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Going Out of Print

School libraries of the future could be light on books and heavy on digital resources.
A female fifthgrader at Mill Creek Elementary School in the Central Bucks County (Pa.) School District listens to an MP3 Playaway digital audio player as a male classmate is reading The Lost Hero on a Kindle e-Reader.

School librarians took notice when in 2009 Cushing Academy, a private secondary school in Massachusetts, transformed its library from a traditional facility to a digital media center. The library gave away most of its 20,000 books and bought 200 iRiver Story and Kindle e-readers. The school also sold to all of its 445 students a laptop to which the library could deliver databases and Web-based electronic books.

Cushing’s Web site points out that “Cushing Academy is not going ‘bookless’. While the library is focused on providing books in electronic format, many teachers continue to assign printed books in their courses.” Even so, some critical questions arise: ? Is Cushing Academy’s experience relevant to public school libraries, especially in these financially precarious times?

Is Headmaster James Tracy’s declaration that whether a student reads Shakespeare in a printed or electronic format is “immaterial” valid? To what extent will public school libraries morph into digital media centers where paper books are merely a side dish and e-books are the main course?

The transformation of school libraries is well underway. Under No Child Left Behind, the federal government has spent millions on retraining school librarians, many of whom have rebranded themselves as “library information specialists” or “library media specialists.” Thus, the library media center at Simsbury High School in Simsbury (Conn.) Public Schools has 77 computers and a virtual library Web site that states two primary goals: information literacy and technological literacy. With databases ranging from American Government to Discovery Education streaming, Simsbury is a proponent of “Library 2.0,” a philosophy that advocates making information available whenever and wherever it’s needed and not necessarily relying on conventional print books or physical libraries.

But today, even in physical school libraries, “it’s silly to buy a $900 set of encyclopedias when the same information is available online—and with extra features,” says Beverly Keegan, administrator of the Mill Creek Elementary School library in the Central Bucks County (Pa.) School District.

Librarians as New Media Experts

School librarians have gotten so involved in technology that Bonnie Kelley, supervisor of library media/technology for Pinellas County (Fla.) Schools, was a leader in the September 2010 initiative to buy more than 2,200 Kindles with state funds and lend every student in Clearwater High School a new Kindle, although the e-readers are used for classroom textbooks. Meanwhile, even districts that have been slammed by budget cuts, such as those in Moraga and San Bernardino counties in California, have computers, databases and/or e-readers in school libraries. “I can’t say more funds are going for digital media than for books—yet—but the amount of money devoted to them has increased,” says Arturo Delgado, the San Bernardino County Unified School District superintendent of schools.

An elementary school teacher at the Des Moines (Iowa) Public School District helps students with a lesson to illustrate something that happened in the book they just read.

For David Loertscher, Library 2.0 advocate and author of The New Learning Commons, these changes are overdue. “There is still a tremendous role for books,” he says. “There will always be print books.”

However, his ideal library—the learning commons—is “a learning laboratory where books don’t get in the way.” He wants the bookshelves pushed to the perimeter so central spaces can better accommodate groups of learners (see sidebar).

Loertscher believes that “the old model of having the kids check out a book and then sending them back to the classroom doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Kids can now check out digital resources any time, anywhere. ? That is the way the world is going.”

He also values the fact that digital media can enhance access to students with special challenges. Kindles, for example, enable readers to enlarge font sizes. And Loertscher, who has severe vision problems, can attach earphones to the device. He also wants the school library Web site to be more democratic—a virtual learning commons. If it only offers one-way streams of information from sources and experts to the school children, he warns, “the kids will ignore that; they’ll just use Google,” which many librarians distrust for its inability to separate reliable sources from sites that have unsubstantiated or incomplete information but good keywords.

“What’s needed is a wiki-type virtual space where kids can debate, upload videos and control their own information space instead of us trying to manage the information space,” Loertscher says.

“Traditional library environments are primarily text-based and require learning the system from experts [librarians].This traditional model is no longer appropriate,” declares Rolf Erikson, lead author of Designing a School Library Media Center for the Future, in a story posted on DesignShare, an education Web site. “Today’s library is a learning space, not a ? book museum.”

“Let’s face it,” adds Doug Johnson, author of The Indispensable Librarian: Surviving (and Thriving) in School Media Centers. “The Net Generation wants its information and entertainment in digital formats. Ours may well be the last generation to use cellulose-based information-storage technology,” he says.

The Budget Crunch and Red Flags

But as administrators know, it’s funding cuts, not books, that block the way forward. Revenue shortfalls in Moraga County School District threatened the very existence of its libraries. “Rather than shut down libraries,” says Superintendent Bruce Burns, “the district applied for grants and dropped an administrator, a gardener, and a maintenance person.” The community then raised more funds for library staffing, so school libraries are now open four days a week.

Even if libraries were not threatened by recessionary budgets, would it pay to give every student an e-reader, as Clearwater High in Florida has done? That initiative cost the district $177 per Kindle. The price of digital textbooks varies, of course. A digital literature textbook cost $59—about two-thirds what the book would have cost in print. Still, administrators see some red flags.

A high school student at the San Bernardino County (Calif.) Unified School District uses the technology download station at the library to download data and ebooks to her iPod.

Sharon Ewers, lead librarian for the Scottsdale (Ariz.) Unified School District, cautions that students might not be responsible enough and even lose or break e-readers. “There could also be technical problems, battery issues, hacking issues and/or vandalism,” she says.

Keegan adds that parents would be “very upset” if they owed the school $150 for a lost e-reader. Clearwater handles that by letting each student insure his or her Kindle for $20. But Kelley of the Pinellas County district concedes that many students don’t buy insurance.

Another financial issue is that once content is loaded onto a Kindle or Nook or iPad, it can’t be “returned” to the library, so another student can use it. Thus, much of the rationale for libraries—the cost-effective sharing of books—goes up in smoke. However, this could change. “Ten years from now there may be some system that doesn’t attach digital content to a specific e-reader,” predicts Kelley.

But the question remains: Are e-readers desirable pedagogically? The white paper “From Paper to Pixel: Digital Textbooks in Florida Schools,” co-authored by four Florida State University library media specialists and Nancy Everhart, president of the American Association of School Librarians, cites research on both sides of the debate. On the plus side, says the paper, e-readers prepare students for the 21stcentury world, they’re better than print for the environment, students can take notes on them, and they provide access to “a wealth of information that is readily retrievable from the Internet.”

“The students are like moths to a flame when it comes to technology. Any time technology is integrated, they are more motivated,” says Keegan. “When [Clearwater] passed those Kindles out,” says Kelley, “the boys were so engaged that a bomb could have gone off and they wouldn’t have budged.” It’s especially impressive, notes Keegan, who quotes the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) report on how boys drop off as readers around grade 4.

Disadvantages of Digital

Still, if “the love of reading is essential to lifelong learning,” as Ewers and other librarians say it is, will students acquire that passion via electronic devices? For early childhood books, with their colorful illustrations, print is far better than Kindles or Nooks. (The inability of today’s e-readers to handle graphics also limits their use for subjects like science and economics.)

Jeff Bezos, CEO of, and E Ink, the provider of e-paper display technology for Kindles, have indicated that, in a few years, Kindles might be able to accommodate color images. Even so, electronic devices give some reading experts pause.

As Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember, said in an online debate in The New York Times in February 2010, “The [print] book focuses our attention, encouraging the kind of immersion in a story or an argument that promotes deep comprehension. ? [But when we use a] PC, a Smartphone, a Kindle, or an iPad, our attention is scattered by all the distractions and interruptions that pour through our digital networks. The result, a raft of psychological and neurological studies show, is cursory reading, weak comprehension and shallow learning.”

Students at Clearwater High School in the Pinellas County (Fla.) Schools unpack and test out their new Kindles, mesmerized by its capabilities. Every student in the school has one.

The “From Paper to Pixel” white paper on Clearwater’s e-textbook initiative lends some credence to this: “Despite improvements in e-reader devices, users read 20-30 percent more slowly; use more effort; and are more tired than when reading on paper.”

This might explain Ewers’ observation— one that other library experts have echoed—that even if many students “rely on the Internet for most of their research, most of our students still prefer to read fiction titles and biographies in print format.”

There are other problems: Because most school libraries cannot just give a Kindle to every student—or offer one-to-one computing—too much reliance on such hardware would exclude many students. Moreover, Everhart says, kids have different learning styles. While technology motivates many students, some get too distracted by digital media to follow a train of thought. “Using technology to promote books bridges the gap,” says Keegan of her school. “When I used online book trailers with my library classes ? circulation numbers went up, especially with the boys.”

The Evolution of Print

Meanwhile, print books are evolving. Libraries must provide choices ranging from vampire stories to romances, graphic novels to football books, just as long as the students develop a passion for books, says Dale Vande Haar, district library and information services coordinator for the Des Moines Public School District.

“Often, new releases have an online component or a nonlinear rather than a conventional narrative structure,” says Keegan. She and other librarians have observed a large demand for graphic novels, so they are ordering more of them. “Educators need to be more open-minded about what reading is,” Keegan declares.

“Of course, digital devices are extremely attractive to students,” says Burns. “For example, they give kids the ability to manipulate print or to link a word like ‘Asia’ to a map. So yes, there will be a reduced role for print in the future,” says Burns.

But before that time comes, school libraries around the country could face another, more old-fashioned problem: tight budgets that require cutbacks, as what happened in Burns’ district. Ideally, says Ewers, “school libraries need to offer information in a variety of formats to provide access to all students. I expect that our reference sections will slowly be replaced by digital sources.” However, she predicts, “we will continue to provide access to fiction, biography and ‘popular’ nonfiction in print format."

Ed Wetschler is a freelance writer based in New York City.