Thursday, February 11, 2010

Yes, School Libraries Need Books

Yesterday's New York Times piece has some interesting and balanced takes on the relevance of print in schools, including news about an upcoming book-length version of William Powers' 2006 piece "Hamlet's Blackberry". But I think they define school libraries too narrowly. While my colleagues in school libraries across the country argue about which professional titles best positions school librarians as part of the pedagogical fabric of the school, I wholeheartedly believe promoting reading for pleasure is every bit as important as information literacy instruction or curricular support. This is especially school in a rural school like mine, where many students don't come from print-rich homes. Three-quarters of my circulation is fiction, and the fraction of that is curricular in nature is so small as to be imperceptible.

In my library, I frequently suggest eBook versions of public domain works when the print editions are checked out. For every student I have who is thrilled to be able to access Alice's Adventures in Wonderland on her cell phone, I have another tell me they don't like to read things in electronic formats. As more and more course content is being pushed online, I think students will experience even more screen-time fatigue. Not to mention the fact that bits and books have very different ownership models. At the YALSA 3.0 Institute at ALA Midwinter, Cory Doctorow used "sharecropping" to describe our relationships with eBooks, which I think is apt.

I LOVE computing, it has made my life richer in myriad ways. I'm creating tags for my students to scan with their smartphones in my library to launch webpages and instructional videos, so I am no technophobe. But I think we forget that technology is not always there. Almost a month ago, a tornado went through the town where I live. Bad weather hadn't been predicted, and the moment emergency sirens went off, so did the power. I did not realize how dependent I had been on computer technology until I literally had no mechanism to monitor the weather, which damaged houses and uprooted trees throughout my neighborhood. I happen to live very close to a hospital, so our section of the power grid almost never goes out. That afternoon, I instinctively turned on my laptop, forgetting that my wireless router (and all those in the neighborhood to which I might connect) would be down. The phone networks was overloaded, so my iPhone was pretty worthless. I did remember that the iPod nano has a built-in radio, but it took some scrambling to change the tuner to a station covering the event. Though on a daily basis I had moved away from radio in favor of more network-dependent forms of music and information, it took a crisis to reveal how short-sighted that happened to be.

And I do keep thinking about the chorus of upcountry librarians from Vermont and New Hampshire at that same YALSA preconference challenging the ubiquity of cell phone data and Internet access presented there. I went to stay with friends just after Midwinter, who told me they live on the only street in central Vermont with broadband access. You cannot get a cell signal there, either. Until the government is willing to see online connectivity as a fundamental civil right, I really lament the ideological isolation of pundits who think print is irrelevant and everything is digital.

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