LONG BEACH AREA — To children at Murphy Ranch Elementary in Whittier, Chris Laurich is every inch a school librarian. She orders, checks out and shelves books, sends out overdue notices, and reads to visiting classes.
But she is not a librarian. She's a parent. And she gets paid nothing for the 50 hours a month she works. She is among a small army of parent volunteers staffing libraries in school districts throughout Southeast Los Angeles County.
To cut costs, most school systems have transformed their librarians into classroom teachers and replaced them with volunteers or clerks. Many officials insist that their low-budget libraries work well and that schools have little alternative in these tight economic times.
Many librarians and teachers, however, call the cuts damaging to student reading and study skills at a time when school officials say they want to stress improvement in student achievement and encourage a love of books.
"Parents perform a very valuable service in all our libraries, and we really depend on them for a great deal of assistance," said Virginia Kalb, coordinator of media services for the Montebello Unified School District. "But to put major responsibilities for providing library service on a group of volunteer folks, no matter how dedicated they are, leaves a lot of room for disappointment."
Before this year, Montebello schools had one of the most fully staffed library systems in the state. An ongoing budget crisis prompted officials last year to make classroom teachers of its 17 elementary school librarians. Come July 1, the rest of the district's librarians will join them. Administrators expect to replace the librarians with part-time clerks.
Bellflower Unified also will replace librarians with clerks next year. And Long Beach Unified will reduce the number of librarians by attrition for the second year in a row. The growing district lost three elementary librarians to retirement last year, leaving 31 full-time positions for 57 elementary schools.
Other districts that recently reduced library services include ABC Unified, East Whittier City, Los Nietos and Whittier City. No area districts have anything close to one librarian per school, the minimum recommended by the American Assn. of School Librarians.
School libraries across the country are understaffed, and California schools have been particularly so, said Don Adcock, an administrator with the school librarians association. And the situation is getting worse.
"We haven't found any place reporting the kind of cuts and the conditions we're hearing about in California," Adcock said.
School systems have not only cut staff members, but they have canceled subscriptions, reduced book purchases and limited the hours when students may use libraries.
At Granada Middle School in Whittier, one parent said her daughter's class goes to the library only about once a year. Granada depends on a part-time clerk who opens the library three days a week. Assistant Principal Melody Schubert said the school nonetheless tries to make the library available for any student who wants to use it. Administrators have distributed many books to individual teachers to make the literature more available and trips to the library less necessary.
In Montebello, one elementary school has gone from 12 magazine subscriptions to none. Canceled magazines include Ranger Rick, National Geographic, Current History, the New Republic and Science. The district's book-buying budget was cut 55% this year.
But even that amounts to a larger book budget than in some districts, which rely entirely on PTA and other contributions for purchases. The collections in some schools are decades out of date, particularly in science and social studies. Some librarians said they still circulate science books that merely envision man's first trip to the moon. Many atlases have not caught up with the European withdrawal from Africa, let alone the rapid changes in the former Soviet Union.
"We're trying to update," Montebello library coordinator Kalb said. "But when we take out those old, outdated atlases from 1960, which show Rhodesia and the Republic of the Congo, how are we going to replace those materials?"
School librarians use their diminishing funds to try to update their technology as well as their collections. Resources available to libraries include word processors, electronic encyclopedias, video games to teach geography, hundreds of years worth of newspapers on microfilm and databanks of continually updated world events. Librarians in most area districts attempt to update their collections in several languages to match their student populations. They also seek to include books for a wider range of reading levels.
Millions of dollars worth of grants and free books and equipment are available to schools with librarians who know how to obtain them.