"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."
Steven Jobs, Stanford commencement address, 2005.
Sunday, March 22, 2015
This has been a sad year. After having just lost my Mom to cancer 2 ½ short years ago, my Dad suddenly passed away last month. I’ve found myself thinking profoundly over the past few weeks about legacy, pondering deeply what my parents left me with, not so much physically as metaphorically. I am grateful for the solid foundation they gave me through encouragement, support, education, and sometimes a firm hand and boundaries that enabled me to become who I am today. As a child, my parents fostered a love of reading, learning and books. They took our family to museums where we could steep ourselves in history, science, and art. They encouraged us to try our own hand at playing instruments and filled our house with music ranging from jazz to classical to the occasional foray into folk and pop music. They took us on vacations to beautiful national parks. They made sure we all learned to swim during summer vacations. They gave me and my siblings the gift of college educations. We had regular family dinners, homemade and at the table together. We discussed what we learned at school, politics, and the world. We watched the nightly news and the Muppet Show together in the evenings. We laughed a lot and sometimes cried. I wonder often how children grow and prosper when they don’t have the luxury of being raised by parents like mine.
In the 2 ½ years since we lost my Mom, I began going to my Dad’s house to help with some chores and make dinner. We had some wonderful conversations over those dinners and I became much closer to my Dad. Frequently our conversations in that first year were on the topic of stones. The headstone on their grave was not a quick decision. Dad mulled over multiple designs and types of stone for months, deliberating with all of us as to which one would best serve as not only a marker, but a memorial. We decided that a piece of poetry or writing would make it all the more special and Dad perused multiple possible excerpts before finally settling on a portion of John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud.” Once the stone, design, and words were settled upon, drafts and revisions circulated among family members until, finally, many months after Mom was laid to rest, the perfect headstone was set in place at Lower Brandywine.
Throughout those months and discussions about the headstone, Dad and I also talked about the predominantly Jewish custom of leaving stones when visiting graves of loved ones. There are multiple explanations for this custom in Jewish lore. The oldest historical connection actually comes from ancient times when people would mark graves with simple piles of stones. It was a practice that ultimately evolved into grave markers with inscriptions and was not solely a Jewish custom. Aside from the historical significance of piles of stones, there are multiple stories that emerge explaining the custom. The associations Dad and I talked about most were 1) the idea of stones symbolizing endurance 2) the leaving of stones as a sign that “I was here” visiting this memorial and 3) stones left as a tribute meaning “you were remembered”. Once the headstone was in place, Dad and I both began leaving stones when we paid a visit to the gravesite. Dad left a stone he collected at Trinity University in San Antonio as well as stones from family vacations to Graves Mountain and Lake George. I left stones from various places I visited as well as stones I just liked.
Unfortunately, some well-meaning soul has cleared away all of our stones. Maybe someone who recalled Mom’s dislike of kitschy disorder left as memorials or maybe just someone trying to keep the cemetery clean and orderly. I feel certain Mom would be just fine with this custom of leaving stones, however, and I invite any and all of you to leave your own stones if you happen to visit. Both Mom and Dad were filled with fortitude and lived rich, full lives. The legacy they left is solid as stone; it endures and lives on in the memory of everyone their lives touched.
Holy Sonnets: Death Be Not Proud
By John Donne
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s deliovery,
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shallt die.
(Spellings in the original Donne poems are slightly different and the inscription on my parents’ gravestone uses the original Donne spellings.)
Friday, December 12, 2014
“Technology in Education” is definitely the hot buzz in K12 lately, but the challenge for districts trying to make solid decisions is ensuring that they are seeing a full picture and weighing all of the various factors affected by their choices. It’s easy to get trapped in the buzz word rut, but at the end of the day, everyone involved is really trying to make choices that support student learning and overall excellence in the education we provide our students.
Melvin Kranzberg, a former professor at Case Western Reserve and Georgia Tech is famous for coining what he called “The Six Laws of Technology”. The first of these was that “Technology is neither good, nor bad, nor neutral.” I like this quote because it expresses a big picture sentiment that I think is often missing from technology implementation discussions: that technology is just a tool and it is what we do with it and the consequences -- good, bad and neutral -- that occur are a result of our use and choices. Kranzberg’s 6th Law, that “technology is a very human activity - and so is the history of technology”, reaffirms the sentiment that it is about our involvement, our use, and sometimes, our misuse. It’s critical that any technology initiative maintain a perspective for both long and short term goals, a solid understanding of functionality needs of end users, and a critical eye toward both intended and unintended consequences.
My personal perspective on technology in our K12 schools stems from my experience as a librarian who has served as a substitute teacher in more than 10 districts throughout the Philadelphia region, accumulated more than 20 years of experience in desktop publishing and communications, parented my own children through the implementation of a school 1 to 1 device program, and a personal passion for technology and the power it has to interconnect our world. The EdTech discussion is a vibrant and exciting. As we continue pushing that discussion and it’s evolution, there are several recurring issues that I’d like to see technology committees exploring.
- Access to information isn’t guaranteed by access to technology. While there are definitely pluses to 1-to-1 device plans in ensuring that all students have access to devices of some sort and increased mobility during times of peak use, there are some issues. Many districts implement 1-to-1 programs and eliminate libraries and library resources under the mistaken belief that technology alone means “access” to information. The reality is that providing access to digital resources currently costs substantially more than equivalent paper resources. In addition, not everything desirable for meeting student and staff needs is available in a digital format. Information literacy skills as also tend to suffer substantially if libraries with adequate staffing are not boosted along with the technology implementation. Plagiarism outside of the K12 environment is rising exponentially and the research skills the college freshman are frequently not adequate for academic work prompting many universities to add a required research/information literacy course for incoming students (see the Rutgers study published in Spring of 2014).
- Does one device really meet everyone’s needs? There is a significant difference in functionality and purpose for various devices which is often overlooked. iPads are awesome, and my preferred device, for digital textbooks, ebooks, and basic browsing/curation of sources. Heavy writing, however, is difficult on a tablet. Laptops are great for mobility and allow more comfortable writing than tablets, but they are terrible ereaders and don’t have enough power for heavy duty creative software like the Adobe Creative Suite. Labs configured for teacher instruction from a computer linked to a SMART Board or other large screen and which allow the teacher to control student computers via the teacher computer or an iPad are every bit as important in schools with 1to1 programs. Giving students more technology actually increases the need for instruction in information literacies. Students still need scaffolded instruction in researching, evaluating information, and behaving ethically and that instruction is best done as a collaborative effort between classroom teachers and teacher librarians while students are creating individual and group projects. There is a time for each device in instruction and a time for varying degrees of freedom in using those devices dependent upon instructional goals.
- Some subjects don’t seem to be ready to embrace technology for everything they do. For example, my son is doing algebra using iPads. They are great for instructional lecture review, but they are using adobe PDFs as digital problem sheets. Adobe just doesn’t have good functionality yet as a digital math worksheet. It’s quirky and awkward when writing and has visibility problems (zooms in and out so that only part of the problem shows). Inadvertent marks constantly occur and the writing feature is messy. As a result, technology can become a distraction to the problem solving process. We would be better meeting student needs if we would dig deeper into whether or not overuse -- or impractical use -- of technology is becoming a hindrance to learning.
- Are there better solutions than 1 to 1 programs? An alternative to 1 to 1 programs is to have laptop and iPad carts that are shared among students in each area of the school and increasing the number and quality of labs in both the library and other appropriate areas of the school. Designing labs specifically to meet collaborative teacher instructional needs and solid tech support staff to ensure that technology is always working, updated, and functional is also key. The number of needed per student software licenses is not as high with this route and allows more flexibility for additional high quality software in the lab environments (ex. Adobe Creative Suite, CAD, and other very pricy software). In addition, the most cost effective plan that allows districts to keep up with the inevitable and rapid aging of current technology within schools may be to lease a variety of devices -- laptops, iPads, and desktops -- from an outside provider who will keep all devices current and upgraded.
- Firewalls and restrictions… Schools have frequently been overly restrictive with access. In order to implement a top notch tech program, the mindset has to shift from being overly restrictive to teaching proper use and using those moments of improper use as teachable moments. Better for a student to mess up where the consequences are not as severe than to go out into the world after leaving our schools to make bigger mistakes with bigger consequences. There is definitely a certain amount of data that needs to be restricted and protected, but it isn’t necessary to go overboard.
- And most important, solid contingency plans are essential. Contingency planning is often left out of K12 technology plans. We expend a lot of time and energy planning for medical emergencies, fires, and intruders, but not much for the failure of technological tools. A backup plan needs to be available for students to complete assignments if they forget their device at school or home, if their is a network or wifi failure, if there is a major power failure, or if a student (or teacher) device fails. Businesses have instituted contingency planning since they began relying upon technology. When businesses prepared for Y2K, most of them refined their plans with multiple redundancies in the event of a catastrophic technology failure. Schools need to be similarly prepared.
Technology decisions are always challenging. Technology is expensive and changes rapidly, but it's a necessary component of any quality educational program that truly prepares students for life outside of our educational institutions. Finding the best way to use limited dollars is a huge task. But at the end of the day, we want to be certain that we are not just teaching students to play with cool techy gadgets, but that we are teaching them to use technology as a tool. Our primary goal is to teach them to think critically as they explore our interconnected world and seek balanced decisions and choices that have a positive impact on the future.
Thursday, December 4, 2014
|With Marcus Sedgwick at ALA Annual 2014|
Whenever I start talking books with English teachers, I inevitably find myself raving about Marcus Sedgwick. His books have huge potential for use in the classroom. Marcus writes with elements of classic writers past. He has a distinctive style that contains echoes of Poe, Steinbeck, Dickens and Hemingway, but with a relevancy for modern readers. He brings to life old world monsters, haunting emotions, and characters caught in the complexities of life. While his work is technically categorized as “YA” it could sit comfortably on the adult shelf. Even though he tends to write about dark subjects and characters, there is a stark beauty to his writing. It isn’t trendy or trite. They are books that won’t grow outdated upon the shelf, that I can envision handing to my grandchildren one day and having them find just as much enjoyment in them as I do. Marcus writes the sort of books that book lovers and collectors crave for their coveted hard copy collection. I know about that feeling from personal experience -- my signed hardbound Marcus Sedgwick collection has grown to fill a fairly extensive section of shelf in my home.
One of the qualities I find admirable in many of the authors I meet is how humble most of them remain even after they gain awards and recognition. Marcus is a perfect example. Despite having won a multitude of awards over the past dozen or so years, he remains humble, kind, and very accessible. Between the year 200 and 2014, he has been awarded the Branford Boase Award for Floodland, received an Independent Reading Association Award nomination and Portsmouth Book Award nomination for Witch Hill, been shortlisted for the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize and the Blue Peter Book Award for The Dark Horse, received a Guardian Prize nomination and been shortlisted for both the Sheffield Book Award and the Edgar Allan Poe Award for The Book of Dead Days, made the Booktrust Teenage Prize shortlist for The Foreshadowing, awarded the Booktrust Teenage Prize and nominated for the Calderdale Book of the Year Award for My Swordhand Is Singing, made the Costa Children's Book Award shortlist for Blood Red, Snow White, made the Carnegie Shorlist for The Dark Horse, My Swordhand Is Singing, Revolver, White Crow, and Midwinterblood, received a Michael L. Printz Honor for Revolver and Michael L. Printz Award for Midwinterblood. Impressive by any account! But despite the accolades, Marcus was more than willing to spend time talking with me about his work at conferences and to do not just one interview with me in 2011, but a second one a few weeks ago. This is what we talked about…
Every author dreams of becoming the award-winning international superstar that you have become, but I’m sure fame has its downside. How crazy has life become since winning not only repeated Printz recognition but multiple British book awards? And how is it that you still seem to remain so humble and approachable with all of that attention being thrown at you?
Well at the risk of saying ‘yes, I’m so modest, aren’t I?’ I would just say that you do meet authors who have become too big for their boots (not often, but it happens) and I tend to think that they were probably already like that (or potentially like that) before people started telling them how great their books are. And to be honest, the thing that I care about more than anything else is the writing itself. By the time a book has come out and is being criticised, my imagination has (usually) moved on to something else - and that’s the thing I care about. Lot of my writer friends agree with this - it’s nice to hear nice things, but you must never let yourself forget that the most important thing is to stay connected to the writing itself. That really is all that matters.
We talk a lot in the library world about YA as a genre -- and one that really seems to foster strong camps of "love" and "hate" -- but so many of your stories, while marketed as YA, feel like they could be just as comfortable on other shelves to me. I guess my question is, why YA?
It’s a big topic and a somewhat mystifying one too. The blunt answer is that it depends on who’s published the book. I started out as clearly a children’s author, but as my books slowly slid older and became more complex there have been times (as with Midwinterblood, Revolver and now The Ghosts of Heaven) where people have felt the books could just as well be on the adult shelves. And for me, they could be. I don’t mind WHO is reading my books, and I don’t mind that much about where they sit on the shelves. The only thing I hope is that someone understands what I’m trying to do. The film world has less trouble with these things - it’s a product of the unavoidable way we classify books, in order that people can find them, but it can feel a little limiting at times.
I recently read a reprint of a speech by John Green in the Horn Book Review where he said he and the staff at Booklist “used to joke about that old cliché that novels only have two plots: a stranger comes to town, and our hero goes on a journey.” He went on to talk about novels begetting novels begetting novels. On your blog, you write about old stories begetting new stories and the search for the original story. I was able to read an ARC of The Ghosts of Heaven and loved the central theme of spirals and “the first story” evolving over time. What do you think about the idea that there really are no new stories, just new ways of telling them?
Well I have sympathy with the idea that there are no new stories, that they are finite. But because there are always new ways of telling them, they are effectively infinite too. And that’s enormously exciting. I often look at the keyboard of 26 letters and a few dashes of punctuation and think ‘wow, I could do ANYTHING with that little lot. Anything at all, it’s just down to me to find it.’ There are, after all, only 8 whole notes in the musical scale, plus the semitones, and yet with that, you can create any music ever devised (within the Western canon at least). I’m sure composers sometimes think, well, what now? And yet, we keep trying and both writers and musicians keep coming up with new stuff. In The Ghosts of Heaven I very deliberately wanted to have an ‘old story’, and here I’m therefore riffing on the kind of tales that must have been the very first things that we told each other by the fireside. A cave has been found - it could represent shelter, but there may be a wild beast inside, a wolf, lion or bear. Someone must go inside, into the underworld, to find out what lies inside. They may die, or they may return a hero. This is my candidate for one of the oldest stories of all time - and we have seen variants of it told over the millennia - Orpheus in the Underworld, Theseus in the Labyrinth, etc. It’s wonderful to feel the weight of these kinds of tales under your fingertips as you type.
You tend toward the macabre in your writing. Some of your characters are deeply disturbed and disturbing. Why do you think human beings are so fascinated with dark, haunting stories?
That leads on from the above, I think. Who hasn’t felt the sense of threat that entering a dark space evokes in us? It’s a truly primal response and one that I guess we are a long way from evolving away from as yet. It’s inevitable that since life is rounded off by death that we view the two things as inextricable. We both fear, and are fascinated by, the darker side of life, and fiction is a safe and even entertaining way for your mind to consider such things without facing them for real. We cannot help but look into the dark, just as Orpheus couldn’t help looking back into the dark for Eurydice, even though it sealed her doom.
Despite the general trend toward dark stories, your stories themselves are really all over the place in regard to setting and character. You’ve developed stories that are set in just about every time period from prehistory to the future. How do you come up with your ideas for your stories?
Ideas evolve from anywhere, and I do mean anywhere: objects, dreams, conversations, and so on, but very often, as a novel is starting to form in my head, it will be a place that will bring it alive. I might have deliberately visited somewhere, or it might be by accident, or even just by reading about it (because sometimes these places do not actually exist anymore, they are from the past) but however it happens, I find place is a very strong catalyst for ideas to appear. I don’t exactly know why, but it works, time and again - I start seeing actions, hearing characters (not literally, you get locked away somewhere nice and safe for that) and I jot these things down into my notebook. Lots never gets used, some I keep, much of it is transformed by other ideas in my head, almost to have changed from what I originally saw, but place is very important to me and a resource I often turn to if I’m feeling stuck.
She Is Not Invisible doesn't have the same dark overtones found in many your novels, and yet I loved it all the same. I absolutely fell in love with Laureth and her brother Benjamin. You really captured the idea of blindness. I particularly loved the interaction between Michael and Laureth. How were you able to wrap your head around creating Laureth’s world so well?
This book is a little different from most of my others. It’s my ‘happy book’ though I use the term loosely. I couldn’t have created Laureth myself - to truly represent someone who’s blind, to even begin to do that subject justice, to do it authentically, I knew from the start that I would need the help of blind people themselves. So I spent a year or so going in and out of a blind school here in the UK - it’s a very special place - the only place of its exact kind in the country in fact. I made lots of friends there, I asked lots of stupid questions, the sort you think you should never ask (but I needed to know) and they students there, who ranged from 11-18 were all, and without exception, absolutely amazing. They were articulate and honest and so very generous. And I really could not have begun to write the book without them.
One of the greatest challenges I personally find when I write is parting with ideas, facts, and thoughts that I love, but that end up sounding contrived or awkward in whatever I’m writing. My dad often laments over being “stuck in running down rabbit holes.” While it’s great fun to explore ideas and information, sometimes those rabbit holes can really muck up a writing project. They can become a distracting haze that clouds the point of a story. How do you force yourself to cut extraneous juicy tidbits and do you ever save them for a different project?
You just have to be brutal. Do you want to show off your knowledge of 19th century French typewriters, or do you want to write a good book? You might be able to do both of course, but any ‘fact’ should only appear in your story if it deserves to be there, by which I mean it must serve the story, move it forward, have a concrete position and purpose. Readers are really good at spotting when a writer has decided to open the encyclopedia of their mind, and the result is usually off putting and dull. The frustration is of course that you might have found out all sorts of cool things in your research, but until you come to write the book you don’t actually know which bits you will need. As for the stuff left over (around 90% I usually think) you can’t use it unless you find a way to make it belong. And if not, cut it. You never know, you might find a way to use it another day.
When you set out to write, do you create an outline and notecards, or do you just write freely and let the story develop on the page?
If a book takes me two years to write, I will have spent one year and eleven months thinking about it. This is not to say that I plan what’s going to happen on every page, but I do have an outline in my mind, and an ending. I fill notebooks with thoughts and with research, I hate notecards but I do use large sheets of paper on which to scribble plans and maps and diagrams of the book’s structure and shape. This process varies with each book, you have to be flexible and work with the demands of the book in front of you. Only when I am desperate to start writing do I start, and then I write very fast indeed. If I’m working slowly, I know I didn’t do my preparation well enough, and the results are almost always bad, whereas, up to a point, the faster I am writing the better the quality is. That might sound contradictory but I promise it’s true. Midwinterblood, for example, I wrote in seven days. I’ve never had the intense experience of that book with any other. Although I’d seen the painting on which it’s based 5 years previously, the specific idea came to me after all that time never having thought about the painting again (consciously at least) once. Once I had that specific concept of seven interconnected stories, I spent the next 30 days thinking about it, and then 7 writing it. Then it was all over, much too soon actually, and I missed it. Because the very best bit of writing is when you are actually writing.
So much of the time, I find people are trying to pit film against book in a contest to see which is better. Personally, I love both mediums and don’t see them at odds. They are simply different ways of telling a story. You have mentioned an interest in film multiple times in your blog, conversations, and speeches, so I am assuming you have a similar love of both mediums. I recently read your review of a Kubrick exhibit – well done, by the way. I’m ready to chase out to its next venue to check it out after reading your review. Aside from the obvious brilliance of Kubrick as a filmmaker, what is it that you admire most about his films, and film in general?
Oh, nice question. I do love both mediums, very much, but they have differences and work in different ways. I love the things that film can do that the printed word can’t, and I love the things that the word can do that movies struggle with. I love and celebrate those differences. As for Kubrick, I’ll try and keep it short or I’ll end up writing a dissertation. Here’s one thing about Kubrick; he worked in so many different ways. He didn’t want to keep making the same kind of film, he wanted to explore and push and create new types of things every time. I respect that and respond to that very strongly. In doing so, he made some of the greatest examples of many different genre of film, not just one. Full Metal Jacket is one of the best war films ever made (though so is his earlier Paths of Glory). Spartacus, though not his project initially, is one of the best of the sixties historical epics. Dr. Strangelove is a great black comedy, The Shining a seriously symbol-laden piece of unsettling horror. 2001 is without question the greatest Sci-fi movie ever made (possibly the greatest film of any kind ever made - I know that some people will be screaming ‘Tarkovsky!' at me now, but I think 2001 shades it). Kubrick once said he felt limited by the form; he wanted to make films anew in some way. This was shortly before 2001 and many people agree that he broke new ground with that movie. To call it a movie sounds so light. It’s a work of art. But I understand what he meant by feeling limited. As I said above, we only have 26 letters to work with, and ink on paper, albeit virtual ink sometimes now. And yes, still, despite those limitations, the possibilities are endless…
Last time we talked, you mentioned a film project you and your brother were working on that digs into our attitudes toward death and the dangers of fundamentalism. I’m suddenly having images from Six Feet Under pop into my head… So what has happened with the project?
Still rolling along! It’s moved to Rome now, and we are hopeful of getting it filmed in 2015.
What do you think are the greatest differences between your British audiences and American audiences?
That’s a good question but I really don’t have the information to answer it fully. I’m guessing that there aren’t many differences between readers in the UK and the US. Publishers either side of the pond very much act as if there are, but I do question how they know these things. My experiences of speaking to readers on both sides of the Atlantic has led me to think we are much more similar than we are different. Everyone likes a good story, well told and original, right? I hope so. I very much value my American readers and am delighted to be published in the US.
More information about Marcus and his wonderful books can be found at:
|Recently published in the UK and coming to the US in Winter 2015|
Saturday, October 4, 2014
We are living in a revolutionary time. Our country has been struggling with a turbulent economy, financing a decade-long war, increasingly polarized politics, and changes flying at us from every direction as the result of rapidly developing technology and increasingly interconnected flows of information. It is exciting and daunting at the same time. Education has been caught in the crossfires of all of this while undergoing its own attempts at evolving. Libraries have been keeping up with changes in technology and have evolved right along with all of the rapid changes surrounding them, but those outside of library circles seem to be mystified by what the library brings to the table amidst all of the changes. Although format and delivery of information are shifting somewhat, libraries remain integral in the same way as when they were initially created; libraries are about access to content.
In the school environment, this role is particularly critical. There is a mountain of data showing that schools with library programs led by MLIS certified school librarians with full time staff and substantial collection development budgets have higher test scores, in all subject areas, than schools without libraries or libraries that are improperly staffed with inadequate collection development budgets. Despite decades of data demonstrating the clear correlation, libraries continue to disappear. The more I try to understand why, the more confused I am. At the academic level, we have maintained strong libraries. Budgets may be cut, but the idea of eliminating academic libraries isn't generally broached. I'd imagine anyone who might raise such an idea in the academic environment would be swiftly castigated. Research requires access to high quality information and scholars demand access. They understand that access to content carries a price and that, even from a financial standpoint, having a library as their link to that access makes sense. In the public and school environment, however, decries against the need for libraries isn't uncommon. I'm coming to the conclusion that there is a vast misunderstanding of what a library is and does in these circles that simply isn't as prevalent in higher education.
Libraries and librarians collect and archive work. It is irrelevant what format. Digital or print, it is still about curating content. The library provides access to curated content for its users. Public libraries are tasked with curating content specific to the interests and needs of a given community and making it available for access by community members of all different ages. They provide content to retirees and preschoolers, homeless citizens and bank presidents, parents and children outside of regular school hours. It is not free; it is paid for with a share of that community’s public funds. If a community library does not have content that it’s community wants to access, the community can appeal to the library for content changes. Public libraries were originally founded upon liberal political views about free and equal access to information, but they are not political in how they operate. They are organized with a mindset toward access of information to all people within a community, not a particular contingent or set of ideals.
Museums and archives are also creating access to their curated content with public funding. They provide specific content related to the collections they house, like the Smithsonian Institution or the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Museums and archives pay to digitize content, organize it, host it on servers, and ensure that users are able to access it. It is paid for through membership fees, donations and public (tax) funding. In some cases, you must pay a membership fee for access to digital content. It carries all the same rights of ownership that the non-digital versions carries and requires attribution regardless of whether the individual user pays for access.
As a nation, we should all be concerned about a growing trend toward destruction of public access through non-partisan, non-profit entities. Power, control, and influence of information determined by those who select and organize content, and who restrict its access to content based upon ability to pay or other selective criteria is not in the interests of a diverse democratic society. If we move toward a system where all content is driven directly through publishers, booksellers, or companies that curate content for a fee, individual citizens will lose out. Libraries are not free. It costs money to curate, organize, and make content searchable. Libraries do these things without gaining profit on the items they curate. Collection development is driven by user needs. We already have a growing digital divide based upon ability to pay and continuing to move toward this pay to view model of information access will create a vast information and literacy divide.
There is great power in what the Internet has brought to society. We now have the ability to use linked computers to connect curators of content and to make curated digital content accessible outside of the physical confines of an actual space. In addition, physical curated content, like books, is searchable outside of the confines of a physical repository. But the Internet and search engines are about connection, not ubiquitous access to content. As an example, type “history of libraries” into Google. You will get a list of potential resources on the topic. The first thing on the list will likely be a Wikipedia entry. I have nothing against Wikipedia, but it’s an encyclopedia. Entries are written by people who provide a basic overview and are not necessarily experts in the topic. Even prior to the digital age, encyclopedia research was never meant to be more than a basic overview, primarily used with elementary students. The greatest value of a good Wikipedia entry is its potential for leading students toward further resources through a list of cited resources at the end of the page, many of which can only be accessed for a fee. Just about all of the other resources that will come up in this query on the “history of libraries” are also only available for a fee. This includes Google book references. Not only are online digital books still unwieldy, but the viewing access for many digitized books is quite limited in Google books. In a search for “history of libraries”, Google will send you to an eBook for Michael Harris’s 1999 book History of Libraries of the Western World. You can read a limited number of preview pages in Google Books, but then are given a link leading you to the full text for purchase at the bargain price of $37.12. Imagine a full research paper with multiple resources at this cost? It becomes cost prohibitive for individuals. Libraries have the ability to provide resources to patrons within a school or community through collective purchasing power and sharing. Even documents published under Open Access platforms have a cost. Someone has to edit, digitize, organize, format, store (yes, even electronically, documents need to be stored), and create a portal to that information. There is always a cost.
Unlike all other libraries, school libraries and librarians are geared toward specific teaching skills for finding and ethically using information, collection development skills linked to curriculum and pedagogy, strong relationships bridge between publishers and content creators, K12 focused content, understanding of copyright/fair use rules (and how they are evolving), access to diverse variety of pleasure reading with the goal of cultivating widespread literacy and independent learning, and an ability to provide scaffolded instruction of skills for students so that when they ultimately leave the K12 environment they can effectively use both the resources available via the connection of the Internet and academic, business and public libraries to research information.
So what about the role of the Internet? Can't teachers just use the Internet to create all of this rich content? That implies a misunderstanding of what the Internet is. The Internet isn't really a thing, but the interconnection of servers, devices, and individual computers. Internet search engines troll content according to tagging and popularity. The Internet does not provide ubiquitous access. It has the ability to point searchers to places where they can access, but does not give them the keys. Keys cost money even if the resource is digital. In fact, digital access costs more than print access and does not currently carrying the same rights of ownership. But don't we have content experts in our school districts? Isn't that what curriculum specialists do? The role of curriculum specialists is centered on finding a “package” that meets the needs of each grade within a school district. School librarians are about finding and curating resources from a diverse array of publishers and providers to teach content that teachers and students can tailor toward individual needs, styles, and abilities.
As a comparative example of the potential for these different functions, let's look at two different schools. School A has a packaged curriculum for each grade in math, language arts, social studies, and science. They have no school library and supplement the language arts program with individual classroom libraries for silent reading. During the month of March, students study fractions in math through math worksheets and drills, follow set reading, writing, and grammar lessons through the packaged LA curriculum, read about Japan in their social studies books, and read about the earth in their science books. School B has a strong library program with rich resources centrally located within their school. The library has two separate technology-rich classrooms capable of using Skype with a teacher and interviewee, sophisticated software programs and learning programs that use interactive gaming headphones. The collection of resources is created with collaborative input from all of the teachers. During March, the 3rd graders study Japan. Teachers create a rich curriculum with the librarian that includes versions of the Sadako story, a strong varied collection of books about Japan, and biographies of famous Japanese and Japanese-American people. Students have Skype conversations with Japanese school children in the technology classrooms, letting them experience the connection of learning with real children their age in Japan. Math lessons on fractions include measurements in recipes for Japanese foods from a collection of age appropriate cookbooks for children and examples of origami paper folding. The library has age appropriate resources on the effects of nuclear bombs and radiation on health and the environment that are used in science lessons. Art classes explore Japanese brush and ink work ( shodo) and the creation of maneki neko (lucky cat) paintings. Examples of Japanese art are in the library collection. Music classes teach Classical Japanese music and children explore Japanese instruments through videos in the library collection. They also learn some basic Japanese language skills using the gaming headphones and a language learning program in the library technology classrooms. Which style of school do you think will have the most engaged students – and which students are most likely going to retain what they learn? The skills being taught are the same, but the content of School B is far richer leading to deeper inquiry and understanding.
Technology does mean exciting things for education, but technology is about the tools for access and content creation, not the content itself. And technology without content is like having a car, but no fuel. Technology is certainly opening up amazing possibilities. We can search greater volumes, access content from a distance, communicate over long distances at a lower cost than ever before, and tailor learning in remarkable ways. But all content has a cost; somewhere it still needs to be paid for. Booksellers, like Amazon, have an interest in selling books. Each item accessed, by each individual, carries a specific fee. They do not provide access to everything published. They operate under a model according to popularity of sale. Newspapers and magazines charge for access. Look at what your cable bill costs. You pay, either through advertisements or premium access, for content. Internet access works the same way.
Unfortunately, cuts to school libraries mean a huge number of school librarians and support staff have to rely upon single vendor solutions. This means that the bulk of collection development relies heavily upon the vendor selecting content and offering it to the library “shelf ready” at a premium price. Fewer and fewer school librarians are able to voraciously peruse review copies prior to selection and the budgets for collection development are continually shrinking. This is bad for education. We are rapidly losing rich and diverse content in K12 education. The technological tools we all seem so enamored with are worthless without content. A student may learn how to use this year’s version of Excel or PowerPoint, but doesn't have a clue that cutting and pasting things from Internet sites without attribution is plagiarism. The tools will change and students will have to learn how to use new tools on their own, just like the rest of us have been doing as new technology has evolved. If we haven't taught them how to write, research, cite, edit, organize and evaluate information, and think independently, they won't have the skills to navigate in the world on their own. If we are to truly embrace this revolutionary time in education, we should be moving toward centralized school libraries that are the hub of learning with more, not fewer, highly skilled staff members who can, and have the time to, cost-effectively curate collections, find new funding sources, collaboratively teach with other staff members, and provide access to rich content for students and staff.
American Association of School Librarians. Standards for the 21st Century Learner. Chicago: American Library Association, 2007. www.ala.org/alsc/
Boelens, Helen. “What is a school library?: International Guidelines.” International Association of School Librarianship (IASL). Web. 28 Sept. 2014.www.iasl-online.org
Curry Lance, Keith. "School Library Impact Studies." Web. 28 Sept. 2014.
Harris, Michael. History of Libraries of the Western World. Google EBook ed. (full Book Access Costs $37.12) Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1999.
National Library of New Zealand. "School Library: Purpose." Web. 29 Sept. 2014.
National Library of New Zealand. "School Library: Purpose." Web. 29 Sept. 2014.
Links to resources related to the impact of school libraries:
School Libraries Impact Studies
School Libraries Impact Studies
Latest Study: A full-time school librarian makes a critical difference in boosting student achievement
The Importance of School Libraries
Checking Out: Budget hawks see library programs as an easy out, but what's the cost to student achievement?
School Libraries Work! (Research Foundation Paper)
What You Can Do To Support School Libraries In Crisis
School Libraries Make The Difference
A Librarian's Tricks For Finding Those 'Complex Texts' Cited In the Common Core
Starting A Local School Libraries Friends Group
International Association of School Librarianship -- list of studies on school libraries worldwide