School Libraries Evolve With Introduction of Digital Resources

According to the American Library Association’s (ALA) 2011 State of America’s Libraries report, school libraries on average are seeing reduced budgets, but library staff are increasingly spending more time delivering instruction. When faced with shrinking budgets, some districts are opting to replace print copies of books with e-books and other digital resources that help expand the reach of their libraries’ collections. These changes affect not only the physical space of the school library, but the way students and teachers interact with the library’s collections and different roles librarians play.

“Probably any time that new format has made it into libraries, it has changed the way the physical facility works,” explains Carl Harvey, president of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL). “The biggest impact digital resources have is that it allows our resources to be directly accessed from the classroom — it allows the library to expand beyond just walls of the library.” This big change in physical access of the materials also affects the way students and teachers are interacting with the space itself.

“One of the transformations we’re seeing more if is that instead of just a place you come and get research, it’s also a place where you can create information, and you can share that information that you create,” says Harvey. Students have a chance to move beyond checking out periodicals and the set of encyclopedias.

The way students are interacting with the materials in the school library and the librarians themselves also depends on the age of the students. High school students are probably going to do more independent research, but elementary school students are also introduced to using databases and other digital resources. Generally, digital resources also affect the types of questions fielded by librarians (there may be more tech issues than before), and these resources affect the way students search for information and validate it. When source material comes from the Internet rather than a published book, there is a host of new ways students need to examine the information to make sure it is valid.

Despite more independent research time and access to library collections in classrooms, moving towards digital resources does not mean that schools are shutting down libraries. “We talk a lot about if this is the demise of libraries and librarians,” Harvey adds,” but to me it only validates and makes them more important because kids are going to have to learn a whole new set of skills on how to deal with all these digital resources.”

Librarians also spend more time delivering instruction according to the 2011 ALA report; some of that time is probably devoted to digital resources. Librarians now have a new role of also providing professional development for teachers concerning the resources available in the school, how to access them and how to teach students to use them.

“Information is information,” Harvey states. “We’re just seeing it now in different formats and different ways, so how can we help best prepare our kids on how to deal with that?”

Digital resources offer access to more information that is current and up-to-date, often more quickly than print materials. They also have the advantage of appealing to students. “I think definitely from a kid perspective it’s a hook, it’s a grabber to get them interested in working with research,” adds Harvey. Of course, all this up-to-date information is limited by network connectivity and device availability. Access is hampered by the number of devices or computers in the library or classroom space.

Implementation of digital resources is dependent on many different factors, including that there isn’t really a standard yet. “Do we allow devices from home? How do we work that with our network? Do we have ones where they can download it to their devices? Do we try it where they can download them to computers?” Harvey offers a number of different possibilities.

“I think we’re seeing a lot more nonfiction e-books right now in school libraries because you can increase your research potential and access with those things, but we’re seeing more and more libraries start to play with buying some Nooks, buying some iPads; buying this to experiment and see what works best for how we can get kids access to theses things.” Librarians are trying out different options because there are so many diverse formats and companies offering software and e-readers. “What’s going to end up being the standard? It makes it an economic [issue] that school libraries have to deal with as well,” Harvey adds.

So, how do schools implement digital resources while also sticking to tight budgets? Are they implementing the e-books and other technology because it is often the budget-conscious decision? Or do they go ahead and add e-books to the curriculum because that’s what’s necessary to prepare students with 21st-century skills. “I think yes, both,” Harvey states. “When you’ve got less money, you’ve got to figure out what’s the most cost-effective way to get what you need and what your students need — and if that’s a digital resource, then that makes the most sense to go that way.” A digital resource makes sense when more children can share access versus print copies.

Besides being a way to expand access with a limited budget, digital technology will only become more and more important in education. “That’s the direction information is going, so we’ve got to start making sure we provide these things in our school libraries no matter what our budget is,” concludes Harvey.

School libraries may start to look different as e-books and other digital resources are implemented by districts looking to maximize what budget they do have for libraries, but that won’t be the sole reason students are using academic databases and the latest edition of their textbooks and encyclopedias on Kindles or iPads. The way we research and learn, and the skils students will need as they enter college and a global, technological marketplace, have changed rapidly over the last 10 years due largely to the effectiveness of technology. Wi-Fi may become a necessity in school buildings and spaces for students to use their laptops or other devices may replace study carrels, but school libraries and librarians will be just as important in helping students and teachers navigate new technology and new ways to access information.

You can visit the ALA’s website to read the full 2011 Sate of America’s Libraries report. The AASL also started a campaign in 2007 called Learning4Life to promote the implementation of standards for 21st-century learning, divided in four key categories, which students should be able to accomplish by the time they graduate from high school. To learn more about this campaign to share the message of what a 21st-century learner can do and the role school libraries can play in that, visit their website.