (1995): 235–237, available at,_pl_and_naep.pdf.
  25. U.S. Department of Education, “Access to Reading Materials,” available at (last accessed April 2024).
  26. Keith Curry Lance and Bill Schwarz, RSL Research Group, “How Pennsylvania School Libraries Pay Off: Investments in Student Achievement and Academic Standards” (PA School Library Project, 2012), available at
  27. Keith Curry Lance and Linda Hofschire, “Something to Shout About: New research shows that more librarians means higher reading scores,” School Library Journal, September 1, 2011, available at
  28. Ibid.
  29. Lance and Schwarz, “How Pennsylvania School Libraries Pay Off: Investments in Student Achievement and Academic Standards.”
  30. Ibid.
  31. Lance and Hofschire, “Something to Shout About.”
  32. Shana Pribesh, Karen Gavigan, and Gail Dickinson, “The Access Gap: Poverty and Characteristics of School Library Media Centers,” Library Quarterly 81 (2) (2011): 143–160, available at
  33. Keith Curry Lance, Debra E. Kachel, and Caitlin Gerrity, “The School Librarian Equity Gap: Inequities Associated with Race and Ethnicity Compounded by Poverty, Locale, and Enrollment,” Peabody Journal of Education 98 (1) (2023): 85–99, available at
  34. Douglas B. Reeves, Holistic Accountability: Serving Students, Schools, and Community (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2002).
  35. CT.GOV, “Next Generation Accountability Dashboard,” available at (last accessed April 2024).
  36. Ibid.
  37. Naaz Modan, “High 2021-22 chronic absenteeism levels persisted last school year,” K-12 Dive, October 12, 2023, available at
  38. CT.GOV, “Next Generation Accountability Dashboard.”
  39. Mark Lieberman, “How School Libraries Buy Books, Struggle for Funds, and Confront Book Bans: An Explainer,” Education Week, February 27, 2023, available at
  40. International Literacy Association, “The Essential Leadership of School Librarians.”
  41. Lydia Kulina-Washburn, “Book Bans? My School Doesn’t Even Have a Library,” Education Week, July 26, 2022, available at
  42. Melanie Kletter, “During COVID, Libraries Prioritized Electronic Resources, Fiction | SLJ 2021 Spending Survey,” School Library Journal, March 25, 2021, available at
  43. Right to Read Act of 2023, H.R. 2889, 118th Cong., 1st sess. (April 26, 2023), available at
  44. American Association of School Librarians, “Right to Read Act,” available at (last accessed April 2024).
  45. Office of Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, “Right to Read Act,” available at (last accessed April 2024).
  46. U.S. Department of Education, “Fiscal Year 2025 Budget Summary” (Washington: 2024), available at
  47. Lieberman, “How School Libraries Buy Books, Struggle for Funds, and Confront Book Bans: An Explainer.”
  48. Debra E. Kachel and Keith Curry Lance, “Requirements for School Librarians: A State-by-State Summary” (Seattle: SLIDE, 2021), available at
  49. Keith Curry Lance and others, “Voices of Decision-Makers: How District & School Leaders Decide About School Librarian Employment” (Seattle: SLIDE, 2023), available at
  50. Ibid.
  51. American Association of School Librarians, “School Libraries Count! AASL’s National Longitudinal Survey of School Libraries,” available at (last accessed April 2024).
  52. American Association of School Librarians, “School Libraries Count! National Longitudinal Survey of School Library Programs” (Chicago: 2012), available at
  53. U.S. Department of Education, “Consolidated State Plan: State of Michigan” (Washington: 2023), available at
  54. State of Michigan, “Michigan School Index System,” available at (last accessed April 2024).

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Tania Otero Martinez

Policy Analyst, K-12 Education Policy


K-12 Education Policy

The K-12 Education Policy team is committed to developing policies for a new education agenda rooted in principles of opportunity for all and equity in access.

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