Jeffrey Hastings has written this lengthy essay on being (or not being) a school library media specialist. As always LISNews welcomes all original work. I am quite happy to now have had 2 days in a row with an original essay!
After eleven years as a school library media specialist, I’m considering quitting. I’ve gone back to school once again, completed the courses and taken the test required for secondary language arts certification and am prepared to beat a retreat into the classroom. Though I once felt school librarianship to be my ultimate professional destiny, I now think I’d like to teach high school English.
The teachers who are aware of this think I’m crazy. They wonder why I’d ever ditch the contemplative serenity of the school library in favor of the demanding unruliness of the English classroom. When I told our district personnel director of my interest in a pursuing a classroom post, she voiced the typical reaction: “Okay, Jeff,” she said, “but--I have to ask--my God, why? You’ve got the job all the teachers want.”
Of course, the idyllic hush and genteel working conditions of the school library--the ones my classroom-bound colleagues have so often expressed jealousy about--have never really existed save in the minds of those who have never actually run one. Anyone who actually has been a school librarian knows that the job is characterized by a wildly divergent set of relentless demands from administrators, teachers, students, and from the facility itself. Its a breathless stream of odd-jobs within a regular job, really--full of minor emergencies, new challenges, new things to explore and experiment with, and spontaneous, authentic opportunities to teach. That’s the way the job’s always been and that’s what attracted me to it.
What has changed about the school library media specialists’ job in the past decade has been the introduction and, especially, the popularization of computerized information technology. It was a wave of change that held incredible promise; change I, as a school librarian, took an active lead in; change our profession eagerly embraced. It was also a wave of change that, I think, in many ways, has left school librarians devalued and marginalized and has shifted school librarians’ roles closer to being custodians of technology and further from being teachers. And being a teacher has always been the most important aspect of my job as a school library media specialist, so I’m disappointed, to say the least.
In an attempt to illustrate the great expectations and the unexpected consequences of technology on my school library I have put together a rough chronology of the technological evolution and professional devolution of my school library career. Maybe you can relate to some of it:
When I arrived at my school library in 1991, the fresh recipient of a masters degree in library and information science and a teaching credential, there was almost none of what we, somewhat simplistically, call technology today. My students wouldn\'t believe this now but (horrors!) we didn\'t even have a copier. Sure, we had the standard \"A-V\" stuff: The videos, the projection devices, all the antecedents of the gizmos and gazmos of contemporary edutainment; everything you\'d expect to find sleeping and in need of a good dusting in a modern school library\'s storeroom closets, but in terms of computers, there was just the lone Apple II machine which ran our library circulation package.
I thought about the changes I\'d like to make in my library and prioritized them. One deficiency struck me immediately, our periodical collection. It was a mess. I was particularly interested in getting our older middle schoolers’ feet wet in using periodical articles to do some of their research so they could get a taste for the methods they\'d be using in high school and beyond. To do that, I’d need to reorganize and rethink my magazine collection. I’d also need some electronic help. I had no computers and no budget to buy any. That first year I took every periodical index/database product demo I could find that offered a hardware setup in their trial period. Meanwhile I snooped around. Soon, I found out that a local supermarket chain had donated a few IBM PS2s (remember those?)-- to schools in our district. Most of them weren\'t being used. Nobody had any interest or appropriate software. Our district\'s only computer exposure had been with Apple II series machines. Principals were happy to let me have them.
Unfortunately, the PS2s I picked up did not have CD-ROM drives that I could use to run a database product. In fact, they didn\'t even have hard drives. I figured that I could use them anyway. Acting on faith, I ordered a subscription to the Infotrac intermediate level periodical index/database \"Tom Jr.\" I bought a few Backpack CD-ROM drives, very newfangled items--they were made to connect to printer ports. I guessed that I could write a batch file that would make the drives accessible and start the database programs. Each workstation would have a copy of the file sitting in its floppy drive non-stop. Waiting for the drives and my first CD-ROMs to arrive was difficult. I was tremendously anxious to see if the machines could actually heft the load. I feared I might have made a big mistake-- a database subscription takes a big chunk out of a library budget.
Meanwhile I cleaned up our periodical room. I canceled subscriptions to less \"useful\" magazine titles and started new ones based on what Tom Jr. indexed. One of the most painful spasms of change I\'ve had to initiate in all my years of school librarianship accompanied this effort: I had to tell our veteran library secretary that our long-standing subscription to Cat Fancy would be getting the ax. I see it now, in retrospect, as having been the crucial acid test of my career and I am proud to say that the secretary accepted the edict with a stiff upper lip as a demonstration of her commitment to follow me to the ends of the newly coined \"Information Superhighway.\"
She\'d loved Cat Fancy.
Let me tell you something: The first time I booted up one of those anemic machines, watched the lines of batch commands whiz by, watched the backpack drive light up and whine, and saw the blocky Tom Jr. logo pop up on the screen, I literally did a dance of joy. I am not the sort of person who is prone to dances of joy. The last one I did accompanied the birth of my daughter. She\'ll be five in a couple of weeks.
When the database worked I danced. I danced because I knew this was a big thing for the library. It wasn\'t just that I\'d brought in our library\'s first electronic source. That wasn\'t really important. I danced because I\'d made the library better. Now I could teach some real research techniques. Previously, with our spotty and scattershot periodical collection that was accessed using print indexes that seemed to cite everything but what we actually had, research using periodicals was a frustrating exercise guaranteed to teach anyone who attempted it only one thing: never to try doing so again.
I was pleased with the difference electronic access to periodical indexes and limited full text had on our facility. We did research using magazine articles as sources and it worked. Initially, some teachers were a little intimidated by the shift in delivery, but it was clear from the start that the kids really dug the electronic search and retrieval mode. I was excited. So were the students.
I noticed it wasn\'t the content the kids were able to easily access that stoked them up, though. Mostly, I discovered, they just liked doing it. They’d put a word or two in, stuff would come up, they’d print stuff out. Input-output. Cool! They were accessing more and better material, it seemed clear, but the student\'s comments were rarely things like \"Wow, this article is exactly what we were looking for,\" or (one has to dream) \"This article is fascinating!\" More often--so very often--the comments came from kids who were lined up at the printer waiting for their stuff. \"Chad, dude! Check it out! Thirty-eight pages!\" That was the type of student feedback I usually got. I noted it, and hoped it was just a temporary by-product of the novelty of computer-assisted research. I hoped it would wear off. Six years later, Dr. Jane Healy, in her book “Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds—and What We Can Do About It,” acknowledged the problem and summed it up concisely: “Neophytes in the high-tech world often mistake downloading for thinking” (251). Exactly.
By 1992, I had a decent PC in my office and Internet access. The World Wide Web wasn\'t really an entity yet, but I had dial-up access through a subscription service to some excellent private databases and I had a state funded I.S.P. I was excited about the variety of publicly available resources accessible on the Internet via text-based Gopher servers and I was dying for the chance to use these new resources for a valid educational purpose.
Finally the opportunity came.
A long time teacher of state geography and history came to see me. He wanted to have his kids research Michigan’s counties. I knew we had some solid print resources suited to the task, but I’d also seen county information available on the Internet. I checked again, and, sure enough, I found a state run database had just the sort of information he was looking for. I told the teacher that we had both print and electronic resources available for the project. We could use the print resources in the usual manner and, in order to give his students Internet access, I offered to have the kids come down to use my computer, one at a time. He took me up on it.
What an exciting moment! It was the first time our students would be using the Internet for research in our school\'s history. The promised land awaited!
The first student researcher was an eighth-grade girl. I logged on and showed her how to navigate through the text menus. I did everything except select the county and pop up the data. I drove the car right up to the on ramp of the Information Superhighway before turning over the wheel. She seemed ready. \"It\'s all yours, I said.\" I\'ll check back on you in a few minutes.\"
I came back, as promised, and found the girl staring at the screen absolutely zombified. \"How\'s it going?\" I asked. I noticed she hadn\'t written anything down.
\"I...I don\'t know,\" she said.
\"Did you have a question?\"
\"Is this it?\" she asked.
I looked at the screen, it was all there, an exhaustive statistical survey of Clare County. \"Yeah, I assured her, you\'re in the right place. Good job.\"
“But, it\'s just...words,\" she said gesturing at the screen.
\"Rrrright. Words. Words that, together, constitute the information you\'ll need to know about your assigned county.” The girl squinted and frowned.
\"You\'ll use this information,” I continued, in an effort to clarify, “to answer your teacher\'s questions about the county so that you can compare your county with counties your classmates have been assigned to investigate.\"
\"O...kay,\" the girl said doubtfully.
I thought about that incident. Sometimes I still do. I think it represents the germ of my increasing disillusionment with what happens when technology meets secondary education. I don\'t know exactly what was in that girl\'s head that day. But I think it was an expectation versus reality problem. If I\'d brought her a book with that same information in it, surely she would have just gotten right down to business. Somehow, being presented with the same task using a computer-based source didn\'t seem right to her. I wonder if she didn\'t see the computer as a manipulative. I wonder if she didn\'t approach the computer that day possessing an outspoken assumption. Something like this: You push buttons on computers and you get them to do things. Once you make them do the right things you are done.
I really think that was the problem. On this day, maybe for the first time in her experience, the computer was presenting her with something that she would have to process. I don\'t think she had bargained on that. And, I know it sounds far-fetched, but I think her conceptual model of the human-computer relationship still exists today among the students I serve and gets in the way of their \"getting down to business.\" The inescapable fact seems to be that students delay the brainwork involved in research when they\'re using electronic tools. Some school librarians, like Julie Anderson, a ten-year veteran of the profession who works in a Seattle suburb have made this observation and modified their practice as a result. In an article entitled \"Give Print a Chance,\" published in the February 2001 issue of School Library Journal, Ms. Anderson blamed a decrease in research skills, in part, on Internet use. She cited the medium as one that distracts students from actually reading and thinking. She went as far as to advocate the practice of requiring students to use print sources first (37).
I\'ve never done that myself. It smacks of media bias to me and shakes my idealism. It\'s one of those problems that, I feel, just shouldn\'t exist. Why should it matter if a student is presented the same information on paper or on a monitor? Apparently it does though, and I started learning about it that first time I sat a student down at an Internet-connected computer. I have since hosted many research projects where the teachers sensed the problem and mandated print-first research and I have to admit, it drastically cuts down on the time students spend avoiding thought.
Other technological change took place that impacted my library in the first half of the 1990’s. The PTO bought us our first copier, for instance. And we upgraded our library automation to a full-blown circulation and catalog system.
Just as that system was being put into place, our district hired someone to fill a newly-created administrative position: technology coordinator. Immediately, the technology coordinator grabbed the reigns of the school district’s libraries. There wasn’t much other technology in place anywhere else back then, and I suppose she needed something to do. Conflicts in vision arose. I’d sensed that they would one day early in her tenure when she came to visit our library media center. I remember her ominous pronouncement distinctly. Looking around the library, she wrinkled her nose and made a sour face. “Books. I hate books,” she said.
One of the first battles came when she decided to throw some instructional software on the library’s circ/cat server. The little server fed our catalog to an OPAC cluster of six PCs on the library floor that were constantly available at stand-up height for quick searches of our collections. She figured that students could use remedial math programs on the same machines that delivered the catalog. She had them loaded. They were the sort of things that rewarded successfully answered questions with blocky animations of approving animals accompanied by annoying, tinny musical snippets. I objected. Student access to our collection was dependent upon access to the catalog, I argued. It was wrong to obstruct that. And, I did not think that every program the district might choose to use should necessarily be available on every computer in the district. People used computer technology in very different ways in the “real world” and so should we in education. Ridiculous as it seems, this assertion constituted a “big stink.”
Unfortunately, the technology coordinator’s approach to computer applications was not resisted by the staff of our other libraries, certified or paraprofessional. As soon as computers were installed, they willingly let them deliver any applications that the newly-formed tech department cared to load. When I would visit other libraries in the district I’d see their computers doing it all. Kids made banners on them, used remedial math programs on them, played games on them. Computers seemed to be doing everything but helping the kids choose library materials or do research—the things it seemed to me computers were supposed to do in libraries. I was privately disgusted. I felt a potentially disastrous precedent was being set by school libraries not using the incoming technology in a way consistent with their mission.
Soon, each school got at least one so-called “computer lab.” Most of our libraries were doing exactly the same stuff with their computers that the labs were and vice versa. There was no division of duty. I felt that if you wanted to do your job right, you had to specialize a bit. Anything you chose to do in your limited time not associated with your mission was, in my estimation, a dilution of that mission. That’s the approach I continued to assert and it caused lots of friction, but I didn’t want the library to become a bad computer lab, nor did I want the computer lab to become a bad library. To a certain extent, in our district and others, that’s precisely what began happening in the mid 1990s.
In our school district widespread Internet access was becoming available around 1998. In 1997, in response to my principal’s request, I designed and launched our school’s web site. On the library portion of the school site I began making web-based resources available—both publicly available web sites and private databases accessed through the web. Our periodical index, “Tom Junior,” had grown greatly in scope, had its name changed a few times, and was now available via the web for subscribers. I posted it on our site so that our kids could access the resource at home. Most databases were moving toward web delivery, and, thanks to purchases made by our state library consortium, I now was able to offer access to six major databases, two of which were actually families of smaller databases. It was a staggering amount of quality information for a middle school to have available.
I was very careful with the resources I chose to make accessible through our library web site. I knew that that vast majority of information on the web was not research-quality stuff. I only posted sites that were authoritative and primarily self-contained. I didn’t post sites which were primarily collections of links which most seemed to be. As with the other electronic resources I’d already introduced, I wanted web access to make our library better. That meant posting only resources that had at least the quality I’d expect when selecting their print counterparts. Not many web sites cut it.
In 1998 eleven workstations with Internet access were installed on the library floor. I had them housed in special computer desks which had pull-out keyboard drawers and desktops that opened up to reveal the computer monitors tucked within. I wanted net access in the library, but only when it was appropriate for library tasks. When net access wasn’t called for, the workstations were closed up and tucked away and the desktop space was still useable. It seemed like a good way to deliver this new service in a controlled fashion. The Internet can be used to deliver quality information, I knew, but it can also deliver bad information. Not only that but it can be used like a television set, telephone, social club, game room, porn palace, music store, gambling casino—all legitimate uses, perhaps, just not in a school library. I established a policy making Internet access in the library available by prior arrangement of a classroom teacher in association with a library project. I also announced that no open searching of the net was permitted. Students would use only resources made available through our library web site. In the event that web-based resources not posted on the site were identified as useful, quality sources for a particular project, I linked them temporarily to a site called “Teacher’s Special Reserve,” so that they could be accessed without surfing.
Since these new Internet-connected machines were also part of our Districts’ wide area network, they had the ability to access all of the resources on all of the districts servers. Since I wanted only library resources to be available in the library, I had to push hard with the tech department to have special logins developed which brought up only the library’s information tools. Once again, I didn’t want to be a bad computer lab. I wanted to be a good library. We were specialists, and we had a specialized set of tools. And, once again, making this assertion and having it carried out constituted a “big stink.” “Nobody else does it this way,” technicians would tell me, “therefore it was wrong.” It was a mind-set I had to constantly struggle with. I was getting used to “big stinks.”
Before the tech department had existed in our district, I set up and ran all my own computerized resources. I was the administered of my own little LAN and things worked wonderfully. Now I had to do everything computer-related through the tech department. That meant every little repair, tweak and setup had to be work-ordered. Every professional rationale for setting up computerized services had to be explained repetitively to technicians who couldn’t care less what you needed to do your teaching job and who bristled at the idea of doing things differently in the library from what was being done elsewhere. The tech department had also begun making the purchasing decisions for most of the hardware and software I used. Even my circulation and catalog software was purchased by the department without input from school librarians—the people who used it and understood its strengths and weaknesses. Since there is, in fact, very little a librarian does that doesn’t involve a computer on some level, many of my professional decisions were taken away simply on the basis that they involved an electronic tool. It remains a professional injustice I am willing to make a “big stinks” about.
Although I could no longer buy computer equipment with district money, but I could still scavenge. Also around 1997, I put together a group of donated and discarded PCs, and made a peer-to-peer network with them in order to allow them to share a laser printer donated by our PTO. I realized the draw that electronic information resources held for kids and wanted to present some good, reliable resources for on-demand use. If kids were going to immediately head for a computer to do their research, I figured, I might as well make sure some decent, general sources are available. I dedicated each PC to running a single CD-ROM based encyclopedia non-stop and located the workstations alongside of the print encyclopedias. They quickly became the most used resources in the facility.
Once most of our electronic resources were in place, I redoubled efforts to inform teachers about how to help me teach their students how to use them wisely. We had an information literacy problem or two. I’d noticed, for instance, that teachers and students seemed to not discriminate the origin of their information if it had been delivered via computer. If I would ask a student where a particular article came from he would typically say “from computer.” I repeatedly heard teachers tell their kids “why don’t you see if you can get something off the computer?” I wanted kids to ignore the conduit through which their information came and focus on the real source: Who wrote it? Where was it originally published? Is the author a recognized authority? Is the information appropriate for the task-at-hand?
In began offering little staff in-services about the library’s new electronic resources which focused on a few key points: Not everything is available for free on the web and what is is often material of dubious quality, but we make private database libraries available through our web site that offer only quality articles, most of which were originally published in trusted print sources. I stressed this important difference. I also told them that one of the keys to kids learning to discriminate among sources was bibliography, a skill, I told them, that was more important than ever to start teaching in middle school. Realizing that bibliography had become more complex in the electronic age, I’d developed a simplified bibliography format for the school that made introducing it easier than ever. I encouraged them to use it. I told them I’d be glad to teach the bibliography portion of their research projects for them if they wished—or I had kits of worksheets, transparencies and teaching materials available to make it easier for them to teach. A complete explanation of the bibliography format was also available on our web site, I told them.
While some of this effort paid off, I’m sad to say it was largely ignored. I got a couple teachers interested in working with me on teaching the whole research process including information literacy elements, but I was losing more ground than I was gaining. I began to notice that some of the library research projects I’d been hosting every year had disappeared. They’d deserted the library in favor of the computer labs. In the labs, they could seat all of their students at workstations and avoid the problems associated with unshackled adolescent bodies. In the labs, they could let their kids go to Yahoo, Google, or Ask Jeeves and pull up whatever they wanted without feeling guilty about it. And, in the labs, they were free to use any of the web-based resources the library had set up, without the hassle of being instructed in their use.
One of the best projects I worked on each year used to be endangered species research. I’d built up a great collection of print resources which we would supplement with some government web sites and searches through our periodical databases for magazine and newspaper articles articles on particular threatened animals. Recently, I realized the classes hadn’t shown up for the second or third year in a row. They’d been doing the project in the computer lab. That hurt. It didn’t hurt as much as what happened later though.
One day the teacher with whom I used to collaborate on the project stuck his head in the library door. “I’ve got three kids here who forgot their log-on I.D.s for the lab and can’t do their research,” he said. “They’ve been using InfoTrac and SIRS—you know, the stuff we used to use on the endangered species project. Can they use your computers to do it? They know where to go.”
Of course, I said yes. As I led the kids to the workstations and got them started one thing became clear immediately. They didn’t know a thing about the databases. They had no idea they were accessing anything different than they might encounter anywhere else on the web. They hadn’t been taught the information literacy component they’d need to learn to properly research on their own. They were just being led to content upstairs in the lab.
It illustrated my predicament precisely: The unintended consequences of technology. I’d been the tech-savvy, progressive librarian-cybrarian introducing resources that extended the library beyond its brick and mortar boundaries and what had the consequences been? I’d lost my opportunity to teach. Sure the kids had access to more and better stuff but they weren’t being taught the skills they’d need to find, recognize and cite the quality sources on their own. I was out of the loop. My role in the endangered species project was now relegated to keeping the web site up-to-date. And—a stockpile of wonderful endangered species resources, comprehensive print resources with a depth of coverage simply not available electronically were gathering dust, being ignored in favor of convenience. Maybe it was inevitable or maybe it was my own fault. Maybe I was facilitating the popular idea that research was a one-stop-shop--search, grab, print and paste. It’s a realization that hits me in the face daily.
Another teacher, an excellent one, one with whom I’d often closely collaborated on really well thought out and thorough library research projects, had been reassigned to teach computers in a second computer lab opened in 2000. When she was not teaching her own classes she worked with other teachers who’d signed up their classes to use the lab. She immediately noticed the lazy scholarship, poor research habits and downright plagiarism that the classes she hosted were learning for want of thoughtful guidance in approaching their projects. One day she came down to talk to me about it. She wanted to let me know that she had started suggesting to teachers who came to her interested in doing research projects that the place to start was in the library. During our discussion our principal happened by and over heard us. She told us she shared our concerns and asked us to address them at the upcoming staff meeting.
We did. We suggested that there be a division in mission between the lab and the library—that research projects begin in the library and that other computer applications be taught and used in the lab. We cited electronically facilitated plagiarism as a big problem that could be addressed through good project design that helped insure that a students work was an original product reflecting their learning. I offered to help with both project design and detection of plagiarism. “Our main concern,” I told the faculty, “is insuring that access to electronic information enhances learning and is not used as a shortcut past it.”
Again, as with past efforts in this direction; as with the in-service sessions, and the countless mailings and memos on the topic, we made only a brief and short-lived impact on practice. I did pick up one young teacher’s collaboration and he also asked me to help him check a few suspicious papers for plagiarism. We found them all to have been copped, pretty much wholesale, from public web sites. The teacher told me he called one of the offenders into his room and pointed at his computer monitor where he had displayed the web site from which the kid copied his report. “Do you recognize this?” he asked the student.
“It’s my report!” the kid answered unabashedly.
For the most part, though, things continued on as before. The genie was out of the bottle. Research using traditional methods and sources was apparently just to difficult and time consuming for teachers to undertake during their increasingly fast-paced school day. To a large degree, if information on a given topic couldn’t be accessed cleanly and quickly from a computer, it wasn’t being accessed at all. Unfortunately, not all knowledge is divisible into bite-sized short article chunks. Most of it isn’t Most facts are tangled in contexts from which they can not meaningfully be disassociated. Most subjects require sustained linear attention to unravel. Our kids are being increasingly deprived of the in-depth sources that can lead them to full understanding.
In their book “Future Libraries: Dreams Madness & Reality,” Walt Crawford and Michael Gorman make the point that, despite all of the focus on information, libraries are “not wholly or even primarily about information. They are about the dissemination, and use of recorded knowledge in whatever form it may come” (5) They mention Mortimer Adler’s ladder of comprehension he calls his “four goods of the mind.” They are, in order of ascending value, information, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. The authors suggest that over-reliance on the forms of human discourse that can be divided into speedily searchable and retrievable bits—the forms which computers handle particularly well—results in a dead-end at the bottom rung of the comprehension ladder, at the information level:
Anderson, Julie. “Give Print a Chance.” School Library Journal February 2001: 37.
Crawford, Walt and Michael Gorman. Future Libraries: Dreams, Madness & Reality. Chicago: American Library Association, 1995
Healy, Jane M., Ph.D. Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds—and What We Can Do About It. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998.
Minkel, Walter. “Pew Study Shows Students Prefer Web to Library.” School Library Journal October 2001: 26.
Stoll, Clifford. Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts about the Information Highway. New York: Doubleday, 1995
Copyright 2002, Jeffrey Hastings send feedback to hastingj AT howellschools.com