Librarians Plug Into the 'Information Age'

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Beginning this week, the Quince Orchard High School's library will expand into students' homes.

The Gaithersburg, Md., school is establishing a network that will link computer users--in the library, throughout the school, and at home--with its computerized catalogue and with those of neighboring schools. The network will also allow users to gain access to a host of reference books whose contents are stored on compact disks.

At the same time, other Quince Orchard students will begin classes in the library's television studio. These students will broadcast school events, art shows, and plays directly into classrooms. And they will write, direct, and produce a twice-weekly news program.

The new suburban-Washington high school is at the forefront of a movement that librarians say has radically transformed their profession.

By instructing students in the use of new technologies and new ways to obtain data, and by providing a wide range of previously unavailable materials, they say, librarians--or, as they are often known, media specialists--can become schools' key players in what has become known as "the information age."

But despite the growing importance of such skills, relatively few librarians have yet taken advantage of the opportunities the technologies provide.

Many schools, for example, lack the resources to purchase expensive equipment--a situation that could lead, the American Library Association has warned, to a dangerous gap between the "information haves" and "information have-nots."

In addition, librarians argue, teachers and principals have failed to provide the support necessary to place librarians where they say they ought to be--in the "center of the curriculum."

In response, a growing number of library-media specialists have begun to form alliances with other educators to exert a stronger influence over policy questions.

In the past year, for example, the two-year-old Society of School Librarians International has worked with curricular organizations to evaluate new materials and has joined the Committee for Education Funding to lobby for increased federal support.

And the American Association of School Librarians, a branch of the American Library Association, has produced new guidelines setting forth for administrators--and for librarians themselves--what their roles should be.

The efforts are aimed, say librarians, at raising their status within schools by demonstrating the importance of their role.

"We want to be equal with teachers and faculty, not support personnel," says Alice E. Fite, the society's executive director. "We are teachers. We belong in the education community."

"Our talents are to organize and classify information, and to evaluate materials," she says. "Our training has given us talents no one else in the school system has."

In addition to convincing other educators of the importance of those talents, many librarians are themselves coming to grips with changes in their profession.

"The role of the school librarian is being redefined," says Frances A. Dean, director of the division of instructional resources in the Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools, which includes Quince Orchard. "The trick is to keep the best things traditional--books, the printed word, the love of reading--while accepting the reality that we are also faced with technology."

Like printed materials, she adds, computers and video are "tools to communicate--we have got to prepare kids to do that."

Such changing responsibilities are reflected in the aasl's new guidelines for the profession, which were last revised in 1975.

The new document, according to Barbara R. Herrin, deputy director of the aasl, states that librarians should teach library skills within the school's curriculum, rather than as a separate subject; consult with teachers about planning lessons; and form links with other collections and sources of information.

"This is a vision of what ought to be," says Ms. Herrin. "Parts of it are very much in place in various parts of the nation. But there is room for a good deal of growth."

Most librarians agree that the use of microcomputers has wrought the most dramatic changes in the way librarians do business.

In new "electronic" libraries, such as the one at Quince Orchard High School, computer terminals have replaced card catalogues, data bases have replaced stacks of reference books, and bar codes have replaced check-out cards.

These changes have allowed librarians to spend less of their time on the administrative chores of managing their collections, and more on working with teachers and evaluating materials.

The bar-code system, for example, has enabled a media assistant at Stone Mill Elementary School in Montgomery County to take inventory in a few hours; that job used to take several days.

In addition to freeing librarians' time, microcomputers have also vastly expanded the amount of information available within a school building.

In particular, notes Al Saley, a librarian at Mountain Lakes (N.J.) High School, the growth of computer networks has enabled libraries to ''expand their collection" by allowing access to other collections.

Last year, he says, Jerome Reiter, then a senior in his school, used the state's system of regional computerized-catalogue networks to obtain many materials, unavailable in his school, to conduct research on a paper he was writing on Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. The paper was published in the first edition of the Concord Review, a new journal of history written by high-school students.

Library computers have also enabled librarians to introduce students to technologies and research skills they will need in college and the job market, notes Jack R. Luskay, a librarian at John Jay Senior High School in Katonah, N.Y.

In his school's library, for example, students can tap into dialog, a California-based data base that contains a vast number of reference materials.

"If they are going off to college, they'll be using a variety of tools," Mr. Luskay says. "They have to have skills to do that kind of searching."

In addition to computers, librarians can also familiarize students with audio and video technologies, notes Ms. Dean of Montgomery County.

The television studio at Quince Orchard is not unique in the district, she points out. Several other high-school and elementary-school media centers also provide video equipment for students.

By challenging students to write, direct, and act, the media center stimulates accomplishment among participants displaying diverse learning styles.

"We use different media, because all kids do not learn the same way," Ms. Dean says. "You have to have many different resources available to them."

"Students at risk often profit most from these unique experiences," she adds.

But Ms. Dean also acknowledges that such programs are expensive, and that not all schools can afford to provide what her relatively affluent district offers.

The 161-school Montgomery County district is spending $1.7 million this year on library materials and equipment, including $742,000 in elementary schools, $324,000 in middle schools, and $622,000 in high schools. The total district budget is $577 million.

But the district, she says, began to make a strong commitment to build up its library programs in the 1970's, using federal funds that are currently in short supply.

In the past, the federal Chapter 2 program provided funds for school libraries. But since 1982 those funds have been distributed in block grants to states, and libraries must compete with other programs for grants.

Schools for whom technology is out of reach, librarians warn, face the prospect of restricting students' access to information.

As a result, a 1986 report by a commission of the American Library Association warned, America will "tend to move further toward a two-class society of 'information haves' and 'information have-nots."'

"That's a serious concern," acknowledges Mr. Luskay. "If you can't afford [technology], the student is denied access to information."

"That applies even to buying books," he points out.

But Ms. Herrin of the school-librarians' association argues that even media specialists in financially strapped schools can accomplish a great deal for students by forming partnerships with teachers to help develop curricula, plan lessons, and select curricular materials.

"Many times partnerships are forged without an overabundance of resources," she says.

Such alliances can raise librarians' status by demonstrating their "value" in the school, says Ms. Fite. But they also help by making media specialists feel less isolated, she points out.

"Very often, school librarians see themselves as low man on the totem pole," she says. "They are often the only ones of their kind in the building."

In addition to helping to raise librarians' status, such arrangements also bolster their management of the school's collection, according to Mr. Luskay, by keeping them aware of materials teachers may request.

"If the library is an extension of the classroom," he says, "it improves the quality of the services we provide by being part of that team."

Building partnerships can also help librarians secure scarce funds, notes David G. Cook, director of media services at Fox Lane High School in Bedford, N.Y.

"If teachers say the library is necessary to the curriculum, that's where power lies," he says. "If you are a principal, who are you going to give money to? Five people asking for help, or one person asking for help?"

Often, Mr. Saley says, teachers seek out such partnerships by asking for help in setting up equipment or in providing original-source materials to supplement weak textbooks.

Moreover, notes Mr. Herrin, teachers depend on librarians' knowledge of subjects outside their field. Librarians, she says, "view all parts of the curriculum, therefore they are aware of what is going on in the school."

On the national level, the society has also attempted to boost librarians' status by forging alliances with national education groups.

Susan Frost, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, says she welcomes the ssli's support. The society's involvement will strengthen the group's hand in lobbying for additional federal funds for education, Ms. Frost points out.

"School librarians are working with the kids we are talking about," she says. "They see the problems first-hand. They are one of our best groups of advocates."

The society's efforts to review curricular materials for the International Reading Association and the National Council for the Social Studies will provide "a service" to members of those organizations, according to Mr. Luskay.

"That's a service we can provide classroom teachers," he explains. "We can make a definite contribution to what goes on in the classroom."

Such efforts also underscore in a public way the idea that librarians and other educators share common concerns, adds Penelope W. Partlow, a librarian at St. Paul's School in Brooklandville, Md.

"Once you get beyond the technical concerns, our concerns are really education-based," she says.

Vol. 08, Issue 13

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories