In Cushing’s Defense

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USA Today’s recent story about Cushing Academy’s radically new library, “School chooses Kindle; are libraries for the history ‘books’?”, got me thinking about my own little library transformation. I’m happy I did it. Believing in a busy library and a broad range of services, I really had no choice.

With the help of several custodians, I began dismantling my school’s library in July 2008. In my opinion, the library looked like a warehouse, with lots of shelves, little room, less comfort, and no defined learning spaces. It was basically “a box of books,” I had told the committee that interviewed me a couple months earlier. And if a complete library program were to be developed, the box would have to be replaced.

I was fortunate to get the support of my school board when I proposed a complete room redesign. In short, several shelving units were removed, a few were replaced, reference and browsing sections were created in the middle of the room, and new furniture allowed for the creation of defined spaces (e.g. presentation area, large-group and small-group work areas, a space for reading). The most controversial addition to the room was a large, flat-screen TV mounted on the wall. “You weeded books for this?” more than one parent asked. I responded by saying that I had weeded because de-selection is part of good library management. But, in truth, the summer-time weeding project did open up space, which allowed for the floor space redesign and the beginning of a new library program.

Old Library

With old and under-used (and never-used) volumes removed from the room, I do recognize that some books have perhaps been missed. Yet, I know that a lot more has been gained. In new learning spaces within the library, collaboration among students happens all day long, large-group instruction in information skills happens regularly, and at the same time reading and individual work takes place in adjacent spaces. Further, with the addition of eBooks to the reference collection, book sources are now retrievable seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Kindles? We have two.

The transformation of my small library doesn’t compare, of course, to that of Cushing Academy. It nonetheless is similar, I think, because it’s the result of believing that libraries are meant to connect people with information and that information takes many forms. While there are now fewer books in my library, I argue that there’s now more information. As students search print or electronic sources, discuss an event seen on a TV news program, use a library laptop to jointly build a multimedia project, or show one another an interesting magazine article, information is being rapidly gathered and widely shared. In other words, within the library there has developed a dynamic information exchange.

My commitment to this type of library leads me to this judgment about Cushing: On a ten scale ($12,000 coffee machine aside), where zero is total disagreement and ten is fully agree, I say the Academy’s bold library transformation is a seven. If you believe what students and staff said about the old place, then unless you’re trying to build a warehouse, the change must be viewed positively. Although I would argue for a more balanced blend of print and digital sources, I’d choose their busy library over the quiet warehouse any day. Are some old books being missed? Most likely. Is accessing and taking notes on information sometimes now more challenging? No doubt. But is the library merely a box? No way.

Research, Writing, and Wikipedia

news_pageA self-described “old newspaper man” recently asked me about a sign in my library.  The sign promotes an electronic version of The Boston Globe.   He asked if the school library had to pay for the service.  I told him that it was part of The Globe’s Newspapers in Education program and that it was free.  He responded by saying, “That’s why they’re struggling.  They need to charge for these things.”  As it turns out, The Globe is where he had worked—as a wire service guy.  In addition to suggesting that the paper start charging for electronic content, he went on to say that the “bloated” organization must be substantially downsized.  I was surprised at this.  I thought that papers had been making cuts.  I wondered aloud if the costs of printing and delivery were insurmountable, and if the paper (and others) were doomed by that issue alone.  In his opinion, the viability of newspapers is tied to controlling the costs of workers.  Efficiency is the name of the game, he said.  There’s simply way too much waste.

If this is the main issue, and newspapers truly are bloated with employees, then printed errors of fact are pretty hard to explain.  Yet, the AP reports that an Irish university student duped newspapers around the world by fabricating a wordy quote and inserting it into a Wikipedia article.   The student deliberately set out to see how much journalists relied on Wikipedia for obituary writing.  In this case, it was used a lot and used carelessly.

Wikipedia is a favorite research tool of students at all grade levels, including college.  Librarians, teachers, and professors routinely caution against its use for anything more than basic, step-one research.  It’s open-source, after all, and can be edited at any time.  While many articles are closely monitored by users interested in accuracy, others are not.  If a researcher uses the wrong article at the wrong time, therefore, truth will be sacrificed.  This lesson, repeated in classrooms around the world, is apparently not repeated in news rooms around the world.

If an old newspaper man is to be believed, and newspapers are still substantially staffed, errors of fact must result merely from sloppy research.  If substantial mistakes can’t be ascribed to job cuts and too few staffers trying to do too many things, then the basics of research and Wikipedia’s use could and should be followed by the pros, and not just school students.  Learn about Wikipedia as a research tool.

Photo credit: Rupert Young

Kindle 2 Content

Here’s what I knew: Amazon’s Kindle 2, with the ability to make any book large-print and a text-to-speech feature for some books, is a powerful new tool for school libraries attempting to serve a diverse student body. The device could certainly help meet the needs of struggling readers and students with vision problems, for example. Further, with reasonably priced downloadable content from Amazon and many classics freely available on-demand from manybooks.net and other sites, the Kindle could reduce a library’s reliance on a slow inter-library-loan process and thereby benefit all students.

Here’s what I now know: When attempting to integrate Kindles into a school library program you’ll likely face some challenges. Most vexing, for me, has been getting content onto the device. Technically this is easy, but buying content is the problem. Unlike other purchases at Amazon (like the Kindle device itself, for example), all digital content must be tied to a credit card. A credit card is something, I bet, that most schools don’t use. Instead, they probably have a corporate account at Amazon, which allows for a regular purchase-order approach to buying. If a school employee wants Kindle content, then, a personal Amazon account would be needed. This, of course, poses at least one significant problem: All content would be tied to the buyer’s account and could only be managed by the buyer. While Amazon did tell me via email support that digital content can be purchased with gift cards, I called them and pointed out that in order for a gift card to be redeamed, it needs to be tied to a credit card account, which brings me back to the original problem. Right now the only solution seems to be an institutional credit card that could be used for establishing an individual library Kindle account. It’d be nice if Amazon followed Apple’s model in the iTunes store, where a personal credit card can be deactivated from an account once sufficient gift-card credit has been added to the account. (Purchase orders can be used to buy gift cards). That way a library account truly belonging to the school could be easily created.