School Libraries are the Only Thing that Matters

Libraries have always made a difference in the lives of learners everywhere. The impact that libraries make has been the subject of many studies and researchers and educators are always interested in discovering the effects that libraries have on their communities.

Schools that have high-quality library programs and library staff benefit the entire student body. Student achievement is at all time highs when care and consideration is put into a library’s collection, staffing, and funding. 

A longitudinal literacy study completed by Dr. Stephen Krashen, an international linguistics scholar, and his colleagues Christy Lao, Sy-ying Lee, and Jeff McQuillan, looked at literacy levels in children. Their research showed that school libraries are the only thing that matters when it comes to closing the gap that exists in literacy levels when poverty comes into play.

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The PIRLS Examination

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) examination was the key component of Dr. Krashen’s study. This is an exam that is given to ten-year-old students in over 45 countries every five years. It evaluates the literacy levels of these elementary school children by measuring reading for literary experience and reading to acquire and use information.

Those who worked on the research used PIRLS examinations from 2006, 2011, and 2016 which encompassed the results of students in 45, 57, and 61 countries respectively. In addition to the exman scores, the researchers also received the results of extensive questionnaires that were given to participants and their teachers. Dr. Krashen and his team selected a number of factors and presented an analysis of their effects on students’ performance on the PIRLS exam.

The team chose to investigate six factors: Socio-economic status (SES), Libraries, Instruction, Parental Reading, Early Literacy, and Classroom Libraries.

Socio-economic status (SES)

The researchers used measurements developed by the United Nations Human Development Index to determine socio-economic status. This index is a “summary measure of average achievement in key dimensions of human development” based on life expectancy and health, knowledge, and a decent standard of living.


Dr. Krashen and his colleagues used different representations for the library factor in 2006 than they did for 2011 and 2016. In 2006, this was represented by school libraries with over 500 books. In the subsequent years, it was represented by the percentage with at least 5000 books.


This factor was based on the number of hours that each country devoted to reading instruction through classroom curriculum and involvement.

Parental Reading

This factor incorporated the reading habits of the parents of students in each country. It was measured by the percentage of parents who said they enjoyed reading “very much” and was only included in studies in 2011 and 2016.

Early Literacy

This factor looked at a number of reading tasks children were reportedly able to do before starting school. These included recognizing letters in the alphabet, reading some words, reading sentences, writing letters of the alphabet, and writing some words. Those that could do three of the five were given a good early literacy score.

Classroom Libraries

The researchers also incorporated classroom libraries as a factor for their analysis. This data was provided by PIRLS as well and covered classroom libraries that had at least 50 books, three magazines, library use, and a book checkout system.

Positive Effects of School Libraries

The results of Dr. Krashen’s analysis came out abundantly clear. In all three years, poverty (socioeconomic status) was the strongest predictor of poor reading achievement. On the opposite end, school libraries were what had a consistently positive effect on reading. They found that the conclusions they came to were in line with those of other studies like Keith Curry Lance’s school library impact studies which showed that the quality of a school library was a clear indicator of reading achievement.


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Factors that many would think would have an effect on reading comprehension actually had little impact. Things like instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness, instruction in reading, and early literacy competence had insignificant relationships with the results of the PIRLS test.

It makes sense that having adequate library access is one of the major counters against poverty when it comes to levels of reading success. It has been known early on that poverty has been a detriment to all aspects of education. This is because poverty usually comes with additional life stressors like lack of medical care, reading materials, poor nutrition, and living in areas with fewer resources.

Having a well-stocked library at a child’s school is how education can work through some of the problems that children of lower socioeconomic status experience. They ensure that there is access to knowledge and reading materials in a location the child visits daily and that there are sufficient books for the child to take home with them to continue their education in a home setting.

Positive Impact of School Librarians

School librarians are an integral part of making sure school libraries are properly run and useful resources for students. In fact, it has been shown that well-qualified librarians have a positive effect on student achievement and test scores. On any given day, a librarian may be collaborating with teachers on lessons, instructing students, providing technology support, working with staff on professional development, and many more.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and the 4th-grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) actually documented a decline in reading scores when schools experienced a loss of librarians. Research has consistently shown that school librarians have a positive, long-term impact on students, especially in environments where librarians are valued. Districts that allow librarians to lead where they are knowledgeable have turned out higher test scores and successfully met academic standards.


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The Decline in School Librarian Employment?

The nation has noted a decline in school librarian employment since the Great Recession. In response, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) launched a landmark study funded by the Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian grant to conduct research on this. The grant was given to Antioch University Seattle and the principal investigator of this three-year study is Keith Curry Lance and Debra E. Kachel.

Known as SLIDE, The School Librarian Investigation - Decline or Evolution, it will also look into interviewing staffing decision-makers on the types of library-related changes being made in a school district. The project began in September of last year and hopes to provide plenty of information through reports, articles, infographics, videos, etc. on this topic.

School Libraries and Librarians Matter

School librarians have shown to be irreplaceable in the educational ecosystem. Their unique skills and adaptability make them invaluable to the success of teachers, administrators, and students. When it comes to a student’s reading, there is no question that school libraries and their librarians play a crucial role in helping them succeed. Studies have long shown that strong school library programs are the top benefit for vulnerable students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. The experience that school libraries can provide is capable of impacting students in positive ways on a daily basis.