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, …