Earlier this month I read about a school district in Lincoln, Neb., that was extending its high school library hours to provide Internet access to students who didn’t have it at home. The move followed the district’s decision to provide Chromebooks for all students in 3rd through 12th grades. Now all of the district’s high school libraries will stay open at least until 5 p.m. with a couple of schools providing this service until 8 p.m.
That made me wonder if this was part of some new trend. It seems like it would be a great way to help students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. So I decided to ask an expert in school libraries. Audrey Church is the president of the American Association of School Librarians. We recently talked by phone, and below is a lightly edited version of our conversation.
So is this Lincoln, Neb., program unique or is it something you’re starting to see become widespread?
We had seen instances of this in the past, but it is my understanding that this is not currently widespread. Certainly, all school librarians want to provide access to books and information to their students, but the ability to have those extended hours is difficult when you don’t have the funding and the support to do so.
Do you think that as more schools start to provide students with devices like Chromebooks this will become more commonplace?
I would hope so. One of our nine common beliefs is that equitable access is a key component to education. When we think about that probably 25 (percent) to 30 percent of our children do not have reliable or broadband Internet access in their homes, if we’re not providing that access to them in the school library that Chromebook is not going to be useful to them. If they don’t have that Internet access at home then they’re not having access to information, and it really is an equity issue.
What about opening school libraries in the morning before school starts? Have you seen schools doing that?
There are perhaps isolated instances. There are a lot of issues involved. One, of course, is staffing if you have a library open and you want to have the services of a certified school librarian so that the children can have the access to that expertise that they need in order to use those devices and find and evaluate information.
Another issue, along with the staffing is funding for that staffing. In the morning, perhaps not so much, but if you’re extending hours in the evening there’s the issue of the building being open and security can come into play. Where I have observed this happening most, and it’s not common in any way, but I work in Virginia, and in Virginia, we do have a requirement that every school has a certified school librarian. At the middle and high school levels, when you reach 1,000 students, you’re required to have a second, certified full-time librarian. So I have seen cases where, with two people on staff, they can do staggered hours, and it’s easier in a situation like that because you can have one person coming in in the morning and opening the library early and perhaps leaving earlier and another person coming in a bit later and staying in the evenings so that you provide that certified librarian the entire time the library’s open. But that’s not common—even in Virginia, it would only be in the larger schools. I know that it’s not common in a lot of other states where they don’t even have one certified librarian in a school.
Five or 10 years from now do you think the majority of school libraries will have extended hours?
Our focus is on student learning, and so anything that school libraries can do to contribute to student learning is what we’ll see in the future. We’ve always talked about the digital divide, but I’m afraid that that divide is increasing rather than decreasing precisely because of the issues that we’ve talked about today. We’re putting the devices in the children’s hands, but if they don’t have the capability of using those devices outside of the school building, we’re doing a disservice to those who are less affluent.
As school librarians, we want to provide both physical and virtual access to our libraries. Once upon a time it was only physical access. Students had to come to the library in order to use our resources. Then when we started to expand into the virtual realm, we were able to provide services with our web pages. But as we’ve moved more into that digital realm, that virtual realm, the equity issue is becoming larger and larger. And as more and more of our resources are available only in that format, the gap is increasing rather than decreasing.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.