LAWRENCE — The Lawrence High School library lost half its space over the last two years, along with its certified librarian, a computer lab, most of its books and all of its sunlight.
Student access also has been reduced, and even the name is gone. Once just the school library, the facility now has a grander title despite its shrunken resources and diminished access.
It's now "The Learning Commons."
The space, books, computers, hours and natural light were given up to make way for an academy of 200 high-performing students, which moved into a bank of classrooms, conference rooms and offices that were built along the library's two outside walls when the academy was created in September 2015.
In all, half of the library’s 16,000 square feet were given over to the Abbott Lawrence Academy, which has a more challenging curriculum intended to help the high school stem the flow of students to private schools. In addition to the 8,000 square feet, Abbott got all the windows.
Donna Maksian, who was the school's certified librarian for 13 years, retired as Abbott Academy was moving in. She was replaced by technology specialist Beth Smith, who does not have state certification in library science, putting the school in apparent violation of one of 10 broad standards set by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. The association, which accredits schools in six states, requires schools with more than 400 students to employ a full-time, state-certified librarian. Lawrence High has about 3,000 students.
“I'd argue that we have a librarian,” said Chris Markuns, a spokesman for school Superintendent/Receiver Jeff Riley. “She's able to help the kids do the work they need to do.”
George Edwards, the director of the NEASC's Commission on Public Schools, isn't as sure. He said he was not aware that Lawrence's high school library no longer had a certified librarian because the school never submitted a so-called Substantive Change Report required when schools make changes that could affect their accreditation. He has since contacted the school to ask for a report.
Students, faculty and School Committeewoman Marianela Rivera are lamenting what Rivera calls “the vanishing library.”
“Before they remodeled the library, there were a lot of books and it was a study place for students,” said sophomore Wendaly Vasquez. “When they took out most of the bookshelves, there was a lot of negative feedback from the upperclassmen because they had their library taken from them. It doesn't really feel like it's a library anymore because of the lack of books, but more like a mini-computer lab (and a) separate school. It's really frustrating because every high school should have access to a library with various books and a place to study peacefully.”
Markuns had no estimate for the number of books that were removed. A quick and casual count made by an Eagle-Tribune reporter during a recent visit tallied no more than a few thousand.
Maksian, who served 13 years as the school's librarian until retiring in 2015, said there were nearly 30,000 books on the shelves when she began her last year. The year ended with a directive from Assistant Headmaster Tim Finn to pack many of them up.
“I was told to box up and label all of the nonfiction,” Maksian said. “I'm assuming fiction was taken out afterward.”
Most of the books went into storage at the South Lawrence East School, Markuns said. Others were given away. About 1,000 ended up at the headquarters of the Lawrence Teachers Association at the Relief's In, a social club on Market Street where union president Frank McLaughlin has a second-floor office.
“I grabbed all the history ones,” McLaughlin said. “I grabbed as many of the books that were being thrown out as I could. I set up a library in the union office. We probably have 1,000 volumes. Some are still boxed.”
McLaughlin said he came upon the books piled by the door at the library, with a note tacked on inviting students and faculty to help themselves. About 300 that McLaughlin helped himself to now fill the shelves behind his desk in his office at the Relief's In, a mile from the high school.
“Some of them are terrific authors – Bruce Canton, Robert Remini, the (William) Manchester book on the Kennedy assassination,” McLaughlin said, pointing out his favorites, pulling them from the shelves and dusting them off. “I'd take a couple every day and before you know it, I had a library,”
McLaughlin noted that he has a second, bigger library in his office, pointing to his cell phone. He made the comment with humor and irony, but it went to the heart of the debate now going on at virtually every library anywhere, including at Lawrence High School: how to balance old-school, book-centered research with the digital information provided by online search engines and databases.
“Obviously, it can be jarring to see changes to the traditional library model, but there’s no escaping that many (libraries) – school and public – are trying to adapt to a post-internet generation for which digital literacy is a necessity,” Markuns said. “That doesn’t have to mean being strictly technology-based, but it does mean recognizing what visitors want, expect, need and will actually use when they come in. LHS is no different, and it’s an ongoing process.”
But if the Lawrence High School library is making the shift toward technology, the line to join the shift could get longer because one of the library's two computer labs was eliminated when Abbott arrived. It had 12 desktops.
Markuns noted that there are about six computers in the library’s common area, and another 40 laptop computers available for students to check out. In addition, he said there are 10 other computer labs on the high school campus, each with about 30 desktops, and said the school also has 785 Chromebooks and about 130 iPads.
Kathy Lowe, executive director of the Massachusetts School Librarians Association and a retired librarian at Boston public schools, said she recognizes the rapidly shifting culture and focus of 21st century school libraries and the accelerating shift to digital information. But she advised proceeding with caution, especially when staffing a library.
“First and foremost, school librarians are teachers and experts in using, evaluating and locating information in whatever format it's packaged, and also very adept at using technology. So they're the full package,” Lowe said. “But the IT person might not bring to the table other aspects of using information that school librarians are very familiar with, particularly the curriculum piece. A librarian is the one who understands what resources have the content that matches up with the curriculum. That's what we're losing when we just have this person who knows about the iPad, who can make sure everyone is connected to Wi-Fi, (but can't) build a collection that matches the curriculum.”
Markuns noted that the high school library is strengthening its ties to the Lawrence Public Library, including by getting every student a card to borrow from there.
But like the Lawrence High School library, the Lawrence Public Library does not employ a certified librarian. Neither acting library director Jessica Valentin nor her second in command, Kemal Bozkurt, are state-certified librarians. Among other things, certification requires a master's degree in library science.
In addition to the lost space and resources, the 3,000 high school students not in the Abbott Academy have lost access to the library during 14 days surrounding MCAS testing and final exams, when the entire facility is given over to Abbott during the regular school day.
School Committeewoman Rivera said students have protested to her that the shutdown has resulted in “unequal access to the library.”
“I want to make sure not only that the Abbott student but every student has access to the library when needed,” she said after carrying the protest into a recent School Committee meeting. “The students should have access to the library throughout the year. There shouldn't be restrictions.”
McLaughlin, the teachers union leader, said he remembers being dazzled by the library when he walked into it for the first time after the new high school opened a decade ago, accompanied by then-state Education Secretary Paul Reville.
“That library was to be the center,” McLaughlin said. “Everything was to revolve around that library. They built this big beautiful library, the finest in the state, New England. I remember walking in there for the first time with Reville and just feeling so proud. It had everything. It was open, bright, airy.”
“What we've gained, we've lost,” he said. "We did gain this Lyceum school, the Abbott Academy for high achievers. But it's ironic – to attract the very best kids, we had to get rid of the library.”