Wednesday, December 26, 2012

30th Year Reflections/29: Naughty or Nice?

“Schools nationwide are rethinking how to provide students with resources, said Susan Ballard, president of the American Association of School Librarians. It's much easier to forgo physical books if…each student has a laptop and access to physical books at home or in other places.”—Pam Louwagie, “Stack of books are history at Benilde library,” Minneapolis Star Tribune

I might not have seen the article were it not for a day-after-Christmas dentist appointment. (Who schedules a dentist appointment the day after Christmas? I guess I do.) But there it was, staring me in the face. What initially caught my attention was the fact that the article on the Benilde-St. Margaret junior and senior high school library was on the front page. It is not everyday that a library story makes the front page. (Sorry, I can’t remember if it was above or below the fold.) But then again, it was the day after Christmas and perhaps the news cycle was a bit slow.

We’ve seen stories like this before. The school library, nearly empty of books, has been transformed into a “learning commons.” Novels and a few magazines are the sole print survivors, sitting forlornly in a forgotten corner in case a student needs a change of pace. All the rest of the books and periodicals are gone, picked off by interested faculty for classroom shelves or boxed and shipped to someone with a greater need, often in a distant land.

However, what really grabbed my attention—and reading between the lines—was the interconnectedness of this private school library with other libraries—public and private—in the metropolitan area and how the relationships between this library and its students were about to change. According to the article “Leaders at the school…decided against trying to duplicate what area public libraries offer. Instead, they will emphasize teaching the school's 1,200 students to find reliable information electronically.” Teaching information literacy is important and I commend the school for focusing on these skills. But I wonder what staff at public libraries serving these students think of the decision. Will they see an uptick in circulation? Will their reference staff field more questions related to homework assignments? Will other demands be placed on public libraries that were not present before Benilde made its decision? Did Benilde administrators consult with their counterparts in the public library systems?

I’m an academic librarian so perhaps some of these questions are naïve. And I’m not publicly reprimanding the folks at Benilde. Consider it, instead, a case study that raises interesting questions. I know that public libraries face their own challenges with funding; the pool of money municipalities and counties make available for public library services is steady state at best. (Remember, we’re only days away from the “fiscal cliff.”) I live in and enjoy one of the best public library systems in the country, Hennepin County. I take advantage of their collections for personal and professional use. I’m also plugged in with the good folks at Minitex and the Electronic Library for Minnesota (ELM). Did the folks at Benilde talk to Hennepin County or Minitex as they contemplated the switch? Benilde, according to the article, did not make the decision based on budgetary reasons. It was a gradual decision and followed an earlier weeding of their collection. Evidence existed that students already used public libraries for their research projects. Professional groups such as the American Association of School Librarians were “rethinking how to provide students with resources.” So it sounds like a lot of thought went into the decision at Benilde.

But I still wonder about the underlying assumptions, e.g. that each student “has a laptop and access to physical books at home or in other places.” All of which leads me to a number of “what if” questions. What if those assumptions prove false, that not everyone has that kind of access to computers or books? And what if funding for public libraries shrinks (or continues to shrink)? Or what if a relationship with an e-book vendor sours? What will the school do then? And will I suddenly see a new crop of students at my door, wanting assistance with their school assignments? How will I fit their needs into the spectrum of needs that already exist for the students and faculty at my institution? What will schools like Benilde do then? I don’t have answers to these questions. At this point I’m simply raising them. I do think that some of the underlying assumptions in decisions like these are not always valid or not fully explored or thought through. I’m just hoping that next year students (or teachers) like those at Benilde won’t find a lump of coal in their Christmas stocking.

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