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« Common sense from Collier and Magid | Main | Library conferences - fading away? »

Wishful thinking WON'T save libraries

Include provisions under Title I state and local plans and the Race to the Top Fund to establish a state goal of having a school library staffed by a state-licensed school librarian in each public school... ALA/AASL's ESEA Talking Points

I've recently heard two scenarios that may rescue school libraries from obsolesce. Don't rely on either one.

The first goes something like this: Because of the digital divide, some students will always need libraries and print books since they can't afford information technologies. First, I'd not hitch my star to serving the disadvantaged. It's a noble, feel-good cause, but it will be services to the mainstream that will keep libraries viable. Second, the technology "divide" is quickly dissolving. If we think students need a full-blown computer and high speed Internet connection via DSL or cable, there will indeed be a digital divide into the foreseeable future. But kids are accessing the Internet via cheap data-enabled cell phones and low-cost data plans, not the clunky computers and wired networks we oldsters think we need. The WHO reports more people in the world have access to cell phones than flush toilets. (Is there a toilet divide???) In the Dhavari slums of Mumbai where people are living on only a few dollars a day, 98% of families have cellphones. 75% of US students have cellphones. Keitai shousetsu, cell phone novels, accounted for five of the ten best selling novels in Japan in 2007. Technological access is not an issue and libraries won't be needed to provide it.

The second bit of wishful thinking involves a national mandate (via ESCA) that will require a librarian in every school. (See ALA's platform above.) Not only will this not happen, it's a really bad idea. Mandates:

  • Can only specific quantity, not quality.
  • Protect the incompetent, lowering the perceived value of the entire profession.
  • Are easily by-passed by any half-way intelligent administrator.
  • Are seen as protection for librarians, not as a service to children.
  • Are deeply resented by other professional staff members.
  • Eliminate the need for continuous evaluation, improvement and evaluation by library programs by practitioners.

Does this mean library programs are doomed? Of course not, but it will require answering these hard questions that Library Girl articulates quite nicely:

  • Are we the answers to our stakeholders problems? 
  • Can our programs be directly linked to student achievement?
  • ...if our programs do impact student learning, why are we the only ones who know it?

 These questions reflect Johnson’s Three Commandments of a Successful Library Program:

  1. Thou shall develop shared ownership of the library and all it contains.
  2. Thou shall have written annual objectives tied directly to school and curricular goals and bend all thy efforts toward achieving them.
  3. Thou shall take thy light out from under thy damn bushel and share with others all the wonders thou dost perform.

We all engage in wishful thinking now and then. I've spent those lottery millions in my head countless times. But I'm not counting on the lottery to fund my retirement. Nor should we count on either mandates or the digital divide assuring that our library programs have a place in our schools.

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Reader Comments (6)

I think some library or ed tech people get worried if they share how to do things, they're helping to cut their own job. My boss repeated something she read in a blog a while back, something to the effect...if you're in ed tech, you should be working toward empowering people to know what they're doing, so your job can be cut. Hard to see the personal buy-in on that, but I get the concept. We have a looooooong way to go to get to a place where our teachers and administrators are up to speed though.

November 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNathan Mielke


I still struggle with the "digital divide" theme since that is what I see everyday. In our setting, we continually find students have no computer to work at home, or parents who don't let students use a computer (this is HS). Students don't return flashdrives because there's no way to get their own. The school actually promotes things like sports award nights with "free food." I am always showing students how to open a Microsoft Works document because they don't have Word at home. It may as well be a foreign language to them. I know we have to be viable to the mainstream not just the lowstream, but once again here's an example of the rich getting richer and the poor getting screwed.

November 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBob

While I'm sorely tempted to support ESCA's mandate for a librarian in every school, I recognize that it's (mostly) fear that motivates me to jump on that particular band wagon. The more rational me, (the one that isn't stomping her feet and yelling, "if bad teachers get to be protected by mandate wrapped up in acronyms, why don't bad librarians?!?!?!") recognizes that mandates are not only ineffective, but in many cases, even damaging to the very programs they seek to protect. As you said, such a mandate would only be "seen as protection for librarians, not as a service to children." Nail meet head.

It's no exaggeration to say that I am made heart sick when I think about the kids out there who do not have access to a librarian/library program in their schools. Further, I believe we have yet to even understand the impact these cuts will have on the learners who must now, simply, do without. However, I'm even more *disappointed* that THIS is what it took for some of us to start seriously thinking about intentional librarianship and the need for data driven assessments of our programs. I can only hope that it's not too little, too late.

November 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLibrary Girl

I don't know Doug. I hate to be viewed as becoming a service for only the poor and distraught, but the fact is in my setting that is what I see a lot of. Every day I help someone open up a Microsoft Works document from home because they do not have Word. Students don't return flashdrives because they have no way of purchasing their own. Teachers are frustrated when both library and computer lab computers are reserved because of the number of students who don't have computers at home, or whose parents don't allow them to use their computer. (This is a HS no less) Parents don't show for Open House, and events like Awards Night are presented with the emphasis of "free food," yet still very few attend. I stay beyond my contracted time so kids who need a computer can get access after school, and since my co-worker is pulled frequently to sub anyway, there isn't a chance of extra staff. While I used to let students stay after I leave, I knew the issue of supervision would come up, so that's now out. One of our hottest items in the library that we added a couple of years ago were art supplies, so now students have supplies they can't get elsewhere: glue sticks, poster board, etc.

The digital divide is alive and well and the picture of all students having equal access to technology is a myth here.

November 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBob

Hi Nathan,

I've always thought good teachers and good parents continuously work toward their own obsolesce. We empower others with current skills while learning new skills to keep us necessary. It's only when we stop learning that we have to stop teaching and hoard knowledge.


Hi Bob,

How many of these kids have cell phones in your school? Is the problem access to technology or access to a particular, adult-accepted technology? This is not to say libraries won't be playing a role in helping people have access - just don't count on it for the long run.


Hi LG,

I would agree with your statements with one slight amendment:

I am made heart sick when I think about the kids out there who do not have access to a[N EFFECTIVE] librarian/library program in their schools.


Hi Bob,

It sounds like the needs of your students go far beyond access to technology. But again, I would challenge you to see how many of your students own cell phones that can be used to access information and do school work. You might be surprised.

Oh, it sounds like some of your problems might be solved if your district took advantage of the free GoogleApps for Education (incompatible software, flashdrives, etc.)

Thanks for writing. I appreciate your perspective,


November 11, 2010 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Sorry about the repeat post. Ranting is bad enough...but when you forget you already ranted...

Happy Thanksgiving.

November 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBob

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