Books and the School Library: Obsolete or Optimized?

By Lamb, Annette; Johnson, Larry | Teacher Librarian, February 2014 | Go to article overview

Books and the School Library: Obsolete or Optimized?


Lamb, Annette, Johnson, Larry, Teacher Librarian


In the past decade, millions of older books have been digitized and most new books are being published in digital formats. Are paper books obsolete? Or is technology optimizing the book experience?

THE SHIFT FROM PHYSICAL TO DIGITAL COLLECTIONS

In 2009, the school library at Cushing Academy in Boston announced that it was going bookless. Later it was learned that although print books were largely gone, the school was not able to totally eliminate printed texts. The next year, Benilde-St. Margaret's School Library in Minneapolis eliminated most of its print collection.

In both cases, the moves were made to free up the physical library space for use as a learning and information commons. This approach required expanded investment in online databases and digital book collections. At Cushing, it was recognized that students required more help to use the online resources, and an additional librarian was hired.

At Benilde-St. Margaret, success for the digital shift relied on a surrounding community with neighboring branch public libraries along with university libraries. The school's principal noted that their intention wasn't to eliminate all books but to avoid duplication with other libraries (Barack, 2013).

In 2012, the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School (PA Cyber) opened its virtual library to students. They provide e-books, databases for magazines, newspapers, images, and primary source materials. In addition, the cyber library mails out print materials including physical books (Barack, 2012).

This shift doesn't signal the death of the paper book; however, it does indicate a change in thinking about the role of books in school libraries.

THE REAL WORLD OF LIBRARIES AND BOOKS

Although the shift from physical to digital collections is occurring rapidly in some school libraries, change will be slow in others. Liz Gray (2010), the library director at Dana Hall School in Wellesley, MA, suggested that "libraries need to hold on to things that work well even as they keep up with new technologies."

William Powers (2010) noted, "The idea that books are outdated is based on a common misconception: the belief that new technologies automatically render existing ones obsolete, as the automobile did with the buggy whip. However, this isn't always the case. Old technologies often handily survive the introduction of new ones, and sometimes become useful in entirely new ways."

In looking at the traditional publishing industry in terms of a market economy, we have goods and services (books and information) that require transport systems (publishing to booksellers) to deliver desired content/tires to users/buyers. In recent decades, the industry has been impacted by the shift to e-books, electronic databases, and other related digital forms, but the market is still controlled by materials, production, and delivery costs, as well as the profits earned in the delivery of desired goods. Customer preference for those goods is paramount, and today we have a growing number of people who are comfortable with or prefer reading information on their Kindle, Nook, or other e-book reader. At the same time, we still have significant numbers of people who prefer reading the printed page. In many areas, printed books aren't dead--they're alive and healthy.

Though a few schools have pioneered the digital movement, there has not been a huge surge of other school libraries going totally bookless. However, this may be due more to library budgets and the inability to take on the added costs of making such changes rather than a preference for more traditional school library resources. Schools across the country have cut back purchases of library materials for budgetary reasons, and today many school collections have fewer books than in the past while trying to devote more monies toward electronic databases, e-books, and other digital resources.

Over time, reading preferences are changing.

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