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10 questions about books, libraries, librarians, and schools

October apparently was ‘Library Month’ for me. I was the keynote speaker for the Minnesota MEMO conference and did a breakout session for the Iowa Library Association (ILA) conference. I also brought Dr. Mike Eisenberg to Iowa for three days to talk with school administrators about technology and information literacy. As a result, I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on books, reading, and the future of libraries and librarians…

Random questions

  1. What constitutes a “book” these days? When books become electronic and thus become searchable, hyperlinkable, more accessible to readers with disabilities, and able to embed audio, video, and interactive maps and graphics, at what point do they stop becoming “books” and start becoming something else?
  2. The Amazon Kindle e-reader currently allows you to annotate an electronic book passage with highlights and your own personal notes. Those annotations are even available to you on the Web, not just on the Kindle device itself. As Seth Godin notes, there hopefully will be a day when you will be able to share those notes with others. You’ll also be able to push a button on your e-reader and see everyone else’s notes and highlights on the same passage. What kind of new learning capabilities will that enable for us?
  3. If students and teachers now can be active content creators and producers, not just passive information recipients, doesn’t that redefine our entire notion of what it means to be information literate and media fluent? Are our librarians and classroom teachers doing enough to help students master these new literacies (for example, by focusing on student content creation, not just information consumption and/or interpretation)?
  4. The Cushing Academy boarding school in Massachusetts may be the first school in the country to have its library go completely electronic. In addition to using library computers, students now check out Kindles loaded with books. How tough would it be for other schools to move to this model (and what would they gain or lose as a result)?
  5. When books, magazines, newspapers, reference materials, music, movies, and other traditional library content all go electronic and online - deliverable on demand - what does that mean for the future of the physical spaces known as “libraries?” Mike Eisenberg said to me that we already should be taking yellow caution tape and blocking off the entire non-fiction and reference sections of our libraries. As content becomes digital and no longer needs to be stored on a shelf, with what do we replace that now-unused floor space: couches, tables, and cozy chairs? computer stations? meeting space? And if we head in these directions, what will distinguish libraries from other institutions such as coffee shops, community centers, and Internet cafes?
  6. Our information landscape is more complex than ever before. We still need people who know how to effectively navigate these intricate electronic environments and who can teach others to do so. But does that mean we still need “librarians” who work in “libraries?” Or will their jobs morph into something else?
  7. How much of a librarian’s current job could be done by someone in a different location (for example, someone in India who answers questions via telephone or synchronous chat) or by computer software and/or an electronic kiosk? I don’t know the answer to this question - and I suspect that it will vary by librarian - but I do know that many individuals in other industries have been quite dismayed to find that large portions of their supposedly-indispensable jobs can be outsourced or replaced by software (which, of course, means that fewer people are needed locally to do whatever work requires the face-to-face presence of a live human being).
  8. Can a librarian recommend books better than online user communities and/or database-driven book recommendation engines? For example, can a librarian’s ability to recommend reading of interest surpass that of a database like Amazon’s that aggregates purchasing behavior or a dedicated user community that is passionate about (and maybe rates/reviews) science fiction books, and then do so for romance, political history, manga, self-help, and every other possible niche of literature too?
  9. If school librarians aren’t actively and explicitly modeling powerful uses of digital technologies and social media themselves and also supporting students to do the same, should they get to keep their jobs? And if they are doing so individually (which is what we want), what’s their responsibility to police the profession (and lean on those librarians who aren’t)?
  10. There is no conceivable future in which the primacy of printed text is not superceded by electronic text and media. If that future is not too far away (and may already be here), are administrators doing enough to transition their schools, libraries, and librarians / media specialists into a new paradigm?

Reactions from librarians

I posed these questions in both my MEMO and ILA presentations, explained in more detail my thinking about each one, and gave participants time to talk with each other after each question. I even told them up front that they wouldn’t like some of what I said but that I had nothing against librarians and was just asking questions that I thought the profession should be discussing. Reactions of the few librarians from whom I’ve heard have been interesting…

Librarian 1 (I received this one indirectly)

[Scott spoke] to the Iowa Library Assoc conference this past week and he
really was quite negative about the future of libraries and librarians with
the technology shifts.

Scott is speaking a great deal for our School Administrators of Iowa and
also to principals/supts through the AEA's this year and I'm worried for the
future of our profession in times of tight budgets with folks like Scott out
speaking to leadership and not promoting the role that teacher librarians
can play with technology AT ALL.

We had Mike Eisenberg here in Iowa this past week also speaking to
administrators ... which I think is a good thing ... along with Scott
McLeod ... which may NOT be a good thing. The topic was information
literacy, but in speaking with those in attendance at these Iowa meetings, I
heard that the role of teacher librarians was not at all highlighted, and in
in fact, I heard there was a bit of librarian "bashing" by administrators in
attendance. (Now this is just hear-say as I wasn't there to hear these
presentations)

Now, I agree with you that teacher librarians need to be stepping up to
the plate at this time and demonstrating the role that we can play with these 21st century tools, but am just wondering how we compete with loud, negative voices like Scott McLeod in Iowa? You know us polite Iowa librarians, we just kept quiet during Scott's session and did not argue with him!

Librarian 2

I’m the librarian that said you scared the #### out of me! It’s kind of settled in now and I’m reviewing my job duties and seeing what I can do to stay “relevant” and to be a viable information contributor. Thank you for the thought provoking presentation!

Librarian 3

I want you to know that I have had a few of my professors writing me today about you.  They said that after having a few days to think about what you said, they are REALLY happy that they heard you speak. And that you spoke at the ILA Convention to the librarians there. Librarians and teachers alike need to hear the message of change. I also sent them the link to your blog and guess what... think you have some new followers now too.

Librarian 4

I had the opportunity to listen to you present at the ILA Conference yesterday. Your presentation was very unique compared to the speech you shared with the twelve laptop initiative schools earlier this month.... As a leader in [my] district and a huge supporter of the advocacy of information literacy skills, I feel that you underestimate the role of a good teacher librarian. I see the evolution of technology advancing and embrace what opportunities it provides myself, my fellow educators and our future citizens. You see, I was selected by my district to represent them at the 1-to-1 meeting and have been asked to attend [some of your future workshops] because of my leadership and my active role in the integration of technology. And, yes, I am their teacher librarian.

Being curious, I would like to know more about your work with teacher librarians. I'm afraid that you may have assumed the role of a teacher librarian as being one of 'holding back' the age of information. That is very far from the truth. Currently, we live in a world where both print and electronic information are accessible to all. My role is to support both realms and the patrons who use the material. While open access may soon be upon us, I know that I must help students and staff while this evolution is taking place. I know the importance of being visionary and open-minded while at the same time being grounded.

I would challenge you to collaborate with me and learn more about my role as a teacher librarian. I think the role of libraries and librarians is evolving. And, I feel that a good teacher librarian is the 'Ace' in an administrators back pocket! What other position in a school district revolves around information access, collaboration with students and staff, all while taking on a role as an educational leader in learning? Instead of demanding teacher librarians to 'get out of the way' if they are not welcoming technology, maybe we need to look at the role a librarian can play. Their opportunities to support the learning environment can become an asset. Some librarians just need to know in what direction to lead. I hope in the future you consider the value teacher librarians have in this ever-changing world. I know that I am thankful for the opportunities I provide the students at [my district], and I would like to think that they feel the same about me.

Suggested reading

If the topic of the future of libraries and librarians interests you, I highly encourage you to read the recent article in School Library Journal, Things That Keep Us Up at Night, by Joyce Valenza and Doug Johnson. It’s caused quite a stir in the school librarian community…

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