School Library Monthly/Volume XXVII, Number 7/April 2011
The Changing Role of the School Library's Physical Space
by Tom Corbett
Tom Corbett is the Executive Director of Fisher-Watkins Library at Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, MA. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Faculty and administrators at Cushing Academy, a private co-ed high school located in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, voted unanimously, early in 2007, to focus on building a "21st Century Leadership" curriculum. According to Jim Tracy, headmaster, the school was already global in its outlook and forward thinking in its application of technology, so it was in a good position to explore this educational approach, identify its key elements, and develop it as a core competency (2010).
One key element was that as the century unfolds, students will probably rely almost exclusively on electronic resources for their research and reading. In fact, the digitization of information (and entertainment) was already a defining characteristic of this "Information Age" and quite natural to the "digital natives" born into this era. It quickly became clear to our policy-makers that the institution on campus already established to support research and reading would need to fully embrace this new reality. That institution is the library.
The Internet Institution
Surprisingly, not all educational leaders target the library as the campus entity best able to support digital information literacy. In fact, for many administrators, faculty, parents, and students, the school library's role is already supported (or perhaps, paradoxically, made less necessary) by a more amorphous institution born in the Information Age: the Internet. Many educational thinkers believe that the Internet already places into the palms of students' hands more information than they can possibly process. They argue (or school administrators hear) that it is now up to the teacher and a more modern classroom dynamic to manage this rapid, Internet-fed information stream to support learning (Bonk 2010).
Persons outside the library profession often do not realize that much of the information found in libraries is not easily found or free on the Internet. Despite the frequently misunderstood assertion that “information wants to be free,” much of it is not (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_wants_to_be_free). Even in its digital form, authoritative, well-constructed, and useful information often comes at a cost. At Cushing Academy, this understanding resulted in a goal of placing a library in the palm of students and faculty’s hands, not just random resources from the Internet.
It's not easy to create a secondary school library that fits neatly into the hands of students and faculty while at the same time effectively supporting information literacy and reading. Strong commitment from school administrators and a substantive shift in focus and resources is needed to make this work. Critics have argued that school libraries are already undertaking this transformation, albeit slowly and carefully. They assert that school libraries should continue providing access to both digital and print-based information for as long as possible, and that these goals are not mutually exclusive (Gray 2009). While these arguments have merit, they go against conventional organizational wisdom that taking on a significant new challenge requires either substantially more resources or a significant shift in existing resources and attention.
School leaders need to see evidence that libraries can effectively provide services in a digital environment. Librarians must show how copyrighted digital information can be shared effectively, how digital information can be leveraged to provide access to a much larger set of copyrighted information than was possible in the past, how students can be drawn to using information provided by the library rather than free resources on the Internet. Librarians need demonstrate that a 21st-century school library will be well used and necessary.
These goals are being accomplished at Cushing Academy by focusing on three important tasks:
- Change library software platform by moving away from traditional Integrated Library System (ILS) functionality and toward a platform that is better integrated with newer Web services, including a best-in-class federated searching service;
- Develop an improved acquisitions model that leverages the unique attributes of digital content; and
- Transform the library’s physical space into a collaborative work area that celebrates information gathering, analysis, and sharing.
At the core of a digital library is an exceptional school library software platform. This platform is the library's front door, stacks, circulation and seating areas. It is where students and faculty conduct their research and find a good book to read. Library staff also inhabit this space, continually organizing it and making it attractive and easy to use.
Even though the library software platform is essential to an effective digital library, it often is one of the more neglected areas. One reason for this neglect is that school administrators often fail to give the library its own digital space. Libraries are forced to awkwardly stuff many of their services into the same digital structure as the rest of the campus. Moreover, along with the many digital silos provided by database vendors, the only digital space unique to the library is the 20th-century ILS that is dedicated to managing an inventory of physical materials. This dynamic has to change so that a secondary school library can be successful in this Digital Age.
Cushing Academy's library software platform is built on Drupal, a free open-source content management system (CMS), used by many commercial Web sites (Drupal 2010). Using current Web services and integration techniques, this CMS creates a dynamic digital library space catering to each academic subject taught on campus. Students can easily link to relevant library (and quality Web) resources from their course Web sites, and eventually from within course e-textbooks as well.
Another important issue with the digital library is integrating library resources with e-textbooks. Even though e-textbooks have not been fully embraced at Cushing Academy (there are still heavy textbooks in our student’s backpacks), it is vitally important for the library to partner with e-textbook vendors. Left on their own, e-textbook vendors will be more than happy to charge each student or the school for added content, of the vendors choosing, or simply direct students to the free Web.
Ease of Use
Linking to the library's software platform from course pages or e-textbooks is only a start. Users must also find it easy to begin their searches and find meaningful results quickly. Cushing Academy has partnered with Deep Web Technologies to embed federated search boxes throughout the Web site to deliver real-time results pulled from library subscription services ranked by relevancy. This federated search tool is, in many ways, the new online catalog, as it provides smart full-text searches across databases and nonfiction ebooks. The focus is shifted from MARC metadata that mostly describes what the library has to all of the accessible, full-text resources. The 150,000+ high-quality nonfiction ebooks on the virtual shelves (there were only 20,000 on the physical shelves) are now part of students’ initial set of ranked search results.
Pay for Use
Those 150,000+ nonfiction ebooks are not bargain-bin titles offered as a group purchase; they are high-quality titles selected from a wide variety of university presses and academic publishers. It is important to note that the library does not own most of them. This is due to a unique partnership with another vendor offering "best-of-class" services: EB Library (EBL), the library division of Ebooks.com, based in Australia. Unlike most ebook vendors, EBL takes full advantage of what a digital approach can offer. They have created a Patron Driven Acquisitions (PDA) model that is a win-win for both publishers and end users. It allows the library to pay only for content that is actually used. Moreover, by tying this process into a federated search environment, users' research needs drive part of the acquisitions budget. This Research Driven Acquisitions model is one that school leaders and policy makers should find very attractive for additional funding.
Academic ebooks are delivered to students' laptops and other multimedia devices, and recreational reading services are delivered to Kindles. Student interests drive this collection development. Using services such as EBSCO's Novelist Plus linked to the Amazon site itself, students are encouraged to explore the world of popular literature, with all its teen romances and vampires. When they find something they like, it is usually made available to them on the spot.
These "partnerships" with EBL and Amazon allow for a Just-in-time (JIT) approach to collection development focused more on access than ownership. It should no longer require large capital expenses to develop a substantial research collection. In this Digital Age, libraries do not need to own the "long tail" in order to give users immediate access to its entire length (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_Tail).
This substantive shift to digital content will also change the requirements for the school library's physical space. Because the library is no longer warehousing the research collection itself, there is no need for a formal, quiet space. Library research can occur anywhere: in the classroom, at home, in quiet study areas throughout campus, and the library itself. This opens the physical library up to new uses, such as a vibrant space for collaboration, group study, and even an occasional latte. It can be a space for face-to-face meetings with library staff and teaching information literacy skills to classes.
The Fisher-Watkins library (http://fwlibrary.cushing.org/) at Cushing Academy is just such a place. It is physical space where information and reading is celebrated in all of its various (albeit, mostly digital) forms, from rotating ebook covers, data visualizations and feeds displayed on large LCD screens to eReaders checked out at the circulation desk for quiet contemplative "offline" reading anywhere on campus or home. There are even a few printed books and glossy magazines for browsing. However, it is in the library’s digital space where students and faculty conduct serious research, accessing hundreds of thousands of journals, books, and data-sets. This diversified space demonstrates a well-used and effective 21st-century school library.
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