Each day when they report for duty, Debbie Owen and Debra Sidelinger have the satisfaction of knowing that they are now among the ranks of the few, the proud - the would-be school librarians.
Both women have been thrust onto the educational front lines before being 100 percent qualified, and they are already serving as school librarians even while they work toward earning master's degrees in library science.
As the United States marks National Library Week (April 6-12), librarians find themselves in the middle of a growing shortage, especially of school librarians.
A wave of librarian retirements, combined with school budget cuts brought on by state fiscal problems, has resulted in a slew of greenhorns and parent volunteers being deployed to fill the void among the stacks of the nation's public school libraries.
Based on 1990 US Census data, almost 58 percent of professional librarians will reach the retirement age of 65 between 2005 and 2019. In a 2000 survey by the Library Journal, 40 percent of library directors said they would retire in nine years or less.
That's just fine for the likes of Ms. Sidelinger, a 25-year veteran teacher who switched gears and is nearing completion of her master's degree at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pa.
Despite not being quite done, she quickly landed a job at St. Mary's Catholic Middle School in St. Mary's, Pa.
"There do seem to be an awful lot of jobs out there - at least in Pennsylvania," she says. "One librarian friend of mine in the same master's program interviewed with five schools and got five job offers."
But the demand picture is decidedly a mixed bag depending on region and state economic conditions. On the one hand, the overall number of retirements does create a new national demand for librarians who have masters degrees.
Witness Ms. Owen, a mother of two getting back into the work force after a five-year hiatus. She had just started her master's degree at Simmons College in Boston last summer when she was grabbed by the Benjamin Franklin Class-ical Charter School in Franklin, Mass. She now works half a week, sharing duties with another part-time professional.
On the other hand, tight budgets also mean positions are being phased out in states like Massachusetts, California, Arizona, Illinois, and elsewhere, reports the Chicago-based American Library Association (ALA).
In Springfield, Ill., eight of the district's elementary-school librarians have been cut in recent months. Meanwhile, at Hale Middle School in Stow, Mass., volunteers began filling in last year for trained librarians whose positions were cut.
But schools risk the educational quality offered students when they fill slots with unpaid, lightly trained volunteers, ALA officials say. Gone are the days when librarians mainly checked out books. The nexus of computers has made research and multimedia software skills a key feature of graduate education in library science. Such skills are not easily supplied by a parent volunteer, they say.
"They say, 'We're just so tight - we're a small school district and we can't afford it anymore,' " says Frances Roscello, president of the American Association of School Librarians, an ALA division representing about 10,000 K-12 librarians.
"It's sad, because they also recognize that studies show achievement goes up in schools with good library programs run by specialists."
There are about 66,000 librarians and 99,000 paid staff at the 94,000 public and private school libraries nationwide, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. (There are about 117,400 libraries overall, including public, academic, special, and government libraries.)
In the late 1990s, the number of job openings for librarians with a master's degree soared, along with applications to graduate programs in library science. But the number of openings has now fallen back below the number of job seekers since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the economic downturn, the ALA reports.
Simmons College, which offers a master's degree in library sciences, saw a 24 percent jump in applications last year for master's programs in library sciences. The school, with 600 in its graduate program, one of the largest in the region, also administers a New England job line, which saw a drop in job openings from 925 in 2000 to 800 in 2002.
Michele Cloonan, dean of the Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Sciences, sees fewer jobs in the short term, but good prospects in the long-run - and for anyone willing to relocate to jobs nationwide.
"Our applications continue to rise," she says. "Some [people] are being laid off, but others are retiring and not all sectors get hit at the same time. Public libraries and schools may get hit, but not necessarily academic and specialty libraries."
Many who signed up for graduate studies in the 1990s were aiming for jobs in high-tech corporate America as digital archivists for companies like Dreamworks SKG, a Hollywood studio that recognized the need to better organize and retrieve corporate information, says Ms. Cloonan.
Since then, however, many have lost their jobs, including some with dot.coms that went bust.
Still, applications among school- librarian hopefuls have remained steady and even grown slightly, despite low salaries that average $35,000 a year for a beginning librarian.
"Not everyone cares about the money," Cloonan says. "They just want to work with kids."