Content vs. Container (The Library As a Whole Edition)

For those of you who recall the “content vs. container” discussions of recent memory around eBooks, that was just small potatoes to what is being reported online these days. Why argue whether a book is really a book if it is online or an eReader or written on a grain of sand when you could be engaged in a meta discussion on the “library as an institution” scale? Why limit ourselves to arguing over one type of typical library material when it could be expanded to, oh, the identity of the library itself?

Exhibit A is a “no books” school library in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. School Library Journal had an article about this private school covering grades 7-12 that emptied out its library in favor of collaborative spaces. Here’s what happened to the print collection:

Before distributing the library’s print stacks to local centers and donation sites in Africa, says Skinner, she had teachers comb through the physical books and pull anything they wanted for their curriculums into classrooms. Then she allocated additional funding towards purchasing new and used fiction books in physical form, since her students, Skinner says, actually prefer to read this genre on the printed page like many adults do. These titles, too, went into classrooms.

So, there are books in the school but they are distributed throughout the classrooms. The article doesn’t mention if there is any system in place to track the books from the classroom shelves nor if there is a way for students to be able to ‘borrow’ books from other classrooms (either fiction or non-fiction). The principal of the school does point out that they rely heavily on the multitude of local public and academic libraries for books that (presumably) they don’t have on campus. It’s not clear as to whether this is a partnership with those libraries or an unfortunate parasitic relationship upon the publicly funded local library system and public universities. I wouldn’t want to guess how taxpayers and alumni would feel about their local library or campus library being used as a book resource center for a $12,000 a year private school, but I think that is a whole other can of worms.

“Bookless” school libraries aren’t new after the Cushing Academy removed a majority of their print collection in favor of collaborative work spaces and digital resources and eBooks back in 2009. They retained some of their print collection but shifted their focus towards providing literature and textbooks in any format. As of time of publication, it would appear that they have not reverted on their decision.

Exhibit B is “bookless” public library in Bexar County, Texas. It is the start of a countywide system outside of San Antonio and, well, if you ever wondered what kind of library a judge would build, you now have your answer. From the MySanAntonio website:

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff is an unabashed book lover with 1,000 first editions in his private collection, but even he sees the writing on the wall.

Paper books have lost their allure, and future generations may have little use for them, Wolff contends.

So when he embarked on a mission to create a countywide library system, he decided it should be bookless from the start.

Today, after months of planning, Wolff and other county leaders will announce plans to launch the nation’s first bookless public library system, BiblioTech, with a prototype location on the South Side opening in the fall.

If you want to get an idea what it looks like, go into an Apple store,” Wolff said.

Yeah, that’s right: an Apple store. It’s not a terrible vision considering how Apple is noted for its in-store customer service. But nothing in that store is inviting me to get so comfortable that I should pull up a chair and take some time to check my email and social media stuff. Granted, the purpose of the store is to draw you in, take your money, and then toss you again, so it may just take inspiration and not implementation from the Apple store kind of model.

But wait! There’s more:

Inspired while reading Apple founder Steve Jobs’ biography, Wolff said he envisions several bookless libraries around the county, including in far-flung suburbs.

“It’s not a replacement for the (city) library system, it’s an enhancement,” Wolff said.

“People are always going to want books, but we won’t be doing that in ours,” Wolff said.

I presuming he means physical books because there is a passage further down the article that mentions eBooks.

Commissioners will decide whether to seek a contractor to complete the design of the library and another to provide e-book titles; hire staff; and create a seven-member advisory board.

At least $250,000 will be needed to gain access to the first 10,000 book titles, Wolff said. Costs for design and construction aren’t set, but the county will save by using a county-owned building.

We wanted to find a low-cost, effective way to bring reading and learning to the county and also focus on the change in the world of technology,” Wolff said. “It will help people learn,” he said.

As to the first statement I highlighted, I’ll be very curious where they will purchases titles at an average of $25 a pop. Given that Douglas County just spent $40,000 for 10,000 titles from Smashwords, I don’t think it’s an impossible prospect. By the time this experimental branch is built, who knows where eBooks will be in the library universe. However, given its current trajectory, I think their number is rather optimistic. 

As to the second statement, it has been a long time since I’ve seen the terms “low cost” and “world of technology” appear in the same sentence especially in light of the Apple store mention. Something just doesn’t seem right about that at all to me. Perhaps the Devil is in the details, but that’s going to be one hell of a Devil (pun somewhat intended).

So, with these recent examples in mind, it brings us around to the question: what makes a library a library? Is it the contents of the collection or the purpose of the mission? This might be the Super Bowl of navel gazing for the librarian profession, but it may well be worth re-examining in an introspective fashion.

If I accept the concepts offered by St. Louis Park, Cushing, and Bexar County, then my living room could be designated as a library. It has a desk, a internet connected computer, Wi-Fi access, a bookcases with a small selection of books, DVDs, and game materials, a couch (otherwise known as a social collaborative space), and a table with four chairs (a group collaboration area). It is “staffed” by a librarian, yours truly, and despite being a relatively small apartment I still get questions as to where the bathroom is.  What more would I have to do? Could I post hours and then apply to join my library system? The original library for my town started in someone’s apartment back in the late 1800s, so it wouldn’t be anything too strange when you consider the history. But is it a library?

If I reject those concepts of a library, then what is required to satisfy that ideal? How big of a collection is needed? And of what materials, either physical or digital? I presume it would be contextual to the type of library and community it seeks to serve, but even that gets mired very quickly. Or is it centered around reading and literacy? Or research and knowledge seeking skills?

What do you think?

School Libraries: Endangered Species?

From the Not So Distant Future:

It seems like a no-brainer. For students’ reading skills to improve, they need to read. They need to have lots of access to books and technology. They need to feel comfortable around books, talk about books, and associate books with positive interactions. They need the support of librarians who can match them up with the right books, bring guest authors into the school, create book clubs, help them access electronic books, guide them to online book discussions, help them get past the digital divide by providing Internet access and information literacy training, and connect their teachers with the latest tools.

And we know this works — study after study has shown that schools with well-stocked, well-staffed libraries have higher achievement test scores. And yet, perplexingly, across the nation, librarian positions are being cut; elementary libraries have no librarian, librarians are spread among multiple schools, and libraries are being closed due to lack of staff, or opened only a few hours a day, manned by the occasional teacher.

I know that school libraries in New Jersey got clobbered by the budget cuts last year. You can read one librarian-teacher’s account of going from the library back to the classroom due to cuts over at Library Garden. It’s this really horrendous paradox in which we demand better academic achievement from students and then can’t seem to find our collective wallet when the bill comes in. I realize that money is not the solution to some of the education woes in this country, but when you have a bunch of evidence that indicates that a library is a relatively cheap and easy way of knocking up reading scores a notch, it really is a no-brainer.

For related reading, The Unquiet Librarian takes on the lack of mention of school libraries and school librarians in a Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy white paper, “Digital and Media Literacy:  A Plan of Action”. They appear to be re-inventing the wheel with a recommendation to create Digital and Media Literacy Youth Corps rather than support existing school libraries and librarians that are already in place and on the (relatively) same mission.

What will it take to bring school libraries back from the brink of budget extinction?

(Late addendum: Chicago’s Lack of School Libraries Sparks Dispute. [h/t: Resource Shelf])

“Huge Discussion” Triage

Through my Google Reader, there is a “huge discussion” among school librarians that has been brought to my attention. (Starts here, goes here and here, and onwards to here, and a nice summary of it all here). In talking with Buffy (The Unquiet Librarian) about it, I am now going to probably stick my nose into a debate I probably shouldn’t get involved in. However, I hope this offers the participants an objective third party assessment of the discussion.

I think the one thing that both sides of the argument should do is concede to two specific certain points.

First, there are school librarians who will (for whatever reason) not incorporate technology into their instruction and library environment. Their passion for books and their profession is not without merit, but it is not valid rationale in the current school library setting. It does not behoove the present educational parameters of teachers nor prepare students for their academic research future. They do their more technological colleagues no service by continuing to carry their educational Luddite ways. These librarians should take it upon themselves to find other library employment or be gently bumped from the field.

I’m sure some people will read this point as harsh and, well, it is. I’m sorry, but the people who hold this concept of school librarianship are in the wrong library field. School librarians have instructional access to students in their academic formative years, a crucial time in this information technology age, and it cannot (and should not) be wasted. It is not the unusual request of any parent that their child receive an education that prepares them for the world, including web tools and computer based research techniques. Today, such knowledge is a life skill of modern civilization.

(For those still not convinced, let me ask this same issue another way: exactly how out of date would you like the treatments and techniques of your personal health care professionals to be at any given point in time? I’m going to guess they don’t all have to be cutting edge, but there is an expectation that they at least stay current.)

Second, there are school librarians who are ready and willing to learn but have not been able. Despite the vast amount of contact points (e.g. training, online, social sites, list servs, etc.), they have not been able to connect to the resources. Call it bad luck, bad karma, bad timing, missed chances, no opportunity to take advantage, lack of funding, lack of support; it just has not happened for these individuals. There might be some incredulity to such an assertion, but there must be a willingness to accept that these individuals have been lagging behind through no fault of their own. (From Blue Skunk Blog, I know there are people who are just trying to maintain order, nevermind teaching anything. My heart goes out to them and suggest they take a page from Joe Clark.)  In order to reach these librarians, it will involve a continuously widening publicity net and the unconditioned acceptance of these ‘lost sheep’ librarians. Bring them in, get them going with toolkits and how-to guides, and guide them through to the 2.0 promised land.

Now that we’ve eliminated the top and bottom groups in this conversation, the real debate for the center begins. This middle group of librarians, in various states of acceptance of training, technology, and implementation, are truly the ones at stake in this discussion. These are the librarians where the majority effort needs to be placed; and they also raise the most important questions in the discussion. Such as:

  • What will it take to get these middle people on board?
  • What will it take to get those board to be able to train, use, and instruct 2.0?
  • Do they have the support (“the buy-in”) from administration and faculty to make it work?
  • How can I encourage them to go the next step and use [insert whatever 2.0 thing]?
  • Is there an acceptable level of 2.0 use? (In other words, what’s a reasonable amount of web tools and resources that a school librarian should be offering to students.)
  • What is a fair amount of time for school librarians to catch up? (You can’t do this forever. There has to be a cutoff point.

(This last portion of questioning is more artfully covered by Carolyn Foote’s post, but I have the sinister ‘dooms day’ question at the end.)