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The Cybrarians are Coming

Need to join technology with instruction? Leave it to your in-house cyber librarian.

We called him "Swampy" Hayes, or the "Swamp Fox," after Frances Marion, the Revolutionary War hero whose spying tricks infuriated the British.

At my high school in a Chicago suburb, Mr. Hayes, the head librarian, apparently wanted us to think of the school library as a morgue of dead authors. Silence and respect were not just recommended, they were the unwritten law. Practically leaping from one of his lairs in the stacks, "Swampy" would pounce on a pair of giggling freshmen and, pointing to the exit doors, say, "Out! Get out--now!" The archangel who ushered Adam and Eve from Eden could not have been more disapproving.

Most of us were astonished by this kind of treatment because, as small children we had come to know libraries as welcoming places. The local public library had a children's room--an innovative feature in the 1950s--run by a warm, helpful woman with the wonderful name of Leona Ringering. She helped us find books; she read to us; she was patient. She even acted now and then, in loco parentis. Once I shoved a copy of Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August, onto the adult check-out counter high above my head. Miss Ringering (Miss, not Ms.) glancing at the title, said, "This is a very good choice. Would you like to know more about World War I?" I nodded. "Then let me show you some other books I think you'd enjoy." I carried home several good books that afternoon, but not The Guns of August.

Today there is a Ringering Room at that public library. I don't believe plans are in the works for a similar tribute to "Swampy" Hayes at my high school.

The Spirit of Miss Ringering

I like to think that the spirit of Miss Ringering is living on, especially in school libraries where the children she loved so much are today. She is in the glow of electronic card catalog that has found exactly all the books you want; she is in the voice imprinted on a CD-ROM, serenely narrating the life cycle of moths; she is in the hum of a printer giving you list of more books, magazines, videotapes, talking books, records, CDs, filmstrips, and software you might enjoy.

But I wonder whether Miss Ringering would recognize her--what would you call it? Liberal humanism?--in school libraries today, staffed as they are with professionals so much more technologically advanced than she was. The "cybrarians," as they are sometimes called.

"Oh, I think the librarians of 30 years ago or more would recognize their counterparts today. In terms of the things they do, yes, but in the ways they do them, probably not," says Jane I. Dysart, program chair of the fourth annual Internet Conference & Exhibition for Librarians & Information Managers. "Librarians have always been very serious about sharing the knowledge and better ways to facilitate how that happens."

"The basic values haven't changed, just the tools," agrees Stephen K. Abram, vice president of corporate development for the IHS Group in Canada. In May 2003, Abram was honored by the Special Libraries Association as one of the "Best of the Information Profession."

"Would an ancient Greek recognize similarities to his world in the architecture of ancient Rome?" continues Abram. "Certainly. The Greeks used the weight of stone to hold buildings together, but the Romans invented cement. Regardless, do the buildings share many of the same values and functions? Absolutely. The innovation called 'cement' only made things easier. That's been the role of technology in libraries over the last few decades."

Gathering, Sifting, Categorizing

A cybrarian's specialty is using computers for "gathering information, sifting it, categorizing it, and making it available according to user's needs," says Ted Nellen, a cybrarian for TaskStream, an educational consulting company. TaskStream supplies information about thousands of topics annually in response to requests from schools and colleges.

Cybrarians are comfortable with ideas and technology. The nature of their work is to pursue electronically any facts, statistics, resources and even people who may shed light on a particular topic. They follow hunches, collect sites and addresses that may or may not be useful, and then critically assess whether the information is reliable. They also input information into computer-related resources, such as the work done at the Electronic Technology Center at the University of Virginia, where rare and hard-to-find books are scanned and stored on servers.

The duties of a cybrarian in a school setting focus on joining technology to instruction. As classes or teachers come to the school media center in search of information on a subject, a cybrarian will guide them to worthwhile electronic resources. These resources might include newspapers' Web sites, home pages maintained by specialists, or databases of information stored on CD-ROMS. Teachers who wish to plan lessons or units around the Internet or software may call on a technology-savvy librarian to help them.

Other duties of a cybrarian in a school setting often include evaluating hardware and software for its usefulness and reliability; developing databases that assist teachers and students; and modifying software to better serve the educational needs of the school.

"We're bridging the gap between user behaviors and learning behaviors," says Abram. "There's not a major Web site on the Internet that doesn't reflect a librarian's understanding of the way people find information."

But on the topic of learning behaviors--do all the advances in information retrieval found in school libraries help children learn?

The Information Ocean

According to a number of studies, the answer is an unqualified "yes."

In April of 2000, a study by the Library Service Center of the Colorado State Library found a "significant correlation between the size of a school library and library media staff and test scores."

"Students in schools with appropriate and sufficient library collections and qualified library personnel tend to perform better on standardized tests, especially in reading, according to studies of school library programs in Alaska, Colorado and Pennsylvania. ... The report concludes that test scores increase as school librarians spend more time collaborating with and providing training to teachers, providing input into curricula, and managing information technology for the school," says the study.

Abram sees the role of school librarians, and librarians in general, becoming more critical in maintaining an open and educated society.

"Teaching people information research is becoming a more important trend," says Abram. "I've never liked the term 'information highway' because that implies definite pathways. Actually, there's an 'information ocean' out there, and you can drown very quickly trying to find what you need."

"But even if you 'Google' the world, you essentially come up with an 'information puddle' instead of an 'information ocean.' Information optimizers work to get certain Web sites to appear at the top of lists," he says.

"Recognizing good information from bad, fair from slanted, solidly researched from rumor-based--that's the aspect of educating library users, especially in schools, that's the challenge now."

The School Library Evolution

Most people probably tend to think of school libraries as junior counterparts of public libraries, and in a sense they are. The development of school libraries can be traced to the beginning of the public library movement in the last half of the nineteenth century in the U.S. Public libraries served the needs of public schools, which were sometimes built near a public library. Public library staff frequently placed temporary book collections in the schools for educators. In 1906 Virginia's first school library opened its doors. Bookmobiles visited, and still do, public schools in rural areas.

But today, the professionalism, and often the resources, found in school libraries is in no way taking a back seat to public libraries. School library collections may be described in Web-based catalogs accessible to remote users around the world. Inside the school libraries, users as young as primary school children may also access a variety of Web-based reference services; some of the most popular are KidsConnect, AskERIC and MAD Scientist Network.

"There's been a fair amount of change in the ways librarians are educated in schools of education," says Abram, "and that's reflected not only in terms like 'cybrarian' and 'electronic librarian,' but also in how the word 'library' has given way to 'media center' and the like. All the naming systems--Dewey Decimal and so forth--from the 19th century are still in place. But the means for accessing information and making it available is completely different.

Charles J. Shields is a contributing editor.