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Are Libraries Heading Toward Extinction?

Are Libraries (and Librarians) Heading Toward Extinction?
Teacher-Librarian, December 2003

As a profession, librarians have gone on the defensive, justifying in increasingly worried and frantic tones, just why they and their institutions are ever so much better than the Internet.

Mark Y. Herring’s article “10 Reasons Why the Internet Is No Substitute for a Library” (American Libraries April 2001 <www.ala.org/alonline/news/10reasons.html>) and even a column of mine “Why Do We Need Libraries When We Have the Internet?” (Knowledge Quest, 1998 Vol #2 no. 1 <www.doug-johnson.com/dougwri/internet.html>) are examples of this concern about our physical resources, space and even profession being replaced by Google and its virtual ilk.

I am beginning to wonder how helpful such articles and arguments really are for the health of our profession. Neither article suggests ways to keep our patrons from having their information needs increasingly met independently of print, libraries, and librarians, other than to shout ever more loudly, “But we are so much better!” to each other.

OK, true confession time. I don’t blame Jane and Joe Blow for increasingly using the Internet rather than libraries. I’m doing it myself, despite the fact I am a big fan of libraries and my livelihood depends in large part on their continued existence. For example, I recently saved a very short walk from my office to our lovely high school media center to find a copy of an R. L. Stevenson short story by finding it in about 3 minutes on the web and printing it out. And my 17-year-old son deems anything not on the Internet is not worth knowing and is nearly a stranger to both his school and public library. According to the Pew study “The Digital Disconnect” (August 2002, <www.pewinternet.org/reports/toc.asp?Report=67>) he is typical of his generation. People of all ages are simply finding it is really, really handy to have one’s information needs met right at their desks or in their homes.

Yet, I have no doubt that many libraries and librarians will evolve and survive despite the increasing use of the Internet to fulfill needs those libraries and librarians previously met.

The libraries that will continue to thrive will be those which meet real needs that cannot be met by the Internet (or bookstores or classrooms). Our profession should be defining, discovering and emphasizing those needs in the current budgetary and political climate rather than simply complaining and justifying our existence to each other through professional publications.

There are a great number of physical businesses and institutions that might have felt just as threatened by the public’s increased use of the Internet: book stores, travel agents, public libraries, and banks, just to name a few. Even virtual schools are now taking the place of brick and mortar buildings for many students. Just how are the savvier among these institutions escaping being replaced by the Internet?

1.    By providing a physical comfort that the Internet does not. I still buy books and spend time at our local Barnes & Noble bookstore because I like having coffee there, sitting in the comfy chairs, and handling physical books. I still buy more books there than I do online.

2.    By providing expertise an Internet user may not have.  My travel agent knows more about vacation destinations than I do - or am willing to take the time to research and read about on the Internet. She can find better fares under some circumstances than I am able to. And she has the time to the time to look for “deals” that I don’t have.

3.    By providing “high touch” experiences to offset the “high tech” environments. John Naisbitt in his early ‘80’s book Megatrends that predicted that the more people use isolating technologies, the greater they will need avenues for face-to-face human interaction and socialization. This is why I still like going to the public library to read the paper sometimes instead of reading it online- I see and meet people there. Internet usage is lonely - even for the chronic chatters, I’m guessing.

4.    By recognizing and using the Internet to compliment one’s mission. I still value my bank down on Hickory Street even though I check my miserable account balances online, have my paltry paycheck direct deposited, visit impersonal instant tellers to get cash, and pay my horrendous bills electronically. I don’t go in the physical building much anymore, but I use their banking services more than ever. I don’t see the Internet displacing Wells-Fargo anytime soon.

Let’s take just these four ways in which our physical existence may be superior to or enhanced by the virtual experience and think about how we in school libraries can capitalize on these qualities rather than try to compete head-to-head with the Internet. (Darwin called this adaptation and recognized successful species were good at it.)

1.    Physical comfort and welcoming environment. This means creating a library where kids and teachers REALLY like to be. Comfy chairs, friendly atmosphere, low-stress, safe, and forgiving. If my library is not a wonderful place to be, everyone will stay on the Internet or in the classroom. Period.

A frightful quote was given in the Pew study “Digital Disconnect” by a middle school student: “The Internet is like a librarian without the bad attitude or breath.” OUCH! What does this say about how welcoming my staff and I need to be to our kids and staff.?

In practice:
I‘m lucky enough to have been able to design our own new library and I think one of the choices that I made that has pleased the students the most are the chairs. The soft seating area chairs are soft and comfortable, “comfy.” And the tables all have 3-position chairs which I call “teenager chairs.” I don’t have to tell them to stop leaning back in their chairs and I don’t miss that. Perhaps most importantly, so much of creating a welcoming atmosphere is being a non-judgmental, supportive person who can help students and faculty find out the answers to the serious and the silly.  Sara Kelly Johns, Lake Placid (NY) Schools.
Instead of worrying about making the library welcoming, perhaps our efforts would be better spent making the students welcome. Think about that for a moment. It’s not just a turn of phrase. Kids will hang out together on a street corner, in the parking lot of 7-11, or wherever they feel comfortable. I think it has less to do with the physical comfort than acceptance of each individual. Your library furnishings can be hopelessly dated, your chairs uncomfortable, and you may not have a expresso machine; but if kids know you’re happy to have them there, and if they can sense that you value them, they’ll come. It all comes down to being child-centered. Herb Wilburn, Ashby Lee Elementary School, Quicksburg (VA)
2.    Expertise. Classroom teachers should send kids to the library because the librarian is better at helping them find information or complete a task (especially in technology) than the teacher him/herself can. We need to have responsibility for a curriculum and important, identified skills that no one but us can teach. We must be better at selecting books and other print materials, organizing them and especially getting them into the kids hands than the reading or English teacher. Teachers and administrators must come to us for help with problems only we can solve.

In practice:
Here’s how librarians make a contribution. Show students and teachers how to use information for learning on an ongoing basis. Support teacher efforts by organizing higher-order mini-research projects around essential topics and then working with students to build the critical thinking skills that should be the basis of Information Literacy. Most teachers don’t know how to do this because they teach from textbooks and give multiple choice tests. Librarians know how to do this and that makes them important in an era of state testing that integrates critical thinking processes more and more. Carl Janetka – ProQuest-bigchalk

[In my} inner-city school we had few proficient readers in the lower grades and a new “school reform/reading” program that had taken all the fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and holidays out of the K-1 curriculum which  gave  me a ready curriculum. Dorothy Tissair, Old Saybrook (CT)

Do whatever you can to make teachers’ lives easier even if it’s something that makes yours a little harder. If you can get the teachers to feel like you really care about them, they will also send in their students more often and ask you for your help. Lorraine Smith, Lake Pointe Elementary School, Austin (TX)

3.    Social experiences. Are our libraries places for kids to interact with each other in positive ways? Instead of the library being the tomb and the study hall/computer lab being socialization central, maybe we should reverse those atmospheres.

In practice:
I keep the library open for an hour after school Monday through Thursday. It is a very popular gathering place.  We call it “Hang Time”. Students may use the computers for homework OR recreational use (I am there to supervise), play board games, sit and visit, or do jigsaw puzzles. We currently have Mancala and Pente tournaments underway. I keep music playing and we usually have some sort of snack provided by the school lunch program. I am looking to offer a few more activities to pull in some of kids who don’t always know how to mix with others.  I plan to make an Origami Table and a Create a Bookmark Table.  I would like to find some “brainy toys” for the kids Robie Martin, Parsons (KS) Middle School

If you took everything out of my library, you would have a large barn, so what I have done is partition it into ‘rooms’ using the shelves (no lines of stacks here) and so immediately it is more inviting.  This year about a third of it is for seniors (Yr 5/6) only at lunch time, and they have a lounge suite, coffee tables, computers, work spaces, their senior fiction collection AND a loud CD player which is on all the time during lunch break. Never have I seen so many in there at lunch, and the most unlikely kids! Chess is popular, some do their homework (and there is research evidence to suggest that this age group cannot work in silence), others just chat or read.  But they are there - they are exposed to what we offer and are forming habits and attitudes about libraries. Barbara Braxton, Palmerston (Australia) District Primary School

4.    Complimentary use. This means not buying (or buying less of) the sorts of things kids are now getting online - paper magazines, current events sources, print indices, etc. It means buying more online resources since that is the format kids find most usable and convenient. It means having a very useable library webpage tailored specifically to meet the needs of the school curriculum that is accessible from the classroom, computer lab and home. It may mean providing online reference services.

In practice:
Show off. Use the web to get what they’re looking for as they watch. Point out those databases that nobody uses. Teach classes for your staff. Maggi Rohde, Allen Elementary School, Ann Arbor (MI)

I have relied upon the online databases to supply much of what we formerly got from magazine subscriptions. Now that I don’t have to order as many for research I find that I can order things like Car & Driver, Motor Trend and the like. These types of magazines really attract the kids that I have noticed are reluctant researchers. Those that didn’t “hang” in the library are now here before and after school reading the magazines and using the computers. They seem to be more relaxed in the library and unafraid to talk to us when they have questions. I think that has been the greatest payoff I have seen  from the investment in the online databases. Pati Daisy, Southern Cal Schools (IA)
We also may need to remind administrators that a primary reason libraries exist is to share commonly-used instructional support materials. While book collections, magazines, and videotapes would be nice to have in every classroom, having a central pool of resources that all users can draw from makes more sense economically. Materials that are catalogued, inventoried and circulated tend not to be materials that walk out the door when a teacher leaves the building. Didn’t libraries start because not everyone could afford a copy of every book?

I am deeply troubled by reading about cut after cut after cut in school library programs throughout the nation and deeply sympathize with those whose jobs are gone and feel their work has not been appreciated. We can and should mourn with and for them. As my father used to say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

But as professionals, we simply cannot let our reactions end with only being sorrowful. We need to figure out how our services should change in order to meet the needs of teachers and students who do use the Internet, to remain absolutely vital to schools that are strapped for funds, and to be seen as important by decision-makers who do allocate funds in zero-sum game.

We all keep thinking about things we can do than the Internet can’t.

Oh yeah. And do them.

Posted on Sunday, June 24, 2007 at 11:07AM by Registered CommenterDoug Johnson in | CommentsPost a Comment

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