Though Philadelphia's public library services recently landed on the chopping block, the city's public school students have watched school library services dwindle for years.

Today, more than half of the district's 281 schools have no library staff. In one region, it's up to 78 percent.

It's a worsening problem.

At one point, every one of the 200-plus city schools had a library and a librarian. By 1991, the number of librarians had dropped to 176. Now, there are only 77.

So if some city libraries close, the district is woefully underprepared to pick up the slack for its 167,000 students, library supporters said.

District officials know they have miles to go.

"We're very concerned about a lot of our libraries," said Lois McGee, who as the district's new director of integrated instruction is the point person for libraries. "We don't know what condition the libraries are in right now."

Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter's education secretary, said the district superintendent and city library director had begun talks about how the two might work together.

"We are having very productive, high-level conversations between Dr. [Arlene] Ackerman and Siobhan Reardon on these issues," Shorr said. "There's a lot of exciting energy around those conversations about how we can provide better library services in communities."

Shorr said the talks were about "shared services, broadly," but she declined to provide further specifics.

Some schools have converted their library space to other uses. Others have kept the room, unstaffed, with aging books.

In those schools that do have libraries, the area can function as the heart of the school - a lively place where students use computers, browse the stacks, work on projects, and ask questions.

At Swenson Arts and Technology High School in the Northeast, librarian Janet Malloy doesn't shush students. "My library is a working classroom," she said.

Literacy advocates say the state of district libraries is unacceptable, especially in light of high-stakes tests' emphasis on reading and the looming cuts to city libraries.

"It's really very important for a school to have a library," said Adrienne Jacoby, executive director of Philadelphia Reads and a former city principal. "It says so much about your priorities about literacy."

Even in an Internet age, "libraries are worth their weight in gold," Jacoby said.

It's unclear whether the city and district are looking for ways in which school libraries might fill gaps that could be left in 11 communities whose libraries the mayor wants closed. A judge ordered the 11 kept open; the city has appealed.

Whether a school has a library is up to each principal; libraries are funded from each school's budget.

Years ago, every district school had a library and certified librarian. But tight budgets, fewer grant dollars, and changing regulations caused some principals to either choose to staff libraries with aides instead of librarians or cut libraries.

Officials estimate it could cost more than $100,000 - not including salary - to start a modern school library, which requires space, books and other materials, computers, and an adult to run it. In recent years, principals have turned increasingly to lower-paid aides not trained in library sciences to staff libraries.

"There's no rhyme or reason to why schools have libraries or don't," said Marsha Sadres, a longtime district librarian now at Washington High.

At Wright Elementary in Strawberry Mansion, the spacious library is little more than a room to store things or park a child who needs quiet time. Principal Anita Duke just can't spare the money to pay a librarian. "If you had the choice between getting a librarian or an additional teacher to reduce class size or to support kids who are at risk, you'd go for the teacher every time," said Duke, who asks teachers to keep classroom libraries.

It would cost about $90,000 in salary and benefits to hire a certified librarian, Duke said. Last year, she budgeted about $20,000 for a part-time library assistant, but the position was never filled, so she used the money to buy laptops for some classrooms.

It's a very different scene at Swenson's library.

On a recent morning, the room was its typical hive of activity. Twenty-five students were spread out at computers and tables around the room.

Freshman Briana McCloud is a regular. She feels welcome in the library, she said. It helps her focus better.

"I print things out for projects, I check out books," McCloud, 14, said.

Malloy offered advice on a science project and helped a student with a question about Internet research. These days, school librarians deal with much more than books, she said.

"I collaborate with teachers. I buy my collection thinking about what is taught in the classroom," Malloy said.

But some students still come for old-fashioned reasons: they just like to read for leisure - Malloy has a hard time keeping urban fiction on her shelves.

Many of her students use city libraries as well, and they have told her they worry about the potential shuttering of them, she said.

"They say, 'I don't have another place to go,' " Malloy said. "They're not going to take an extra bus to get to another library. School libraries are going to be even more important."

Malloy, who is president of the Association of Philadelphia School Librarians, said her group was particularly concerned about the distribution of libraries across the city.

In the district's Northeast Region, for instance, 70 percent of schools have library services - a library staffed either full or part time with a librarian or library aide. But in the Central East Region, just 22 percent have services.

"Lots of the failing schools have no librarian or no library," Malloy said.

But McGee and Maria Pitre, the district's chief academic officer, said they hoped to fix that.

Pitre said expanding library services was a top priority. Teams evaluating the libraries will advise on costs for each school to have a full library and librarian.

Still, in a tight economy, it remains unclear whether the district will be able to find significant money to bolster libraries.

"It all goes back to district funding," Pitre said.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said he worried that without school libraries, students weren't getting necessary research skills.

"We give kids the wrong message when we say, 'Reading is fun, reading is important,' and then they walk past their school library and it's closed," Jordan said.

Contact staff writer Kristen A. Graham at 215-854-5146 or kgraham@phillynews.com.