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"But Dad, I can't search the library"


Perhaps it's the start of the academic year, but I've been reading too many articles, like this one, about the imminent demise of libraries. The one making the rounds on tech blogs right now is about a Boston prep school, Cushing Academy, who dismantled their media center in favor of e-readers. The headmaster also said, "When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books.

I don't believe libraries are outdated, in the same way newspapers aren't, but both are struggling for relevancy in the same way that TV, radio and magazines are in a time when much of their core, respective value propositions are being replaced by comparable choices available online.

Even MIT's Technology Review had this to say about the potential demise of libraries: "At most libraries, the hand-typed card catalogues thumbed by generations of patrons have been supplanted by electronic indexes accessed via PCs locally or over the Web. Now that Google has agreed to scan millions of books from five major libraries and to make their contents searchable on the Web -- a project that experts say is likely to yield spinoff technologies that drastically lower the costs of digitization and catalyze similar efforts worldwide -- can the disappearance of libraries themselves be far behind?" (My emphasis)

Either this is a Massachusett's phenomena, or they know something we don't. Or is it just conventional wisdom they're tapping in to early on? Should we rush to shut down our media centers and libraries? With all of our students online, doesn't it make sense that we should shift our focus there? 

If you haven't guessed it yet through my earlier writings, I'm a passionate online advocate and one ready, willing and able to chastise the Luddites and foot-draggers among us who seem unwilling to embrace the future. But that future needs to be put into some sort of context and we can't just throw the baby out with the bathwater until we have an educated guess on what's next.

Case in point: That MIT article was written in 2005 and I haven't seen many libraries go out of business (and, in fact, many are thriving, especially during this tough time in our economy). Cushing Academy is a small, private prep school and not necessarily indicative of public educational institutions and their needs.

As we make the transition from an information age to a cognitive age -- with the internet as the conduit through which much of that cognition will be channeled -- repositories of information and knowledge are vital, but it's not just better access to those repositories that's needed. It's the right stuff inside of those repositories and seekers that know how to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Some reasons libraries have become less necessary include:  

  • The explosion in ebook readers (see this matrix) and that many have always-on wireless connections so downloading new books or publications (and in some cases, access to blogs and news) is easy
  • Another is the growing shift toward digital textbooks and the hunger States and districts have for cost savings in these tough economic times (see "In a Digital Future, Textbooks are History" from the New York Times)
  • Google's book digitization project, their mission to create a searchable repository of both out of, and in, copyrighted materials, has met with controversy (most recently in Europe) but also landmark agreements and is moving forward quickly. It's pretty clear that at some point in the next several years most of the books required for research and citation will be available online 
  • A last trend is behavioral and is the biggie, in my view. To illustrate, my now college age daughter was invited to accompany me to the library a few years ago when she was involved in a high school project and was heads-down on a laptop finding sources. "But Dad, I can't search the library" was her reply and has been a constaint refrain of hers as she's vented her frustration at not having access to everything she needs online. It's an attitude many Generation Y'ers have that everything needed should be at ones fingertips and findable online (and, frankly, is an attitude I usually share).
My daughter and I then got in to a heated discussion about the quality of some her online sources, how many of them were behind paywalls she couldn't access, and that she needed to understand her sources well and what made them citable ones.

You can't immediately affect the availability of 100% of the materials you need and the budgets you require to buy devices. Nor can you drive Google's digitization project, what is occurring with open textbooks, or even what's available for free content, but you can affect a focus on behaviors.


Back in January of 2008, the British Library released a report called, "Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future" which is an interesting study about the "Google Generation" you're teaching now:

A new study overturns the common assumption that the 'Google Generation' - youngsters born or brought up in the Internet age - is the most web-literate. The first ever virtual longitudinal study carried out by the CIBER research team at University College London claims that, although young people demonstrate an apparent ease and familiarity with computers, they rely heavily on search engines, view rather than read and do not possess the critical and analytical skills to assess the information that they find on the web. (webpage | study PDF).

As an educator, you know that the key to your challenge -- especially as library use continues to downtrend while sources available online increase -- is contained within the last sentence and is what I've been touting all the way along in this blog: ensuring that students learn to assess what they find online in a critical and analytical way, understand and weight their sources, so that they'll be able to survive intellectually when they graduate.

Libraries aren't dying. Their repositories of information and knowledge might be housed online instead of inside a building, but the same skills for critical thinking, researching and citing are ones every student needs whether they're online or off. 


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Accelerating Change are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.