Technology and the School Library: Epilogue

Jeffrey Hastings writes:


A few weeks ago I posted an essay entitled \"Technology and The School Library: Great Expectations and Unexpected Consequences.\"

An unexpected consequence followed. People actually read the lengthy and rambling article--both on LM_NET and here--and wrote me to thank me for telling a largely untold story about the state of the school librarianship. I heard from lots of them. They told me that my career retrospective was \"eerily familiar\" because, they said, it was essentially their story, too.

In the essay I talked about facing the decision to quit school librarianship and retreat into classroom teaching after having faced a series of disappointments over the last decade. Though I mentioned a number of challenges and obstacles, most related to how technology, which presents so much promise and so many potentials to our profession in theory, had, in fact, had an adverse impact on both my ability to teach and my \"brick and mortar\" school library operation in practice.A couple of professional journals expressed interest in the essay following the LM_NET posting, but ultimately--and somewhat predictably-- they found the format unsuitable. I can\'t blame them. But, they also expressed misgivings about the tone of the piece, suggesting that it was just too pessimistic to publish as it was--at least without some overall mitigation or the presentation of another piece in counterpoint.

I\'d contest that. I thought the essay merely told the truth. I thought it told the truth about some of the very serious problems we face as a profession and I wrote it with the sole purpose of challenging myself to try and sort them out through revisiting my experience in the business. Once I\'d written it, I then chose to share it in an attempt to call the profession\'s attention to some of our shared challenges it illustrates. I did this not to admit defeat, but in the hope that it might help a few of us overcome some of our present problems before they overcame us.

Those who wrote me responding to the essay certainly didn\'t find it to be a hopeless rant. Overwhelmingly, their comments were spirited and encouraging. The prevailing attitude was \"yeah, that\'s precisely what has happened to me, too. It\'s frustrating as hell, but please, consider hanging in there, focus on the positive measures you can take to change things; we can beat the circumstances we face.\" People didn\'t write to me to join in on the bitching, they wrote me to rally.

I appreciated the feedback that I received and I wanted to follow up on the essay. I now know what I\'ll be doing in the fall. I thought I\'d share that decision with anyone interested in hearing how things turned out. Here\'s the scoop:

As you may recall, a large share of my dissatisfaction with the gig over the years has come from having all my electronic tools taken over by the tech department. I haven\'t been able to run my own stuff, fix my own stuff, choose my own software, or plan any services, which involved computerized delivery in over five years. It\'s been totally top down. If I got new technology--hardware and software alike-- it just dropped from the sky, often beaning me squarely on the noggin. On top of the insult of having my professional prerogatives taken away without discussion on the slim pretense that they involved technology, was the fact that nothing ever seemed to work properly and even the slightest tweaks required layers of communication and excruciating waiting as I watched my teaching opportunities and peer credibility spiral in tandem down the toilet. Nobody cared. Nobody.

Until...As the tech department grew, a network specialist--I\'ll call him \"Pierre\"-- was hired. I was astounded when I made requests and he listened. Not only that, he understood; he saw that my needs were unique, my knowledge specialized, and recognized that I was not served well by the one-size-must-fit-all-or-else approach his department lived by. He did his best to accommodate me within the constraints imposed on him, and, once trust was established, he admitted that the best solution would be for me to run my own stuff once again. We both knew it would save loads of cash on man-hours alone for me not to have a bunch of superfluous tech chauffeurs on call, but, unfortunately, he didn\'t have the authority to actually give me back the keys to my car. We knew this years ago, but couldn\'t seem to make any changes. Pierre, moreover, as the tech staff grew, wasn\'t even supposed to deal with piddling issues like the operation of my stuff; there were technicians assigned to that. And some of these technicians were clearly not happy with the suggestion that I could be trusted to run my own LAN, for instance. A school librarian dealing with a computer network? My God, the very idea!

That\'s how it was.

Cut to about three weeks ago:

We are back where my essay left off. I am back in my limping library trying to figure out my options: Do I want to try and get an English job for the fall, open a shiny new library that promises to be, though aesthetically pleasing, functionally worse than the one I\'m in, or drink a quart of Drano? As per usual, my library automation package--a set-it-and-forget-it application-- is not working properly. It has been crashing every ten minutes for a couple of weeks in which I have had to watch the same technician try and fix it daily. Not only do I have to watch this theatre of the absurd charade as the black bile rises in my throat to the choking point each day, but--since the technician feels the need to explain to me why it should work (never failing to add that other libraries don\'t have the problems we have)-- I have to hear about it, too.

That\'s status quo stuff, though. Not worthy of comment. It\'d been like that for five years plus. Suddenly though, I notice that my new cataloging is being lost. This is more serious than usual. Records appear on some workstations, but not on others. I can pull a record up on the OPAC but not see it at the circulation desk. Weird stuff. And something like this has happened before. Once, a year or two back, about 150 records I had cataloged from scratch disappeared over a weekend. Ouch. They had been there, then vaporized. Tech never recovered them.

I didn\'t want that sort of thing to happen again. I needed to get to the bottom of this fast. I, of course, was sending my daily work orders in on this unsettling problem--but what else was new. Meanwhile kids started coming in upset. They were getting overdue notices for materials that they\'d turned in weeks ago. We were addressing their complaints at the desk between lock-ups. The kids were right, of course--their stuff showed up on our shelves while still listed as checked out on their accounts. Students were pissed. So was I.

After a salvo of calls and e-mails to tech and my Principal (who had my transfer request, by this time, on her desk), Pierre shows up one day. \"Let\'s go get it,\" he says.

\"Get what?\" says I.

\"Your server.\"

And we walk down and get it. We yank it out of the rack and plop it down in my library workroom. \"All yours,\" Pierre says. He then sits down with me and we make a list of what I need for the fall. It is the first time I have been allowed direct input on a computer purchase since the tech department was born. The list is, therefore, fairly large. It will allow me to fully isolate our circ/cat program on it\'s own LAN, freeing it from the downtime/maintenance/and constant updating that the WAN is subject to. We also wrote up a plan to replace a network of donated and scavenged machines I\'d built with new equipment. He tells me he\'ll put it through quietly; if he calls attention to it, he adds, it\'ll get nixed.

Listen to this:
Pierre then leaves. He is my hero for doing the right thing. I log in to the library server solo for the first time to check out the data loss situation. I log into MY server. I can fix stuff now! Now that I can sit down with the program and have a look at all of its components and controls, I, within five minutes, realize to my amazed horror what has been going on. Our clients are set up to access programs delivered from TWO DIFFERENT SERVERS! Somehow, there are TWO VERSIONS of our library data out there--on my server and on another one, somewhere else in the district. For who knows how long, we have been, for instance, saving to one database while reading from another! Holy sh**! I run to the circ desk and check out the desktop. Sure enough: you access a different database depending on how you open the program--using one of the duplicate icons, or through the start menu. No wonder stuff disappeared! No wonder circ records were all mucked up! I couldn\'t believe it. For years I was told that I couldn\'t be allowed to run my own automation package because I might mess something up. Mess something up? Could you possibly mess things up to a greater degree?!

I called Pierre and told him about this \"Evil Twin\" database. I told him to kill it. I told him to kill it so that it could never walk the earth again. And--I was able to do so without rancor. This was because I felt, for the first time, reasonable assurance that I would not encounter such problems again. What a great state of affairs.

And here I sit today. More (guardedly) optimistic than I have been in years. I write you from a little work room--the rest of my library has been gutted for renovation. It will have a facelift for the fall and, I am reasonably confident, lots of fresh electronic tools I can configure and manage myself and/or in true cooperation with the tech department. I bought a whole mess of framed artwork to underscore the work the interior designer did on the facility; can\'t wait to hang it-- we should be stylin\'. Sure--the instructional hurdles all remain. The problems with technology vis-à-vis k-12 scholarship that I mentioned in my essay will not disappear. There are attitudes that need to shift; realities that need to be addressed. Now though, I am armed to do battle with them.

So--I\'ve cancelled my transfer request and decided to stay put a while. I\'ve apologized to the Principal at the new school for balking on his offer to open his facility. I have to admit, I still wonder if my transfer request had anything to do with Pierre showing up that day to relocate the server to it\'s rightful home. Had it forced the issue? Don\'t know; don\'t care. What I know is this: I never shut up about doing things right. I was relentlessly truthful about pointing out screw-ups, inefficiencies and bad educational strategies. It bought me mostly grief and frustration--even a reprimand--for most of my career but, right now, it seems that the seeds of protest may have finally borne fruit. I may have gotten results by entirely bypassing the system. It doesn\'t matter to me. As long as I have a chance in the fall. A chance to be a librarian. A chance to make things work. A chance to do good stuff. A chance to teach. And, like most teachers, I guess, I don\'t need much to continue keeping at it--just a little glimpse of light.

Copyright 2002, Jeffrey Hastings.

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