Make It Work: A Tight Budget Doesn't Have to Mean Sacrificing the Most Advanced Education Technology. You Can Create a Cutting-Edge Media Center with Vision, Creativity, and a Strong Dose of Technical Savvy

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ANNIE MCQUEEN, LIBRARIAN AT David Starr Jordan Middle School in the Palo Alto Unified School District in California, is used to figuring out creative ways of getting what her media center needs, even though her budget is minuscule. The state pays her about 70 cents per student per year for materials; disbursed among about 925 students, that's less than $700 a year. McQueen gets additional support from the funds generated by the couple of book fairs she hosts each year. Plus, she and her staff of two part-time assistants know how to write grants.

In fact, it was a grant that enabled McQueen and her colleagues at two other middle schools in the district to fund the purchase of Gale references. Gale, a part of Cengage Learning, publishes a series of printed reference books that are also available online in a digital format, which libraries can make available to their students through a password-protected link. She calls it a "great way to get a 24/7 reference collection of quality information for middle schoolers."

The initial price is hefty--about $200 to $300 a title, McQueen says. But after that, the connectivity fee is low--about $100 for 10 titles per year, she estimates. "I like that a lot," she says. "It's a print source, and students can use it at home."

The three schools focused their selection on topics such as the Civil War and the American Revolution, because "that information is going to stay current for a long time," McQueen says. Newer topics--drugs, alternative energies--McQueen knows she will have to buy again in another five years, simply because the information will be out of date.

To cover the initial purchase of 20 references, the three libraries submitted a joint grant application, which a local education association funded. Other grant sources included the local Parent Teacher Association and the district. According to McQueen, funding sources like to support collaborative grants, "where you're going across grade levels, across schools, across departments."

With school budgets what they are--skimpy--it's McQueen's brand of vision, imagination, and resourcefulness that can be put to work in lieu of money to help establish and maintain a cutting-edge media center. With the right blend of these elements, plus a good portion of technical savvy, schools can still provide the most advanced technology tools available to augment their students' educational experience.

Marshaling people and ideas is key. The Gale reference books investment wasn't the first collaboration among the three Palo Alto middle school librarians. They also jointly host a research website for students to use. The Palo Alto Middle School Libraries Research Center includes links to references, bibliography resources, online databases, topic links, and library links. The idea came to fruition several years ago, McQueen recalls. "I said we needed to have a list of good websites kids can go to [for research]," she says. Now the effort is linked to the public library, which expands the resources that can be offered.

Each of the schools kicks in $500 a year to pay a parent to maintain the site, and the librarians meet a few times a year to work on new initiatives. "You tend to have more power, a stronger voice, if you're working together," says McQueen.

That's how another affordable resource came about, one McQueen goes so far as to describe as "the best thing any media center could offer": Google Custom Search Engine. It's a service that allows users to create a search engine tailored to their needs by prioritizing search results based on web pages specified by those who set it up. Teachers can set up the search to only include specific sites, or the librarian can customize it for them.

Within the physical library, McQueen has come upon another cost-saving trick. The library has two laptop carts, one with 10 Macs and the other with 15. …