School Libraries Seek Relevance Through Virtual Access

By Katie Ash — February 09, 2010 7 min read
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During a time when school administrators are being forced to make tough decisions about budgets, libraries are working to reassert their relevance to schools by shifting from a quiet place to study and browse for books to an interactive, media-rich space for students to learn about digital tools, collaborate, and share their work.

Gone are the days when a library was essentially a warehouse of books, said Cassandra Barnett, the president of the Chicago-based American Association of School Librarians and the school library media specialist for the 2,000-student Fayetteville High School in Arkansas.

“We have really burst out of our walls, and we’re a part of everything in the school now, which I’m not sure was always the case,” she said.

But getting the support to remain relevant is a challenge. School libraries are struggling to secure the money needed to continue programs and provide services to schools as they compete with other educational priorities that are seen as more important. President Barack Obama’s proposed fiscal 2011 budget, for example, does not set aside funds specifically for school libraries, which will likely lead to further cuts to such libraries, Ms. Barnett said.

“School library programs focus on the skills that prepare students to be independent learners capable of assessing and recognizing their personal strengths and weaknesses, thus graduating college or career ready,” Ms. Barnett said in a statement issued after last week’s budget release. “Yet, Obama’s budget and policy proposals neglect to support the role of school librarians and, as a result, too many of our nation’s schools will not have school librarians or essential school library programs.”

School libraries were feeling pinched already, said Carol Mackey, the librarian for the 2,000-student Mountain View High School in Vancouver, Wash. Her budget for this school year was cut by 68 percent, she said, which has forced her to curtail after-school library hours, cut her two staff assistants’ hours down to six a day instead of eight, cancel numerous subscriptions to magazines and newspapers, as well as eliminate three of the databases the school used to access.

Tech Inventory

School library media centers reported offering various technological services during the 2007-08 school year.


SOURCE: U. S. Department of Education

And Ms. Mackey considers herself one of the luckier ones. “It’s not nearly as bad as it could be [at Mountain View],” she said. Many districts in her state operate with only one staff assistant, and some don’t have any, she said.

Last year, in the 16,900-student Bellevue School District outside of Seattle, some middle and high school librarians were shifted to classrooms to help with increasing class sizes because of budget cuts, said Ann Oxrieder, a spokeswoman for the district. The libraries are now run by paraprofessionals, she said.

That lack of support could hurt students, librarians argue. And some students themselves testify to the value of school libraries.

Mary Helen T. Schwartz, a 16-year-old junior at the 800-student Springfield Township High School in Erdenheim, Pa., said she uses the school library about three times a week. “Most frequently, I use the library digital catalog to locate and track down encyclopedias, books, and periodicals to use for my research projects,” she said in an e-mail interview. “The library provides a wide array of materials I frequently use in history class, from entire collections on eras of American history to obscure, specific books on political-party machines and congressional acts.”

Technology—and the Internet, specifically—has brought about a transformation in the duties and skills of a librarian, said Doug Johnson, the director of media and technology for the 7,000-student Mankato school system in Minnesota.

“We’ve gone from being a guide in an information desert to a guide in an information jungle,” he said.

Instead of having to seek out information, students and teachers are now inundated with it, said Mr. Johnson, and it is the librarian’s role to teach them how to judge the “good resources from the bad resources.”

Information literacy, which has long fallen into the realm of librarians, is “no longer an optional literacy,” said Buffy Hamilton, the media specialist at the 1,500-student Creekview High School in Canton, Ga. “It’s a literacy and a form of cultural capital that I think you have to have in order to fully participate in today’s society.”

Creating in Web 2.0

In addition to teaching students and teachers how to navigate information, libraries have now become a place where students go to create and produce, said Carolyn Foote, the district librarian who works at the 2,500-student Westlake High School in Austin, Texas.

“Students are producing all sorts of products—YouTube videos, PowerPoint presentations, online slideshows, podcasts—and so as librarians, we need to have the skills to work with all those different formats and help students learn how to produce in those formats,” she said.

Digital Directions

This month, Education Week began a special technology feature that will appear in every issue of the newspaper, covering news, trends, and ideas about digital learning and administrative uses of tech tools in schools.

Read the winter issue of Education Week Digital Directions to learn more about digital tools for customizing learning, the role of e-learning in personalizing education, teacher use of whiteboards, Twitter in the classroom, and student perspectives about how schools could use technology more effectively.

Consequently, it’s increasingly important for librarians to be familiar with new technologies and Web 2.0 tools, she said.

“There’s a lot of debate in the library field about whether you can even be a 21st-century librarian if you aren’t willing to embrace some of those Web 2.0 tools and be very proficient in them,” Ms. Foote said. “There’s a real need for us to be participating all the way through the [creation] process, and we need the skills to be able to do that.”

Joyce Kasman Valenza, the library information specialist for Springfield Township High in Pennsylvania, said that libraries are no longer “grocery stores” where students can go to pick up ingredients, but “kitchens,” where they have the resources necessary to create a finished product.

And despite students’ desire to embrace Web 2.0 tools, librarians and teachers should not assume that students know how to use them for academic purposes, said Ms. Foote, from Westlake High School.

“[Students] may be savvy consumers on YouTube, or savvy at playing World of Warcraft, or savvy at using Facebook, but in terms of doing other things—like creating a wiki, writing a blog, or creating an online portfolio for their work—the majority of our students are still very inexperienced,” she said.

In an age when media offerings are often remixed, reused, and repurposed, teaching students, as well as teachers, about copyright, as well as some of the other open licenses that have cropped up to keep up with digital media, is another important focus for librarians, Ms. Foote said.

Physical Space Necessary?

With the rise of e-books and digital information, it’s imperative for school libraries to have a strong virtual presence, said Mr. Johnson, from the Mankato school district.

Audio books and digital players are available in the Westlake High School Library in Austin, Texas. School libraries are going digital as students navigate a media-rich environment.

“There’s a growing question as to whether schools even need a physical library,” he pointed out. “If everybody can get onto Google, do we really need a physical space?”

In Mr. Johnson’s opinion, though, the library’s physical space remains important to a school.

David V. Loertscher, a professor of library and information science at San Jose State University in California, believes that the virtual presence of school libraries is becoming increasingly important.

“The virtual spaces are growing exponentially because you have to get to the kids 24/7,” he said. “None of us can operate in that physical space only anymore.”Ms. Schwartz, the student at Springfield Township High, said she often uses her school library’s Web site from home. “I use it more frequently on my own desktop than in the actual library,” she said.

Typically, she said, her research is split half and half between home and the physical library.

One way to draw students into school libraries and create a “learning commons” is to retool the space into a collaborative, project-based center, said Mr. Loertscher.

Setting up a performance space where students can share their work with parents, peers, and teachers, for example, is one way to achieve that goal, said Mr. Loertscher.

The library at Austin’s Westlake High recently underwent a renovation, Ms. Foote said. The new space is much more flexible and open, she said, and it’s equipped with extra plugs for laptops and chargers.

And, Ms. Foote advised: “You have to have a Web site that’s interactive and user-friendly. There needs to be lots of ways to reach [the library], either through instant messaging or texting or e-mail.”

The Web site is not just to communicate with students, she added. A good library Web site will raise awareness with teachers, administrators, parents, and the community about what is going on in the school library.

Meanwhile, libraries have been deeply affected by recession-driven cuts in school budgets, experts in the field said. In that climate, maintaining a Web site or blog that documents what goes on at a school library can help librarians be good advocates for their space, said Ms. Hamilton, from Georgia’s Creekview High.

Providing students with a space where they can gather, share ideas, and learn is “what we try to do,” Ms. Hamilton added, “to be at the heart of learning, both formal and informal.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as School Libraries Seek Relevance Through Virtual Access


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