school library
The school library at Carl B. Munck Elementary School in Oakland reopened in September after a five-year hiatus. Credit: Denise Burroughs

Five years ago, Denise Burroughs made it her goal as school principal to refurbish and reopen the library at Carl. B. Munck Elementary. Longtime volunteers there had retired from their posts, leaving the library closed or, at best, occasionally used when a substitute teacher or other volunteer had spare time. Now, Burroughs can finally say she accomplished her aim.

The library opened its doors in September and welcomed students to a freshly updated collection of books and new furniture, including a cozy curved sofa, inviting students to develop their love of reading. Burroughs also hired a library technician who curates the collection and works with teachers to support their lesson plans with appropriate books.  It’s the first time in Burrough’s 16 years as principal at Carl B. Munck that the school has had such a position.

“When our babies came back this August I was so excited because the library space was revamped,” she said. “The space looks so much more inviting and kid friendly, so kids love going.” 

Situations like the one at Carl B. Munck are not uncommon in OUSD. Many schools rely on a patchwork of paid staff, volunteers, nonprofit organizations, and philanthropy to keep their libraries open. 

Measure G, a parcel tax first approved by Oakland voters in 2008, provides a significant portion of the district’s funding for school libraries, which can go to hiring staff and purchasing new books. It also supports visual and performing arts programs, retaining teachers, and keeping class sizes small. But not all schools receive Measure G funding for their libraries, with priority given to those with the highest percentages of English language learners, homeless students, foster youth, and low-income students. 

Burroughs was able to reopen the library at Munck in part because it was one of 53 OUSD schools (out of 81 total in the district) this year that received Measure G funding—about $3 million, specifically for libraries, which is twice the amount schools received last year.

Fifth graders at Carl B. Munck Elementary show off their books after the library officially reopened. Credit: Denise Burroughs

Including Carl B. Munck, 7 of the 53 schools didn’t receive any Measure G funding last year, and were able to use the new funds to hire staff to reopen their libraries this year. The others include Hoover Elementary, Laurel Elementary, Madison Park Academy upper school, Skyline High School, Horace Mann Elementary, and Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary. All 53 schools received about $55,000 each for their libraries. Seven other schools have also reopened, or are currently hiring to reopen their libraries this year, using funds raised by their Parent Teacher Associations.

Early literacy is one of the tenets of OUSD’s strategic plan, a roadmap created by the superintendent and district staff outlining goals for the next three years. A thriving school library system is fundamental to building that literacy, said Dagmar Serota, the outgoing executive director of Friends of the Oakland Public School Libraries, one of the nonprofits that helps support OUSD libraries. 

“A student who may not have books in their home, or may not be able to get to the public library because maybe their parents are working multiple jobs … a school library is right down the hallway,” Serota said. “Libraries are hugely important because they’re a safe space. Not every kid thrives on a playground. Some kids need that type of space where they won’t be judged, and where they can be quiet.”

While schools were closed because of the pandemic, the Friends group worked with OUSD to create a digital library. Launched earlier this year, the digital library provides access to audiobooks and e-books in the district’s library collection, accessible to every student in OUSD through the Sora app. During the 2020-2021 school year, when the digital library was running for the second half of the academic year, 7,000 students checked out more than 92,000 books. The summer saw another 10,000 checkouts, and from August to November this year, students have checked out nearly 72,000 books from the digital library, said Jeannie Bruland, OUSD’s secondary literacy coordinator. 

“We see an amazing number of books checked out by students who are at the independent study school,” Bruland said, referring to OUSD’s Sojourner Truth program, which is now entirely online. “They have some of the highest checkouts across the district.”

But a physical library, ideally staffed by a professional librarian or library technician, is still crucial for students across grade levels. Samantha Solomon runs the Calvin Simmons Library, which serves Life Academy, a sixth through 12th-grade school, and United For Success Academy, a middle school. As the teacher librarian, Solomon helps support classroom teachers with lesson plans, and visits classrooms to talk about research and information literacy. She also maintains the library, holding special events and managing the collection. 

Like the library at Carl B. Munck, the Calvin Simmons Library was out of use for a long period due to a lack of resources. It reopened in 2017, said Solomon, after being closed for nine years.

For Solomon, school libraries serve three important purposes: They help students with information literacy (the ability to evaluate information effectively), they instill healthy reading habits in students by encouraging independent reading, and they provide a safe, quiet space for students to read or play games.

“Libraries do all three of those things when they’re staffed consistently and students can build relationships with librarians,” Solomon said. 

Despite an increase in Measure G funding this year, about 20 school campuses still have libraries that are closed, estimated Sondra Aguilera, OUSD’s chief academic officer. The biggest barrier to reopening a library is funding and staffing it. 

Burroughs said school libraries have been inconsistently staffed throughout all of her nearly three decades at OUSD. In the 90s, when computers were becoming more common, sometimes the person running the school computer lab also staffed the library. At Howard Elementary (now Oakland Academy of Knowledge, or OAK) where Burroughs taught prior to becoming principal at Munck, teachers sometimes oversaw the library, she said. 

In the 2000s, OUSD suffered major financial problems leading to a state takeover, which impacted library budgets, said Kim Farnham-Flom, the library services director for Children Rising, a nonprofit that supports Oakland school libraries. At the same time, statewide funding for school libraries fluctuated wildly: from around $160 million annually in 2002, to $4.2 million in 2004, to $465 million in 2008, according to a 2016 report from the California state auditor. Then in 2009, California funding for school libraries became unrestricted, which meant it could be used for anything related to education. By the end of that decade, OUSD’s libraries were decimated, Farnham-Flom said. 

Many are still recovering, and Oakland is not alone. A 2021 report from a Seattle university examining school libraries across the country found that California ranks 35th in the number of full-time school librarians by state, and last when comparing the ratio of students to full-time librarians. California lost more than 75% of its school librarians between 2009 and 2019, while the nationwide average loss was around 20%.  

“The challenge is that once a library is closed, and remains closed for several years, it gets harder and harder to reopen it,” Farnham-Flom said. “It’s going to be more labor intensive, because books disappear, and books get really old.”

When Burroughs became principal at Munck in 2005, the library was run by two volunteers who received a stipend from the school’s PTA. They retired five years ago, leaving the school in a bind. 

“We did not have funds to hire someone to work in our library,” she said. “The first year after they retired, we could not open that library space because we had no one to run it.”

For the next few years, substitute teachers at Munck spent part of their time cleaning up the library stacks and maintaining the space, but the library wasn’t fully functional, she said. 

During the 2019-2020 school year, Munck, a small school near Merritt College in the Oakland Hills, received a grant from the city of Oakland to help refurbish the library, and Burroughs used the money to buy new furniture for the space. When the pandemic began and schools were closed, Burroughs had an opportunity to revamp the library completely, with help from Children Rising. 

Farnham-Flom and volunteers took an inventory of the books at Munck’s library and learned that the average copyright dated back to 1997, Farnham-Flom said. From October 2020 to May 2021, Farnham-Flom and her team worked to clean up the stacks, get rid of old books and bring in new and donated ones, and turn the library into a welcoming, joyous space. The final piece was the additional Measure G funding that the school received this year, which allowed Burroughs to hire a library technician. 

When the library opened in September, students were giddy to pick out a book from the shelves and sit on the loveseat or bright green chairs. Each class at Munck Elementary goes to the library at least once a week. Now that the library is up and running, it also serves as a place for teachers and staff to hold meetings. It even served as the backdrop to a visit from Governor Gavin Newsom in August, when he announced that all school teachers and staff in the state would be required to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or get tested weekly. 

“We’re extremely happy that we have a functional library again. It was really sad to walk by the library when it was closed,” Burroughs said. “You want kids to have a love for learning and for books, and not have it all be on screens.”

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.