The East Bay Children’s Book Project is helping the Friends of the Oakland Public School Libraries re-stock and re-open shuttered Oakland public school libraries. But what if a school has a library but no librarian to run it and to guide the students who use it? You might be surprised at the bitterness of the debate on this question.

According to the State Department of Education, as reported in the San Francisco Chronicle on January 2, 2012, fewer than one in four school libraries has a credentialed librarian. Perhaps even more shockingly, that number is plummeting: down to 900 from 1,100 just two years ago. Money is tight, and schools may see librarians as expendable. So librarians’ jobs fall to classroom teachers (who may or may not have a library credential or training), or even to volunteers.

So, does it matter, as long as the library doors stay open?

No, according to Ze’ev Wurman, a Silicon Valley executive who participated in the development of California education standards and served as a policy adviser for the U.S. Department of Education.  The Chronicle article quotes Wurman: “In the elementary grades especially, librarians are essentially teacher’s aides, doing a variety of things that have little to do with books or literacy, per se.” Wurman also says research shows giving schools grants for their libraries doesn’t increase the amount of materials checked out.

Nonsense, says East Bay Children’s Book Project volunteer Raynor Voorhies, a retired East Bay teacher librarian. As Voorhies noted in a letter to the editor, librarians are the key to actually connecting students with books: “Circulation and access increase when knowledgeable teacher librarians use their expertise to promote, introduce and connect students with books and information resources. Would this same Silicon Valley executive expect his product to move off the shelves without qualified staff to advertise, market and keep the doors open?” Another letter from an elementary school librarian stated that Wurman fails to understand what a librarian does: “all I do is ‘literacy’.”

Some high school students were asked what they thought of a school library staffed by teachers or volunteers. Their view: Teachers are far too busy, and underpaid for what they do as it is. The school library may be the only place a student has access to computers, and helping with that aspect of their library work is a full-time job, not some add-on to an already full plate. Volunteers are great, but you need someone who is paid and required to be there. Libraries need librarians.

Why should you care? Because every child needs books, and many children need help getting access to books and to information. Their literacy may depend on it.

Please join the conversation and let us know what you think by commenting below.