“Most people don't realize how important librarians are. I ran across a book recently which suggested that the peace and prosperity of a culture was solely related to how many librarians it contained. Possibly a slight overstatement. But a culture that doesn't value its librarians doesn't value ideas and without ideas, well, where are we?”
Neil Gaiman

Saturday, October 4, 2014

It's About Access to Content

We are living in a revolutionary time.  Our country has been struggling with a turbulent economy, financing a decade-long war, increasingly polarized politics, and changes flying at us from every direction as the result of rapidly developing technology and increasingly interconnected flows of information.  It is exciting and daunting at the same time.  Education has been caught in the crossfires of all of this while undergoing its own attempts at evolving.  Libraries have been keeping up with changes in technology and have evolved right along with all of the rapid changes surrounding them, but those outside of library circles seem to be mystified by what the library brings to the table amidst all of the changes.  Although format and delivery of information are shifting somewhat, libraries remain integral in the same way as when they were initially created; libraries are about access to content.

In the school environment, this role is particularly critical. There is a mountain of data showing that schools with library programs led by MLIS certified school librarians with full time staff and substantial collection development budgets have higher test scores, in all subject areas, than schools without libraries or libraries that are improperly staffed with inadequate collection development budgets.  Despite decades of data demonstrating the clear correlation, libraries continue to disappear.  The more I try to understand why, the more confused I am.  At the academic level, we have maintained strong libraries.  Budgets may be cut, but the idea of eliminating academic libraries isn't generally broached.  I'd imagine anyone who might raise such an idea in the academic environment would be swiftly castigated.  Research requires access to high quality information and scholars demand access.  They understand that access to content carries a price and that, even from a financial standpoint, having a library as their link to that access makes sense.    In the public and school environment, however, decries against the need for libraries isn't uncommon.  I'm coming to the conclusion that there is a vast misunderstanding of what a library is and does in these circles that simply isn't as prevalent in higher education.

Libraries and librarians collect and archive work.  It is irrelevant what format.  Digital or print, it is still about curating content.  The library provides access to curated content for its users.  Public libraries are tasked with curating content specific to the interests and needs of a given community and making it available for access by community members of all different ages. They provide content to retirees and preschoolers, homeless citizens and bank presidents, parents and children outside of regular school hours. It is not free; it is paid for with a share of that community’s public funds. If a community library does not have content that it’s community wants to access, the community can appeal to the library for content changes.  Public libraries were originally founded upon liberal political views about free and equal access to information, but they are not political in how they operate. They are organized with a mindset toward access of information to all people within a community, not a particular contingent or set of ideals.  

Museums and archives are also creating access to their curated content with public funding.  They provide specific content related to the collections they house, like the Smithsonian Institution or the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Museums and archives pay to digitize content, organize it, host it on servers, and ensure that users are able to access it.  It is paid for through membership fees, donations and public (tax) funding.  In some cases, you must pay a membership fee for access to digital content.  It carries all the same rights of ownership that the non-digital versions carries and requires attribution regardless of whether the individual user pays for access.  

As a nation, we should all be concerned about a growing trend toward destruction of public access through non-partisan, non-profit entities.  Power, control, and influence of information determined by those who select and organize content, and who restrict its access to content based upon ability to pay or other selective criteria is not in the interests of a diverse democratic society.   If we move toward a system where all content is driven directly through publishers, booksellers, or companies that curate content for a fee, individual citizens will lose out.  Libraries are not free.  It costs money to curate, organize, and make content searchable.  Libraries do these things without gaining profit on the items they curate.  Collection development is driven by user needs.  We already have a growing digital divide based upon ability to pay and continuing to move toward this pay to view model of information access will create a vast information and literacy divide.

There is great power in what the Internet has brought to society. We now have the ability to use linked computers to connect curators of content and to make curated digital content accessible outside of the physical confines of an actual space. In addition, physical curated content, like books, is searchable outside of the confines of a physical repository.  But the Internet and search engines are about connection, not ubiquitous access to content.  As an example, type “history of libraries” into Google.   You will get a list of potential resources on the topic.  The first thing on the list will likely be a Wikipedia entry.  I have nothing against Wikipedia, but it’s an encyclopedia.  Entries are written by people who provide a basic overview and are not necessarily experts in the topic.  Even prior to the digital age, encyclopedia research was never meant to be more than a basic overview, primarily used with elementary students.  The greatest value of a good Wikipedia entry is its potential for leading students toward further resources through a list of cited resources at the end of the page, many of which can only be accessed for a fee.  Just about all of the other resources that will come up in this query on the “history of libraries” are also only available for a fee.  This includes Google book references.  Not only are online digital books still unwieldy, but the viewing access for many digitized books is quite limited in Google books.  In a search for “history of libraries”, Google will send you to an eBook for Michael Harris’s 1999 book History of Libraries of the Western World.  You can read a limited number of preview pages in Google Books, but then are given a link leading you to the full text for purchase at the bargain price of $37.12.  Imagine a full research paper with multiple resources at this cost?  It becomes cost prohibitive for individuals.  Libraries have the ability to provide resources to patrons within a school or community through collective purchasing power and sharing.  Even documents published under Open Access platforms have a cost.  Someone has to edit, digitize, organize, format, store (yes, even electronically, documents need to be stored), and create a portal to that information.  There is always a cost.

Unlike all other libraries, school libraries and librarians are geared toward specific teaching skills for finding and ethically using information, collection development skills linked to curriculum and pedagogy, strong relationships bridge between publishers and content creators, K12 focused content, understanding of copyright/fair use rules (and how they are evolving), access to diverse variety of pleasure reading with the goal of cultivating widespread literacy and independent learning, and an ability to provide scaffolded instruction of skills for students so that when they ultimately leave the K12 environment they can effectively use both the resources available via the connection of the Internet and academic, business and public libraries to research information.

So what about the role of the Internet?  Can't teachers just use the Internet to create all of this rich content?   That implies a misunderstanding of what the Internet is.  The Internet isn't really a thing, but the interconnection of servers, devices, and individual computers.  Internet search engines troll content according to tagging and popularity.  The Internet does not provide ubiquitous access.  It has the ability to point searchers to places where they can access, but does not give them the keys.  Keys cost money even if the resource is digital.   In fact, digital access costs more than print access and does not currently carrying the same rights of ownership.  But don't we have content experts in our school districts?  Isn't that what curriculum specialists do? The role of curriculum specialists is centered on finding a “package” that meets the needs of each grade within a school district.  School librarians are about finding and curating resources from a diverse array of publishers and providers to teach content that teachers and students can tailor toward individual needs, styles, and abilities.  

As a comparative example of the potential for these different functions, let's look at two different schools.  School A has a packaged curriculum for each grade in math, language arts, social studies, and science.  They have no school library and supplement the language arts program with individual classroom libraries for silent reading.  During the month of March, students study fractions in math through math worksheets and drills, follow set reading, writing, and grammar lessons through the packaged LA curriculum, read about Japan in their social studies books, and read about the earth in their science books.   School B has a strong library program with rich resources centrally located within their school.  The library has two separate technology-rich classrooms capable of using Skype with a teacher and interviewee, sophisticated software programs and learning programs that use interactive gaming headphones.  The collection of resources is created with collaborative input from all of the teachers.  During March, the 3rd graders study Japan.   Teachers create a rich curriculum with the librarian that includes versions of the Sadako story, a strong varied collection of books about Japan, and biographies of famous Japanese and Japanese-American people.  Students have Skype conversations with Japanese school children in the technology classrooms, letting them experience the connection of learning with real children their age in Japan.  Math lessons on fractions include measurements in recipes for Japanese foods from a collection of age appropriate cookbooks for children and examples of origami paper folding.  The library has age appropriate resources on the effects of nuclear bombs and radiation on health and the environment that are used in science lessons.  Art classes explore Japanese brush and ink work ( shodo) and the creation of maneki neko (lucky cat) paintings.  Examples of Japanese art are in the library collection.  Music classes teach Classical Japanese music and children explore Japanese instruments through videos in the library collection.  They also learn some basic Japanese language skills using the gaming headphones and a language learning program in the library technology classrooms.  Which style of school do you think will have the most engaged students – and which students are most likely going to retain what they learn?  The skills being taught are the same, but the content of School B is far richer leading to deeper inquiry and understanding.

Technology does mean exciting things for education, but technology is about the tools for access and content creation, not the content itself.  And technology without content is like having a car, but no fuel.  Technology is certainly opening up amazing possibilities.  We can search greater volumes, access content from a distance, communicate over long distances at a lower cost than ever before, and tailor learning in remarkable ways.  But all content has a cost; somewhere it still needs to be paid for. Booksellers, like Amazon, have an interest in selling books.  Each item accessed, by each individual, carries a specific fee.  They do not provide access to everything published.  They operate under a model according to popularity of sale.  Newspapers and magazines charge for access.  Look at what your cable bill costs.  You pay, either through advertisements or premium access, for content.  Internet access works the same way.  

Unfortunately, cuts to school libraries mean a huge number of school librarians and support staff have to rely upon single vendor solutions.  This means that the bulk of collection development relies heavily upon the vendor selecting content and offering it to the library “shelf ready” at a premium price.  Fewer and fewer school librarians are able to voraciously peruse review copies prior to selection and the budgets for collection development are continually shrinking.  This is bad for education.   We are rapidly losing rich and diverse content in K12 education.  The technological tools we all seem so enamored with are worthless without content.  A student may learn how to use this year’s version of Excel or PowerPoint, but doesn't have a clue that cutting and pasting things from Internet sites without attribution is plagiarism.  The tools will change and students will have to learn how to use new tools on their own, just like the rest of us have been doing as new technology has evolved.  If we haven't taught them how to write, research, cite, edit, organize and evaluate information, and think independently, they won't have the skills to navigate in the world on their own.  If we are to truly embrace this revolutionary time in education, we should be moving toward centralized school libraries that are the hub of learning with more, not fewer, highly skilled staff members who can, and have the time to, cost-effectively curate collections, find new funding sources, collaboratively teach with other staff members, and provide access to rich content for students and staff.
Works consulted:

American Association of School Librarians.  Standards for the 21st Century Learner.  Chicago:  American Library Association, 2007.  www.ala.org/alsc/

Boelens, Helen.  “What is a school library?: International Guidelines.” International Association of School Librarianship (IASL).  Web. 28 Sept. 2014.www.iasl-online.org

Curry Lance, Keith. "School Library Impact Studies." Web. 28 Sept. 2014. .

Harris, Michael. History of Libraries of the Western World. Google EBook ed. (full Book Access Costs $37.12) Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1999.

National Library of New Zealand. "School Library: Purpose." Web. 29 Sept. 2014. 

Links to resources related to the impact of school libraries:

School Libraries Impact Studies

Latest Study: A full-time school librarian makes a critical difference in boosting student achievement

The Importance of School Libraries

Checking Out: Budget hawks see library programs as an easy out, but what's the cost to student achievement?

School Libraries Work! (Research Foundation Paper)

What You Can Do To Support School Libraries In Crisis

School Libraries Make The Difference

A Librarian's Tricks For Finding Those 'Complex Texts' Cited In the Common Core

Starting A Local School Libraries Friends Group

International Association of School Librarianship -- list of studies on school libraries worldwide

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