Real Questions, Good Answers, Knowledge Quest, Vol #2 no. 2 (1998)
I haven’t seen it, but I hear there is a bumper sticker that reads, “Libraries for people who can’t afford modems.” A somewhat extreme sentiment to be sure, but one that echoes these more common statements that you, as an educational leader, may have overheard:
“Now that we have the on-line encyclopedia, we don’t need to buy the print version.”
“Buying books is investing in an out-dated technology. All the information anyone needs will soon be available on the Internet - for free.”
“These on-line fees will have to be taken out of your magazine budget.”
“Our new school won’t need a library media center since all the classrooms will be networked.”
What motivates otherwise knowledgeable principals, superintendents, school board members and legislators to advance such ideas? Some of it is wishful thinking about ways to reduce expenditures in times of tight budgets. We are all under the gun to provide, as our financial director says, “high quality education at low bid costs.” But many question simply stem from a lack of knowledge about how teachers and learners use media center resources and what the Internet actually contains.
Good teachers and media specialists understand how different resources in school library media centers are used for different purposes and how these resources are complimentary. In schools with active, resource-based programs, the following scenarios are commonplace:
- a student comes in for a novel, and in passing an empty terminal, runs an Internet search on the book’s author to see what the author may have published recently.
- a student using the electronic card catalog to research Egypt now finds not just the books in the geography and history section, but locates books on mythology, alphabets and costumes——since a key word search turned up Egypt in the those books’ annotation fields.
- a teacher finds a brief reference to a historical figure in the electronic encyclopedia, and now checks out a print biography.
- a student doing research on a country in a print atlas requests a digitized map which can be modified with a paint program and imported into a word processed report.
- a teacher, having stirred the curiosity of his class with the tape of a satellite broadcast on plate tectonics, now wants a cartload of books on geology.
- a class doing research on diseases scatters——some students head to the print reference sources, some to the Internet terminals, some to the CD-ROM terminals, and some to the multimedia lab since no single source can accommodate all the learners in the class and each resource contains unique information.
Adding technology to a media center is like a strip mall adding a new store——all the stores get more traffic and higher sales. Experienced teachers and media specialists know that it takes newer technologies and print together to create meaningful learning experiences. This will be the case for some time. Humans are not given to simply replacing old technologies with new ones. Television did not replace either radio or motion pictures. Video photography has not replaced still photography. Computers will not replace books.
One reason this assertion can be confidently made is that print and electronic resources each have their own strengths. As Walt Crawford states succinctly, “A book is the best way for me to communicate a fairly lengthy and complex narrative discussion.” (1) It’s also the best way for a reader to encounter such a discussion. Even most die-hard technology lovers will admit to printing hard copies of a documents much longer than a page, since today’s monitors are just plain hard on the eyes. The cost savings supposedly gained by having library users read information from the computer screen quickly evaporates when every reader starts printing out lengthy texts. It may not be high tech, but print resources on a cost-per-user basis are dirt cheap.
Budget-makers who wistfully believe the end of having to lay out cash for information on paper is in sight really need to read Crawford and Gorman’s Future Libraries: Dreams, Madness & Reality (2) if they hope to make fiscally responsible decisions about obtaining information resources for schools. These two electronic information experts patiently debunk the claims of an all-digital information future - at least for the foreseeable future. Their conclusions include:
• the use of books, magazines and newspapers is not in decline, but actually growing
• monitors that are as easy to read as a printed page have not yet been invented
• large scale digital conversion and storage of current print resources (given today’s technologies) are impracticably expensive
• an all electronic library is not financially feasible
• there is no such thing as a “free” Internet or and computing isn’t really getting less expensive
Remember as well that when using books and magazines, our student researchers are usually getting carefully edited and verified information. Unlike the Internet where anyone can (and does) present credible looking material, publishing houses go to great lengths to protect their reputations by ensuring their writers are expert and authoritative. The cost of print includes not just the paper, ink, and cover, but careful editing, including fact checking. Joey Rodgers, Executive Director of the Urban Library Council, proposes that a sign be hung over library books shelves that reads “CAREFULLY SELECTED BY PROFESSIONALS,” and that a sign be displayed by the Internet terminal that simply reads “WHATEVER.”
Electronic resources, including the Internet, certainly have their place. Both my students and I love digital indexes and the multimedia features of electronic encyclopedias and other reference materials. Ephemeral, date critical information can sometimes only be found on the web. E-mail is the most efficient means to tap into the wonderful primary sources called human experts. And the Internet provides an interactive medium in which students can produce and communicate ideas, not just gather those of other writers.
Don’t take away either my electronic resources or my books. Both are needed to provide students with information of both currency and depth. And keep in mind that a true media program is not simply a collection of any kind of materials——print or electronic. It is a vital combination of resources, curriculum, activities, and professional expertise that help students acquire not just information, but the skills and judgement to make good use of that information.
(1) “Paper Persists: Why Physical Library Collections Still Matter.” Online, January 1998 <http://www.onlineinc.com/onlinemag/OL1998/crawford1.html >
(2) Crawford, Walt and Michael Gorman. Future Libraries: Dreams, Madness and Reality. Chicago: ALA Editions, 1995.