Before the first bell rings at Milam Magnet Elementary, Randall Ham has already checked out and received dozens of books from children.
Throughout the day, library assistant Ham teaches classes, holds story time and assists students with finding books and checking them in and out. Ham, who is in his first year as a librarian, is not technically a librarian by title but a library assistant because he does not have a master’s degree or librarian certificate. Throughout the district, there are six library assistants and a substitute who serve as the sole librarians for their schools but do not have the qualifications to be called librarians.
But Ham said he has enjoyed the role so far and realizes the importance of his job.
“The library is really the community center of the school,” Ham said.
Ham said he hopes to get “the lay of the land” his first year but plans to pursue a master’s degree in library science possibly next year. And his first year has been plenty busy, Ham said, in maintaining his main goal of providing a smooth transition for students to what he does and what students were used to with last year’s librarian.
“It is definitely busier than I expected,” Ham said. “There’s so many other things I do other than sit behind a desk.”
One of those things Ham demonstrated to a class of first-grade students on Tuesday morning. As students entered the library, he told students, in his soft-library voice, he would read them a story he enjoyed when he was their age.
But Ham didn’t simply read “The Simple Prince.” He acted out each line in the book with different tones in his voice, galloped around the room as horses did in the story and asked students to clap at specific times when the character did. And Ham seemed to enjoy story time as much as the students.
“I’ve been a book nerd all my life,” Ham said. “I could not be happier.”
And it’s a feeling many librarians have when entering the profession.
Jody Braswell, Burnet Elementary librarian, said after teaching elementary students for 18 years, she saw the need and importance of a campus librarian, so she decided to pursue her master’s degree. And even though she’s out of the classroom, Braswell said she has “the best of both worlds,” in that students still come for a lesson in the library every day, which she enjoys.
“It’s being able to take a lesson and enhance it a little through literature,” Braswell said. “It’s taking the lessons and making them come to life.”
But there are not enough qualified librarians like Braswell to fill the schools.
Brian Rosson, one of the Human Resources directors with ECISD, said during the past two years, the district has really felt the repercussions of what he called a statewide librarian shortage. The Texas Education Agency has specific qualifications that a librarian must have, and according to Rosson, the most challenging qualification to meet is a master’s degree in library science.
“What we’ve seen over the last five years are less and less people going back to school for a degree in that,” Rosson said. “And there are only a few universities in the state that offer that degree.”
Rosson said he could only think of a couple of colleges in the state that offer the degree. The most feasible option is online courses through Sam Houston State University. But until the assistants obtain a proper certification, they remain library assistants and receive about half the pay of a certified librarian.
Librarians are paid on the same salary schedule as teachers, plus a stipend of $2,500 since all educators receive that much extra for having a master’s degree. Additionally, most of the librarians in the district are paid more because they have had several years of experience teaching, so their years of teaching place them at a higher pay grade. Most librarians in ECISD have average salaries ranging from $50,000 to $60,000. while assistants range from $20,000 to $29,000 annually.
And while the district is ultimately saving money by placing new library assistants on some campuses, Rosson said that was never the intention.
“It’s not the ideal situation, but we can’t leave these campuses unattended,” Rosson said. “This is the best alternative we have.”
Rosson said in the past two years there have been several teachers retire, which caused the “recent phenomenon.” Still he said there are a number of assistants who are working toward their proper certification and the district will pay $900 a year for nine hours of graduate school.
“It’s not going to cover it all, but it helps,” Rosson said.
‘Librarians going extinct'
But another statewide trend any librarian should be aware of is the move toward technology and dropping the title "librarian" for "media specialist."
Kellie Wilks, coordinator of instructional technology and district librarian liaison, said moving toward becoming media specialists is still a work in progress. However, she said the new title will not eliminate current library functions, but through training will create more electronic options for students. One option the district hopes to roll out somewhat next year is providing ebooks for students to be able to check out and access online.
“It’s really appealing due to cost,” Wilks said. “We’re still looking at how to start this … We should have something in place next year.”
And while Vicki Nelson, librarian at Odessa High, appreciates the students have a lot to gain through online resources, she said she doesn’t think electronic books can offer the same experience a bound book can.
“There’s something inviting about opening a book,” Nelson said.
Regardless of the changes and challenges that come with a title change or addition of new technology, Nelson said the best experiences of being a librarian always come from a student’s enjoyment of reading and knowing she helped them find something worth reading.
“I just think libraries are so critical,” Nelson said. “It’s one of the few places children can check out books and it doesn’t cost anything. It’s a wonderful job.”