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Originally published Sunday, January 20, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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The category of fun slowly being pulled from library shelves

The sound of jazz fills the library at Arthur Jacobsen Elementary in Auburn as Art Spencer prepares for his afternoon storytelling session...

Times Southeast Bureau

The sound of jazz fills the library at Arthur Jacobsen Elementary in Auburn as Art Spencer prepares for his afternoon storytelling session.

"This isn't your traditional quiet library," Spencer said.

Throughout the Auburn School District, Spencer is known for his animated reading sessions in which he brings characters to life.

"Reading aloud keeps kids' attention," Spencer said. "It conveys emotion."

Once considered a mainstay of the school library, this fun, engaging reading time could be in danger at some area schools, educators say.

"All programs are challenged because of state budgets," said Rod Luke, executive director of K-12 student learning and district technology in Auburn schools. "You have to be extremely prudent in how you run programs these days."

To adapt to these changes, Southeast King County districts say they are overhauling how they run their libraries and how much money goes into library programs.

In Auburn, the district has expanded the duties of librarians, who now show students how to conduct research on the Internet, administer reading tests and teach classes. Some elementary-school librarians have become technology coordinators in their schools.

Ideally, officials from all Southeast districts say they would keep a full-time librarian at every school, but rising transportation costs and state-mandated initiatives have forced districts to make tough decisions.

Two years ago, officials in the Renton School District chose to keep full-time librarian positions, but the number of library-aide hours were cut in smaller elementary schools, district spokesman Randy Matheson said.

In the Tahoma School District, individual schools choose how to pay for library programs, district spokesman Kevin Patterson said.

Tahoma Middle School and Cedar River Middle School share a librarian, while the district's high school and junior high have their own librarians on staff. Four elementary schools in Tahoma have part-time librarians who work with library aides.

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"It is always a question of how best to use limited resources to meet students' needs," Patterson said.

In Kent, schools have been hit hard by decreasing library budgets, said Dennis McClellan, director of instructional technology for Kent.

The district's elementary and middle schools have taken the biggest hit, with most staffed by part-time librarians. Three elementary schools — Covington, Lake Youngs and Sawyer Woods — have no librarians, only assistants.

"In almost all cases, our librarians have lost teaching time and time to guide their students in their reading selections," McClellan said.

These types of cuts can have lasting effects. Librarians who work fewer hours and have more responsibilities have less time to manage and replenish collections. For fickle young readers, out-of-date selections can be a turnoff, librarians say.

"[A] collection diminishes in value over time," McClellan said. "A library without a librarian dies a slow and quiet death."

This legislative session, the Washington Library Media Association, an advocacy group of librarians from around the state, will push for laws that would require all schools to have a full-time certified school librarian.

Other groups statewide also have said enough is a enough.

In the Spokane School District, parents launched a statewide campaign last year after the district cut 10 librarians to half time. The Federal Way School District was criticized in 2006 when 20 full-time library positions were cut because of a $4 million budget gap.

A decade ago, most librarians maintained collections and taught students how to research a topic or find books they would enjoy reading, said Teresa Wittmann, elementary-level chairwoman for the Washington Library Media Association.

"Librarians used to teach about books and literature, but the role has changed," Wittmann said.

Increasingly, librarians say they use time outside of school to keep up on new books.

Spencer reads books and listens to audio books at home to stay on top of new trends. In addition to his regular duties, he runs a storytelling club for students and organizes a book-reading challenge each year.

"Over the years, I've taken on new responsibilities," Spencer said, "I love my job, and if it means taking on more work to continue doing this, I will."

Karen Johnson: 253-234-8605 or karenjohnson@seattletimes.com

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