Most Philadelphia public schools don’t have a working library, so educators are asking hit comedy ‘Abbott Elementary’ for help

There are reportedly fewer than 10 librarians across the entire district

A scene from Abbott Elementary's 'Gifted Program' episode, filmed in the fictional school's library

A scene from Abbott Elementary's 'Gifted Program' episode, filmed in the fictional school's library

Liliane Lathan / ABC
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As Quinta Brunson’s hit ABC comedy “Abbott Elementary” winds down its debut season, librarians across Pennsylvania are calling on the Philly-set show to tackle a new issue when it picks up for an anticipated second round:

The severe lack of libraries in Philadelphia public schools.

After watching several “Abbott Elementary” scenes filmed in a large, book-lined room, Deb Kachel of the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association was struck by the disparity between the show and real student life.

“They had faculty meetings in what looked like a library and one episode even centered on an art teacher doing art in the library,” said Kachel, a library sciences professor at Antioch University. “It makes it look like these kids have access to a library program, and that’s not true.”

According to the PSLA, which advocates statewide for more school library spending, Philadelphia has one of the worst librarian-to-school ratios in the country.

How many Philly schools currently have a physical library or a full-time certified librarian? District spokesperson Christina Clark said she could not provide that information. But it’s fewer than before.

In 1991, the School District of Philadelphia had 176 librarians throughout 200-plus schools. Thirty years later, as of October 2021, full-time librarians in the district reportedly number fewer than 10. Many schools rely on volunteers without formal training to steward books and instill a lifelong love of reading.

Each school has the power to add a librarian to its own staff, but many administrators say budgets are already stretched too thin.

Jessica Harm has been a 3rd and 4th grade teacher at the Joseph Pennell School in North Philly for 11 years. It was when she became an English and language arts teacher leader during the pandemic that she realized students lacked access to a library, either as a place to read freely or to check out books to bring home.

“It was like a ghost town,” Harm said of the room that once housed the Pennell school library, which she said ended up storing trash as the building underwent renovations. “I can’t believe we lived with a library that looked like this for so long.”

Students with access to school libraries perform better than students without one, research shows. The boost is even more obvious in districts with economically disadvantaged students, who can benefit immensely from having a certified school librarian on hand.

In February 2020, PSLA sent a proposal to City Council that would add librarians to Philly district schools over time. As described in the plan, schools would apply for funding from a centralized budget to retain a librarian. To receive it, they’d have to commit to providing space for a library, a budget for books, and a plan for training.

The pandemic stalled progress, leaving advocates back where they started: getting people to care.

“‘Abbott Elementary’ could be very helpful,” said Kachel, who co-chairs the PLSA advocacy committee. “We just want to help people in Philadelphia understand the importance of why all students should have libraries and librarians.”

Turning to crowdfunding and Amazon wishlists

There’s little public documentation, but sources say a big change happened in the 1990s, when the district transferred librarians’ payroll from the central budget to that of each individual school. When school administrators didn’t have enough money to keep everyone on staff, librarians and reading specialists were among the first positions to get cut.

In 2013, the district faced a $304 million budget deficit that forced Superintendent William Hite to cut over 3,700 positions. Of the 43 librarians working at the time, nine were laid off. Others faced forced transfers and further cuts that limited what they could achieve.

Sometimes, teachers are turned into makeshift librarians to make up for budget cuts. But even schools that do have librarians on staff aren’t always well-funded or resourced.

Jayne Downing has spent nearly half her 39-year tenure in the Philadelphia school district as a librarian at West Philly’s Penn Alexander School. Though Penn Alexander is a University of Pennsylvania Partnership School, she says the funding it receives from the university doesn’t trickle down to the library.

“Our library looks like most in the city,” Downing said. For example, she can’t request new books or resources ahead of time due to lapses in Penn Alexander’s budget.

“It’s isolating. You have no one to talk to about the work you do,” said Downing. “When I began in the district 39 years ago, librarians would get together and do professional development … there’s not enough time to do that anymore.”

There is no professional development dedicated to librarians, School District of Philadelphia spokesperson Christina Clark confirmed.

A scene from Abbott Elementary's 'Art Teacher' episode, filmed in the fictional school's library

A scene from Abbott Elementary's 'Art Teacher' episode, filmed in the fictional school's library

Liliane Lathan / ABC

Downing says it’s hard to even find out who the other remaining librarians are. The district’s directory lists them as teachers, so she’d have to go on each school’s website and poke around to find out if there’s a librarian on staff.

Harm, the at Joseph Pennell School teacher leader, started thinking last August about what it would take to rebuild the library from scratch. She asked for advice in Facebook groups for working moms, and in January, created an Amazon wishlist of books and supplies.

It was a success. Over 500 books have been donated so far, Harm said, and every item on the wishlist has been ticked off, putting her on track to reopen the library by next academic year.

Harm says her principal is supportive, but doesn’t have any funding to back the project. “I know I’m just a teacher, but if I didn’t do this, I knew we’d probably never be able to have a working library,” she told Billy Penn.

When Joseph Pennell’s library is complete, Harm will still work as reading specialist in addition to being in charge of the library. She also hopes to get parents to volunteer in shifts.

How a TV show could help

“Abbott Elementary” has yet to be renewed for a second season, according to a rep from ABC, but that hasn’t stopped educators from fantasizing about how the show could spotlight Philly’s lack of libraries.

Downing, the librarian at Penn Alexander, would like the show’s potential second season to look more at the quality of the books available to public school students in Philly. Meanwhile, Kachel, PSLA’s advocacy co-chair, hopes the show will look at the other things librarians teach, like internet safety.

Her dream plot? To have some one of the teachers overhear students discussing something “fraudulent on the internet” — think phishing scam, a friend getting catfished, or an inappropriate meme. Then, the teachers must figure out how to address the issue, only to realize a librarian would be better suited to do it.

“A library should be the heart of school — a place where collaboration can always happen,” said Downing. “We can’t always make that happen.”