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Outdated School Libraries: What Can You Do to Update Yours?

Please note that we have not updated this article since 2003. We would welcome a contributor to suggest edits or to provide a replacement for this article. Thanks and email editor[at]

In Baltimore, library coordinator Della Curtis keeps examples of outdated books from the county's school libraries on a "shelf of shame." Curtis spearheaded a drive in Baltimore that led county​officials this year to fund $10.5 million for the purchase of new books. Today, Curtis tells Education World writer Mary Daniels Brown how she accomplished that. Included: Comments from librarians and other experts on the state of our schools' libraries and advice from Della Curtis on mounting your own successful campaign for funding for new library books.

In May 2000 the Baltimore (Maryland) County Council approved a $10.5 million budget for the purchase of new books for libraries in all of the county's middle and high schools. "Replacing the collections will bring us up to 80 percent of state standards," Della Curtis, coordinator of the county schools' office of library information services, told Education World. Baltimore County is the 24th largest school district in the country.

The Baltimore County secondary schools need this money for new library materials. According to School Library Facts, a Web site that provides information about research done by Curtis's office, only 12.4 percent of high school collections and 22.3 percent of middle school collections were copyrighted in the 1990s, numbers well below standards set by the Maryland State Department of Education. The district also failed to meet state standards in number of library items per pupil.

The new money is for middle school and high school libraries. The district's elementary school libraries are now in their third year of rejuvenation from a five-year state grant that is matched by district funds.


Baltimore County isn't alone in its need for funding for new library books.

  • Last winter, the Washington Post reported that books in school libraries across the Washington (D.C.) area still speak of communist rule in the Soviet Union, of apartheid in South Africa, and of Golda Meir as the prime minister of Israel.
  • Librarians in Chattanooga, Tennessee, reported that the area's school libraries are underfunded. The librarians identified problems such as a shortage of current books and other materials, particularly in science; insufficient time to spend with students; and a lack of time to plan with teachers.
  • In Boston, according to a Boston Globe news story, "many school library book collections in Massachusetts are stuck in the '50s and '60s."
  • In one Philadelphia elementary school, the library, with its broken furniture and moldy, smelly books, is in such bad condition that the principal has closed it to students.

The "last major infusion of money to support school library collections was in the late '60s, early '70s, and that's where a lot of the collections sit," M. Ellen Jay, former head of the American Association of School Librarians, told ABC News recently.


School library collections are frozen in the 1970s because that's when a major change in funding occurred: Federal money previously aimed specifically at library materials was reallocated to block grants that are administered on the local level. Now, "it is the individual libraries' decision where to place their dollars," Harriet Selverstone told Education World. Selverstone is the current president of the American Association of School Librarians, a division of the American Library Association.

Every two years, School Library Journal surveys school libraries throughout the United States about their resources. How Do You Measure Up? was published in 1997. It notes that although the average school library budget increased by $1,000, the increase only returned libraries to the buying power they had four years before, when the average book cost 9 percent less.

Marilyn L. Shontz coauthored this report with Marilyn L. Miller. Shontz is an associate professor in the library education program at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey.

Click here to read a copy of the 2003 report.

As school budgets have shrunk, local school administrators have often chosen to fund other programs rather than libraries. And even when libraries receive funds, the money frequently goes toward computers and related technology rather than toward books. Many library experts agree that these two trends have combined to leave school libraries with seriously outdated print collections.


From the Education World Archive

Strong Libraries Improve Student Achievement Site-based management teams at 11 elementary schools in Kalamazoo, Michigan, chose to cut their budgets for the 2000-2001 school year by eliminating the position of school librarian. Did they make the right decision? A new study indicates that what they made was a big mistake! Included: Results of a recent study that show that students at schools with strong media centers scored significantly higher on standardized tests than students at schools with less-well-equipped and staffed libraries.

Asked whether it is better to have outdated books or no books on library shelves, Shontz, Selverstone, and Curtis all replied, emphatically and without hesitation, "No books."

"Outdated books give students misinformation," Selverstone told Education World. "Our mission is to give them correct and credible information."

Curtis agreed. "We betray children when we put outdated information on our shelves," she told Education World. "We're working toward better understanding of a global world, toward multicultural sensitivity. These goals are not promoted by outdated information." She has a "shelf of shame" in her office where she keeps examples of outdated school library books.

In addition, Curtis said, "if you don't have nice new books that kids want to read, they won't read. We're trying to get children to read more."

"Old books do more harm than good," Shontz told Education World. She cautions librarians to look carefully at any book dated earlier than the 1990s in fields such as science, sex education, geography, and travel. "Outdated books keep stereotypes alive," she said.

Another danger of shelves full of outdated books is that they foster complacency. As long as books are on library shelves, it is easy to ignore the fact that many of those books may be worthless as information resources, explained Shontz. For that reason, Shontz, who trains school librarians, tells those librarians, "You'll never get money as long as you keep the old books. Throw them away and create a crisis."


The love of books-- of holding a book, turning its pages, and looking at its pictures-- isn't a very potent argument for funding new books in the face of current budget restrictions. But recent research offers more concrete evidence that investments in school libraries produce dividends in student achievement.

In 2000, the School Library Journal reported findings from studies done in three states: Alaska, Colorado, and Pennsylvania. That report, Dick and Jane Go to the Head of the Class, contends that data from those three studies indicate that students in schools with strong library media programs learn more and score higher on standardized tests than do their peers in schools with less adequate library facilities.


As school libraries have evolved into media centers, library funding has been funneled toward the purchase of computers and related items such as software and electronic database subscriptions. "Library funding is stagnant because extra funds are put toward technology, not books," Shontz told Education World.

Even though school libraries may offer a lot of electronic resources, they still need books, Curtis said. "A lot of nonfiction books aren't available in digitized format," she told Education World. "And fiction--," she continued, "Harry Potter is not digitized yet. Students have to have access to those resources also."

Shontz said that books are especially important in elementary school. "It's tough to run an elementary school library without a good collection of children's literature," she told Education World. "Children need to hold a book, to look at the pictures."

The emphasis in elementary school should be on good books, on literature, and on reading, she continued. "The concept of story is important," Shontz said. "Elementary schools should stay focused on reading."

Curtis says she is an advocate of technology. "I was an early adopter of using telecommunications in school libraries," she told Education World. "As early as 1981, I envisioned libraries without walls and started installing phone lines." However, she added, "we need a balance between newer and older technology-- that is, books."


In fact, Curtis used the available technology to help her campaign for funding of new books. "We're coming full circle," she told Education World. "Now we're using technology to help us with our books."

First, Curtis's office did a computerized collection analysis of the district's library holdings. The database of information about the books in the school libraries made evident the number of books that were outdated. "The collection analysis showed the weaknesses and the strengths of our library collection," Curtis said. "It also showed that the weaknesses were greater than the strengths."

Second, Curtis publicized the findings on her Web site School Library Facts. "You have to communicate the information to the stakeholders," she told Education World. "The Web site has been very helpful."

Third, to ensure that technology will continue to play a key role in Baltimore County schools' acquisition of their new books, the district has contracted with Follett, a book jobber that offers library automation and purchasing services. Follett will catalog the district's collections and provide automated online ordering. The books will arrive at schools shelf-ready: already cataloged, bar-coded, and with security strips attached. All the librarians will have to do is place the books on the shelves.

Follett will also maintain accounting records online. "We'll be able to make this information available to county government officials," Curtis told Education World. "The information can be sorted by legislative district so that officials can keep track of this wonderful thing that's happening in their district."


For other schools working to secure funding for new library books, Curtis offers this advice:

  • Do your homework and your research. Gather your statistics.
  • Make your statistics into pictures or graphs, which can be powerful ways to illustrate your library's needs.
  • Dig deeper. Use the technology available to get answers about the state of your current library collection.
  • Communicate your findings. Attend public meetings. Have parents show some old books from the library's collection.
  • Acknowledge and thank the people who support your efforts.

During the 2000-2001 school year, each middle school and high school library in Baltimore County will receive between 400 and 500 boxes of new books. The school district is planning several reading-promotion programs to make use of the new material.

One such program will incorporate time for reading into the school curriculum. "One reason teens don't read is that they don't have time to read," Curtis said. "We want to work to provide time to read for teens. We want our students to know that books are not 'out,' that books are still a cool thing."



A Recipe for Success: School Librarians Convince the Baltimore County School District to Spend More Money on Books
This School Library Journal news item reports on the success of the Baltimore County school district drive to obtain money for new library books.

School Libraries on the Web
This is a list of library Web pages maintained by K-12 school libraries in the United States and in countries around the world.

School Libraries Online
The International Association of School Librarianship offers information for school librarians around the world.

Peter Milbury's School Librarian Web Pages
This is a collection of Web pages created or maintained by school librarians. The site provides lots of links to sites of interest to school librarians in areas such as professional associations, curriculum, and how to create a Web page.

Highlights of the School Library Media Centers Survey
This report from the National Center for Education Statistics presents highlights from the statistical analysis report School Library Media Centers: 1993-94, released in 2002.

When the Book? When the Net?
This thought-provoking article in From Now On: The Educational Technology Journal (March 2000) analyzes Internet and electronic resources available today and explains the necessity of educating students in how to evaluate and use responsibly the information they may find online.


  • "Baltimore County Approves Over $10.5 Million to Purchase New Books for Public School Libraries," American Association of School Librarians, June 2000.
  • "Era of Neglect in Evidence at Libraries," Education Week, December 1, 1999.
  • "Lamenting Libraries: Budget Cuts, Internet Access Deplete Schools' Book Supply," The Washington Post January 31, 2000.
  • "Misinformation Services: Nation's School Libraries Desperate for Funding," ABC News, February 7, 2000.
  • "On Borrowed Time," Boston Globe, January, 18, 2000.