in Digital Web

The future of school libraries

So this came up via Twitter when a friend mentions her local school bought Kindles and Nooks for the students and thought this was a bad idea. Her legitimate concern? What happens to libraries when technology is used to get rid of the books? Having spent my entire professional career in higher ed, my immediate first thought that such an introduction would be good.

I have an iPad, but I use the Kindle app a lot. I like physical books and find that I read better with them than I do with my Nook/Kindle/iBooks triumvirate. But ease of use can’t be understated. So much of today’s advantages are derived from businesses online not needing to invest in shelf space. I felt that school libraries would struggle — not due to a lack of talent, but funds — to keep up with demand in the places they still might be open. The New York Times talked about this a few months ago, specifically mentioning the decline in librarians due to declining budgets.

Nancy Everhart, president of the American Association of School Librarians, whose membership has fallen to 8,000 from 10,000 in 2006, said that, on the contrary, the Internet age made trained librarians more important, to guide students through the basics of searching and analyzing information they find online.

Libraries, Ms. Everhart said, are “the one place that every kid in the school can go to to learn the types of skills that will be expected of them when it’s time to work with an iPad in class.”

Some states, including Arkansas, Indiana and Kentucky, require every public school to employ a certified librarian; others, like Maine, leave staffing decisions to districts. New York requires certified librarians in middle and high schools but not elementary schools, and also requires a certified library assistant for any school that has more than 1,000 students.

But an analysis of state and city data shows there is one librarian for every 2,146 students this year, compared with 1 per 1,447 in 2005. At least 386 schools serving students from grades 6 through 12 do not have a librarian on staff, the records show. A spokesman for the Education Department said some of those schools shared librarians, though he could not say how many.

I realize that innovation isn’t necessarily the strong suit of districts squeezing pennies, but what if our view of librarians changed from someone who is a herder of books and instead, one who helps students learn about research, how to use the web and digital tools to do so and utilize public libraries more readily. I doubt that most districts would manage to make this shift, because money is tight.

I’m just not sure that the death knell to librarians is to eschew any progress at all. The ship is already out of the gates. More and more kids are using digital tools to research and learn. It seems that schools should value the need for research and to view librarians not as outdated expenses, but rather, educators who provide an invaluable skill.

On the flip side, it would seem the librarians association could stand to improve the image of the field, demonstrating the diverse curriculum involved in Library Science programs and how these educators are critical to teaching in the information age.