For most of the past few years, the library at Anthony Middle School in Minneapolis was too quiet. Without a librarian or any library staff, the space was often locked and dark, inaccessible to students. When it was open, the checkout process operated under the honor system, allowing many books to go AWOL.

This fall, a group of parents stepped in. Working in shifts, they now ensure students can use the library about 20 hours a week.

Students are quick to credit the volunteers for reinvigorating the space. But as sixth-grader and frequent library user Tellar Lawler put it: “You can’t have a library without a librarian. Then it’s just a room full of books.”

Some Minneapolis Public Schools administrators agree.

The district is aiming to bring licensed librarians back, bucking a national trend of slashing the positions from payrolls during tight budget times.

Professional librarians, they say, help students learn everything from technology to how to research.

District leaders have earmarked more than $4 million in their proposed budget to ensure that next fall, each city school has at least one halftime librarian, now called library media specialists. It would mean a big increase from the 28 now employed in the district’s 60-some schools — half the number the district had in 2010. Eight schools have no library staff at all, licensed or unlicensed. The school board will vote on the budget next month.

“Equity means ensuring every student has equal access to age-appropriate materials” and the chance to learn crucial research skills, said Aimee Fearing, the district’s senior officer of academics. “We can’t just leave that to chance.”

Minnesota legislators in 1996 eliminated a statute that required districts to have one librarian per school, which is the recommendation of the American Association of School Librarians. Only about half of the states in the U.S. still have such mandates, and fewer than a dozen enforce them, according to a research project funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services called “The School Librarian Investigation — Decline or Evolution?”

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that more than 9,000 full-time school library positions were eliminated between 2009 to 2016 in the U.S. By the 2020-2021 school year, Minnesota had just 0.17 librarians per school. And that number doesn’t tell advocates, administrators or legislators who — if anyone — is staffing the state’s school libraries or how many students lack access to a librarian.

“Our biggest struggle is collecting info of how many of us are even left,” said Laura Gingras, a librarian in the Waconia district whose position is being cut next year. She is also the president-elect of the Information and Technology Educators of Minnesota, the state’s professional organization for school library media specialists. That group, along with library systems across Minnesota , advocates for better ways to collect the data.

“We’re realizing that there is going to be a generation of kids who, when they remember their school library, it will not include an actual school librarian there, teaching them how to access reliable information,” said Ashley Dress, the school media center consultant with the Southeast Library System in southeastern Minnesota.

Research has shown that having a full-time, qualified librarian correlates to higher reading and writing test scores in a school. Library media specialists can also help with technology training for teachers and offer students lessons in media literacy.

“We’re hearing from teachers and professors who are noticing students who didn’t have a librarian are coming in without having any clue how to do research, verify sources or stay safe online,” Gingras said.

Teachers and paraprofessionals often work to fill in the gap when a librarian position is cut, but that can introduce a slew of compliance problems .

Some roles — including ordering books for a school library— require a library media specialist license.

“In the dream world, there’d be one media specialist for every school,” Dress said.

That has long been the aspiration in Minneapolis, district leaders said. But schools have had to make tough budget decisions in recent years, and during the pandemic, librarians were often pulled to help teach or substitute in other areas.

Next year’s proposed budget prioritizes adding librarians back in as a key part of the district’s literacy framework, a plan aimed at narrowing the gap in reading scores between students of color and their white peers.

“I think this will help close the gap of literacy across the board,” Minneapolis School Board Member Ira Jourdain said at a recent board meeting.

“But we have to be cognizant of the fact that’s not going to happen overnight.”

What can happen right away next fall, the district’s Fearing said, is the relationship-building between school librarians and students.

“There’s that whole interaction where a librarian can cultivate that love of reading by asking ‘What are you interested in? What do you want to learn?’ ” she said.

Several Minneapolis school libraries, including the one at Anthony, are also due for updated furniture and shelving next year. As a group of Anthony sixth-graders sat squished into a donated sofa, they breathlessly talked about what they want in their improved library: longer hours, more comfy seating, maybe even a mural.

Noelle Conrad said she wants more of her peers to enjoy the space and learn from a librarian.

“It’s the right source of knowledge,” she said.

“Because let’s just say it: other middle-schoolers are just not always reliable sources of information.”

Back at the antiquated circulation desk — which still has a drawer for a card catalog — parent volunteer Kelsey Tritabaugh chuckled to herself as the group of library patrons continued noisily comparing favorite authors and genres.

“We try not to shush them,” she said, “because we’re just so excited that they’re here.”

Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440