How Are School Libraries Different Now than 20 Years Ago?
June 28, 2013 2:03 AM   Subscribe

How Are School Libraries Different Now than 20 Years Ago?

The last time I was in a school library was about 20 years ago. This was before the internet, when VHS tapes were still able to be checked out, and when a roomful of blocky beige Macintoshes was still high tech. We still had little pockets for due date cards stuck to the back cover, when security was a metal strip in the spine, and when barcodes was just beginning to be a thing. Right now I'm working on a short story that takes place in a current day school library and I was just wondering if there's anyone out there who would be in a position to know what changes have occurred. (I could visit my old high school to find out, but that would be kind of awkward) In my mind, I can't imagine why we would even have a school library since everything's on the internet now. What resources does a school library offer? Do they even have computers? I keep thinking every kid has a laptop now.
posted by Sully to Education (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I work in a school library (sixth form college -- typically 17-19 year olds). We issue books to students, especially text books and fiction books, and we host online resources (eg JSTOR). We get newspapers and magazines for students to read. The students study in individual carrals or use one of our 40 computers.

Everything is hosted on an online cataloging server. We scan barcodes and log it into the system. New books are either downloaded from the company through which we buy books or entered manually into the system.

In addition to the physical tools, we help students with their work (as much as we can), CVs and cover letters, personal statements for university applications, proof reading, and study skills. We run a book club. We have events. We order resources for teachers and other staff. We sell stationary.
posted by toerinishuman at 2:54 AM on June 28, 2013

At my kids' primary school - catering for the 4-11 year old age range - here in the UK, the (quite small) library is much the same as it would have been 20 years ago. The only real difference is that they scan a barcode in the book rather than filing a card. This was something town and city libraries were doing even 25 years ago, so it's very much a case of newer technology gradually filtering down.
posted by pipeski at 3:10 AM on June 28, 2013

A class at my local high school just recently made this video featuring media center librarians (facebook link to post), who are talking about the differences in what the library is like now compared to when they were in school. The librarians basically said the biggest differences is everything is done on computers, they use online databases (not just googling info), and spend a lot of time teaching kids how to critically evaluate information they come across.

Whatever these two librarians are doing, it must be great, because I hear that their media center is packed at lunchtime with kids that want to hang out there.
posted by katinka-katinka at 3:34 AM on June 28, 2013

I can answer the last one - in a typical public school system, every kid does NOT have a laptop. My kids are going to a school system that I consider above-average in terms of the affluence of the student families, and my kids tell me that a lot of their peers have no experience or ability with computers, suggesting they don't have one at the house.
posted by randomkeystrike at 4:39 AM on June 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

The library in the local public school here did away with half of itself in order to make room for beanbag chairs and iPads.
posted by kmennie at 4:51 AM on June 28, 2013

We have a library in the high school were I work. It's only open 2 - 3 days per week because of budget cuts, as we have to share our librarian with another school. It has computers and lots of books to take home. My school is high-poverty and many, MANY of our kids don't have internet at home, so it's nice for them to still take books. Actually, I'm an adult who checks books out of the local library, so I think books to take home are nice regardless of how much is on the internet. The idea that every student has a laptop or iPad is absolutely out of the question at my school.

Our library has a mix of fiction, nonfiction, and encyclopedias. As a PP mentioned, they use barcode scanners, and kids check out books by having the librarian scan the barcode on the book as well as their student ID.

I think a big difference is that when I was in high school, our library was used to get books and have classes do research for research papers. That still happens at the school library where I work, but nowadays it's closed for several weeks per year to do high-stakes testing (benchmark testing, state testing, and ACT).
posted by christinetheslp at 5:31 AM on June 28, 2013

One of the groups at work that I work with is specifically charged with improving the library patron experiences through the use of technology. We're at a private university, FYI. I also am not a librarian so I can't speak to the changes in structure at that level, though I haven't really perceived any. Budget wise, the operations budget now needs to accommodate staff salaries as well as all of the software and databases, which are a massive expenditure now. Anyway, for the tech stuff, off the top of my head...

* When you walk in you'll pass through gate sensors that count the number of people who pass through that gate every day, but also check for the RFID tags we place in our books to keep honest people honest.
* The next thing you'll see are two 58" razor thin LCDs, one on either side. One shows events that are happening, useful information, etc. The other displays the bookings for our 20 odd group study rooms, for the entire day.
* A little further in there is a self check machine for patrons to check themselves out.
* At the circ desk the main checkout PCs all have a RFID pad for reading the tags in the books. We recently switched to reading the magstripe on people's ID cards, so you'll find a magstripe reader too. Because some types of patrons don't have a uni ID card (members of the community, etc.) you'll also find a barcode reader, since we have to barcode those patrons.
* Inventory is a snap with RFID. The pain is in the setup (getting shelf order into and off of the scanning device). Once setup, we just walk down the isles with a antenna like thing and it senses the tags.
* Over on the ref desk, it's more behind the scenes. The databases like Infotrac have given way to small armies of DBs, which is now one of the major information wealth factors. The ref librarians have to be familiar with all of them, so they track patron questions using a database.
* Cell phone "booths" are all around the library. It's a person sized circular booth one steps in, closes a door, and then can call to their heart's content in an otherwise totally silent room. There is a fan at the top to manage heat.
* One of our main drivers is the aforementioned group study rooms. Uni students are always looking for meeting spaces so we have all these 5-8 person conference rooms for them, each with a PC, large LCD, etc. Phones can be requested for conference calls.
* Study carrels are also all over the place, always packed to the brim, and half have PCs in them. The other half don't, and it isn't because we couldn't afford them... the students all have laptops!
* Because our catalog is digital, you'll also see PC Kiosks around that are for looking books up.
* Our shelves move based on the touch of a button, and have sensors so they don't crush anyone.
* Online you'll find a library catalog but also a "discovery service" which brings content for the databases into the same view as the catalog, basically. WorldCat has holdings information for so many libraries that ILL utilizes it, which is another website. The group study rooms have a website. The library, of course, has to have a website for questions and pointers to all of these website. And of course, in the modern age we have to have blogs, wikis, twitter, facebook, pinterest, instaWhateverIsCoolNow, etc.
* We used to use Meebo as a chat widget for the ref librarians but I think we switched. Anyway, the idea is that we can get messaged and answer questions that way.
* When you find a book you want in the catalog, you can have its info texted to you.
* You'll also find a pointer to each classes' books on reserve within each classes' website (Blackboard, Desire 2 Learn, etc.).
* VHS gave way to DVD which is giving away to BlueRay and streaming solutions.
* Audio books on tape moved to CDs which moved to "Playaway" devices and Overdrive.
* Copiers are still there but we need massive print stations for students to print homework out on. It's three large printers stuffed in a room with a PC for each one that students log in on to release their jobs to the printers. Most printers are B&W but we have one or two in color that use a separate print spool.
* There's also a state of the art scanning station that'll scan a book at any degree of being open, use software to flatten it, PDF it, and then email the PDF to the patron.
* We have a nifty PC based microfiche/film reader that is entirely digitized.

A lot of folks don't have any clue of how deep we go on things behind the scenes:
* Weeding keeps the physical collection fresh, and you'd be surprised about how much the younger generation likes physical books. We have to be careful weeding in an academic library though, so it mainly happens in popular fiction and the like. No one wants to remove books that are handy reference material.
* We do ethnography studies to see how people use the library. It's interesting to note the different responses to a patron having loud cell conversation, for instance. Some people tolerate it while others will use the evil eye and still others will tell them to be quiet. Getting them to tell us so we can handle it is a major challenge!
* Usability testing for just about anything you can think of. This is getting really crazy because we have eye tracking software now, so we can see how long people spend on a website, where they look, and where they finally click. It helps us understand how their brain processes information in ways they probably aren't even aware of.
* Think that's cool? We're getting glasses that do the same thing, but now we can have people walk into the building and do things like find and check out a book. Now we can conduct usability testing of the offline world.
* Websites are analyzed using heat maps and a billion other tools that drive organization, but we use a lot of other little things to help with content and such. I love the Plain English Campaign's free guides personally.
* We're just starting to be able to export catalog information so we can run more sophisticated reports and such on it. A Virtual Book Shelf is one sort of project, but also just logging every hour how many books, audiobooks, and DVDs are checked out. We can then map that and see usage trends the regular stats we get don't tell us. Patron searches in the catalog are also informative, as trends within can help the reference librarians know what questions to expect.
* We're just starting to work on a big data initiative to bring all of the usage information produced by these systems together and analyze them for patterns. Being completely paranoid about privacy, that is a little daunting. Regardless, it's simple things like not only being able to see what hours we should be open according to how many people are in the building, but also when people are using our websites (for the ref desk at least). We're also hoping to calculate our Sustainability efficiency live, such as how much electricity we use per patron. And because I'm sort of a germaphobe, I just want to estimate the number of breaths per minute people take in the place.
* Patrons have changed. As an example, many of our students are from China now, and we're in the US. Walking around its weird to see so many people using Chinese books now. Regardless, we've created fictitious personas for all the various patron types so we can model how they'll interact with all of this technology ahead of time. So one of the personas is a new student with a preference for their primary non-English language, etc.
* How do we stay ahead? The aforementioned group trying to push things and turn those "Gee, it'd be nice if" thoughts into reality. I'm one of two non-librarians in the six person group.

The picture I hope you're getting is that a library isn't just about books...
* They're for access to information in any form, and the top notch folks who help people access it. Google is just about the worst place people can look for information in a scholarly context, and that's one of the main problems we have with new patrons. That's why we train patrons constantly to use our resources.
* We're also a local community resource. It used to be books and VHS, and a quiet place to escape life. Now its group spaces too, but we centralized around the concept because we can make sure community spaces have learning at their core. To that end we have an art gallery in the middle, and a bagel shop on one side (which really smells when they burn an asiago bagel!). But the result is clear. The library is the busiest building on campus, even more than the student center/cafeteria. That's how much people like it. The town library where I grew up thirty years ago was similar because they understood this concept too. No bagel shop though...
* Finally, we're a resource to the larger community as well. We attend and present at conferences, telling people about what we do and learning about what they do. An easy example is this list. By sharing it I'm hoping to give back from what we've benefited from, but I also know people are going to innovate off of it and that's AWESOME. I can't wait to hear what people do!

And I've learnt not to check Ask right when I wake up on my day's off.
posted by jwells at 5:36 AM on June 28, 2013 [5 favorites]

I work in an affluent private high school (which also happens to be the same one I attended about 20 years ago!). Our current library is a much bigger space than it was when I was a student, but it has fewer books. The books and DVDs are primarily for faculty use, although students are permitted to check them out as well. Most of the space is taken up by computer stations and large study tables. Unlike the public school perspective above, our library's hours have been extended; it's a study hub and social area, with students flocking to check email, print typed assignments, meet with peer tutors, etc. The library is open from 7am-5pm. We have a full-time librarian and another part-time staff member, and during every class period a faculty member is assigned library duty as well. Many faculty members also go there to work because our faculty space is very poor. Overall, the library is busiest before and after school, and it's a really important part of our school's academic infrastructure --much more so than it was when I was a student myself.
posted by katie at 5:41 AM on June 28, 2013

Yeah, every kid definitely, emphatically does not have a laptop. Many kids do not have access to the internet at home. Plus, even among kids who DO have computer access at home, many (/most) of them do not really know how to use computers to do anything other than browse Facebook.

Also, re: everything is on the internet - lots of things are on the internet, but lots of things are behind a paywall. Especially in high school, databases are a big part of conducting research for papers etc. - the library is usually responsible for choosing databases and teaching students (and staff) how to use them. Librarians are often responsible for technology instruction generally - I've been in schools that have switched to Google Apps, say, and the librarian had to teach everyone on the staff how to use it.

At least in Illinois, school librarians teach classes - and at the elementary level, "library" is often a class that kids go to once a week, like they do with art or music. Throughout their nine years in elementary school, kids learn research skills, media literacy, and internet safety. They also learn how to use some assortment of applications (photo editing software, Garage Band, Prezi etc.), with an eye toward teaching them strategies for learning software on their own.

I don't know where your story is set, but if it's set in a place that doesn't have boatloads of money, you would be surprised at how little libraries have changed. I've definitely worked at schools where there is still only one computer lab (for, oh, 800 kids), so library instruction is still really focused on reading. An astonishing number of kids have no access to books at home, and plenty more kids just don't like reading. Even in 2013, a good school librarian knows a lot about books for kids (and teens), and spends a lot of time developing the collection to meet the particular needs of her school's students and teachers. In library class, kids usually get 10 or 15 minutes at the end to check out books, and librarians do a lot of one-on-one recommendations during that time. This is basically the same way my school library operated in the early '90s. (Also, some places still don't have barcodes D: )

In high schools, there is definitely a focus on research skills, and (this may vary geographically) they're more like pinch hitters? So in an elementary school, the librarian is a constant presence who the kids see all the time, but in a high school, you might bring the librarian in to do a lesson on, say, using JSTOR or some app. When there are computers in the library, it means the librarian can teach and the kids can follow along on their computers, and after the lesson, the librarian can wander around and help kids one-on-one. I remember my HS librarian as, like, a guard dog for the books, but now they tend to be technology teachers more than anything.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 5:50 AM on June 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

As part of my job, I sometimes visit schools, and I recently spent an hour or two each in several school libraries. The one most different from what you've already heard is in the deep south, in a district that has converted to a laptop-per-child model. I agree with the other commenters that that's still more the exception than the rule, but there are districts going that way.

In this one, bookshelves now line just one wall of the recently renovated library. The rest of the space is more lounge-like, with welcoming, contemporary furniture for individual students and groups. There's at least one semi-circle of seating in front of a very large screen (and there may have been several - I don't recall). There are also vending machines for snacks, hot chocolate, and coffee (which one staff member mentioned was being over-used). In what I assume is intended as a double-meaning, "THIRSTY?" is in big letters is on the wall near the machines and prominent as you enter the library. Students and parents mentioned missing hard copies of text books, but no one mentioned missing books and physical materials for research or liesure reading.
posted by daisyace at 6:46 AM on June 28, 2013

I think this varies a great deal. The local public K-6 school (400ish students in a middle class neighbourhood in Montreal) has a small classroom sized library and is entirely staffed by parents who volunteer their time. Money for a librarian disappeared some time ago, with the funds redirected to a part time speech therapist, school psychologist and eductional specialists. There is one computer used to sign books in and out. The children have no access to the computer and they visit the library once per week in their classes. There are no DVDs or music disks, just fiction, non fiction, comics and magazines.

In contrast a private school for high school age students (about 2000 in the school) relatively nearby has banks of laptops locked to study desks, with others laptops/netbooks available to sign out. There is a substantial audio visual collection. The room itself is similar to those I had in high school 20+ yars ago, hard chairs, study pods, a few rooms for group study.
posted by Cuke at 7:49 AM on June 28, 2013

My last job was as a high school librarian. Our library had two computer labs that were in use nearly every hour. Bookcases lined the walls, but the rest of the space was taken up with computers, study carrels, group study tables, and a couple comfy couches and chairs. Teachers would sign up in advance to use the library. Sometimes we would have three separate classes in there at a time: two in the computer labs, one sitting at the tables.

We offered free printing, so it was a madhouse immediately before and after school. We opened at 7am and often students would be waiting outside the door. We still had reference books, encyclopedias, and bound journals, and teachers still assigned students to use them. There were a couple big senior projects that had very strict library requirements, and we would stay open late before those assignments were due to help out.

I had two student 'workers' every class period. They did most of the checking in/out and shelving. To check out a book, a student would type in their district assigned number into a keypad, the worker would scan a barcode placed on the book and then print them a receipt.

In addition to books, we had educational dvds and audiobooks (on cds and playaways). We also had a couple kindle fires loaded with audiobooks and ebooks for anyone who needed special accommodations with their assigned reading. We were responsible for all textbooks, classroom reading, and sort of a technology dumping ground. If a teacher needed a projector, COW (computers on wheels laptop cart), dvd player, they would have to come down and check it out.

During class periods, teachers would occasionally send students to the library to use the computers, get something laminated, check out a book, etc. In that case they were given a big obnoxious library pass to carry around their neck. Often they would come to meet with their friends from another class. We were located right by the cafeteria, so a couple loners would usually come during their lunch periods and eat by themselves.

A lot of what I did as a librarian pretty much went unnoticed by the students. But I did regularly teach classes research skills, provide reference assistance (ie: help them find a book or article on their topic), and help them pick out books for pleasure or from a list of assigned options. I occasionally had to track them down to return materials and pay fines, especially for lost textbooks. Seniors could not attend prom or graduate if they had any outstanding fines, so I spent a lot of time getting yelled at by frustrated parents.

Sorry for writing a novel! Let me know if you have any more questions.
posted by galvanized unicorn at 8:15 AM on June 28, 2013

I volunteered a lot in an elementary school library this past year. As far as what you would see -- not what the librarian was doing in her office -- it didn't look tremendously different than I bet it did 20 years ago. They have dictionaries, they have reference books, they have novels and picture books.

The kids in 5th and 6th grade do get issued laptops by the school district, but I don't remember ever seeing them in the library. It's a diverse school district and not everyone has computers at home.

The computers that were in the library -- there were maybe 8 or 10 of them -- were big fat round iMacs.

One detail I found interesting: there's a huge whiteboard where the librarian or her assistant projects whatever it is she wants to show the students when they come in for their lessons. One day I came in and someone had drawn outlines of all the icons in a Mac dock at the bottom of the whiteboard. I presume the librarian had left her projector on and someone had found a dry-erase pen and traced them.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:23 PM on June 28, 2013

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