Friday, September 23, 2011

Information Literacy, Libraries, and Schools

On September 14th, Los Angeles Times’ columnist Steve Lopez covered the closure and near-closure of libraries in elementary, middle, and high schools. In the best of times, school libraries play second fiddle to issues like improving student-teacher ratio. In crisis times like today, these libraries do not stand a chance. A week later, he covered the parents’ reaction.

The parents’ efforts to rescue these libraries are laudable, but lack vision and ambition. They are merely trying to retain a terrible status quo. A room of books is not the kind of library where primary literacy skills are learned. The school superintendent, John Deasy, has it basically right: primary literacy skills are learned in the classroom. Critical reading, identifying high-quality information, web-research techniques, and specific sources for particular subject matters are skills that can be learned only if they are incorporated in every class, every day.

At every level in our society, the response to this terrible economic crisis has been one of incremental retrenchment instead of visionary reinvention. The phrase “don’t let a crisis go to waste” may have a bad image, but it applies in this case. California is the birthplace of information technology, and its schools and their infrastructure should reflect this.

Around the same time as the first column, rumors started circulating that Amazon is planning an electronic library available by monthly subscription. This is a technology and a business model that can provide every student with a custom digital library. It may even save money by eliminating the management and warehousing of print books (including text books).

School districts should put out requests for proposals to supply every student with an e-book reader, tablet, or notebook computer that has access to a digital library of books and other resources. Big-name enterprises, such as Amazon, Apple, Barnes&Noble, and Google, would be eager to capture his young demographic. Some philanthropic organizations might be willing to pitch in by buying the rights of some books and putting them in the public domain. A slice of public library funds should be allocated to this digital library.

Traditional school libraries are inadequate. It is time to shelve twentieth century infrastructure and fund the tools students need in the twenty-first century.