School libraries are important. As a source of vast stores of books they’re usually a student’s first exposure to research as an idea. That how they come to understand how to go about writing papers and finding a place to do quiet studying. That’s also often how they discover newly published books.

But school libraries are in trouble, according to this piece by Debra Kachel in the New Republic:

The number of school libraries in New York City has dropped from nearly 1,500 in 2005 to around 700 in 2014.

Over a recent five-year period, 43 percent of school librarian positions in the Houston Independent School District evaporated.

This is going on across the United States.

Ohio has lost more than 700 school library positions over a decade.

And, finally, in my own home state of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia provides a dramatic story. In 1991, there were 176 certified librarians in Philadelphia public schools. Today there are 10. It appears that 206 out of 218 classroom buildings in the school district of Philadelphia have no librarian. Two hundred Philadelphia schools do not have a functional library book collection. A majority lack the technology to access necessary e-resources. And 85 percent of these children come from homes in poverty.

What happened here? Well, because they don’t impart the sort of skills that can be directly tested, and because they’re incredibly resource intensive, they’re an easy thing to cut in times of economic turmoil, which happen often in schools.

The well-stocked school library is a fairly recent development. It was only in the late 19th century, along with Andrew Carnegie and the promotion of the town public library, that schools started to have libraries at all. School libraries mostly consisted of small collections until the launch of Stupnik in 1957, which scared Americans into providing great sums of private and public money for schools in order to avoid falling behind the Soviet Union.

But because such sources depend upon the whims of the American public, rather than any long-term dedicated funding stream, and due to the increase in standardized testing (and the expense associated with it) we just aren’t funding them as well as we used to.

And there are real consequences to this. According to a 2011 study from the National Center for Education Statistics “..states that gained librarians from 2004-2005 to 2008-2009—such as New Jersey, Tennessee, and Wyoming—showed significantly greater improvements in fourth grade reading scores than states that lost librarians, like Arizona, Massachusetts, and Michigan.”

This is very impressive, but finding money to support something as expensive as school libraries is difficult. Even gym and art are often easier to promote, because many Americans remember their own art and sports experiences positively.

Getting rid of school libraries is a dangerous path to go down. A book can survive a budget crisis for a year or even 10 or 20 years, but a library program can’t just be brought back up once it’s been destroyed. By the time we realize what’s lost it may be too late to solve this problem.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer