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Thursday
May212009

Guest post by Gary Hartzell

I left my hotel room in Bangkok exactly 24 hours ago and am now happily sitting in the Minneapolis airport waiting for my shuttle back to Mankato. Although thanks to Tylenol PM I slept about 20 of the past 24 hours, I am feeling fuzzy-headed. So I was delighted to get Gary Hartzell's permission to elevate his comments to The Essential Question to a "guest post."

Gary is a good friend and author of a book every librarian must read - Building Influence for the School Librarian. As a former school principal, Gary brings a much needed objective view to our work, value and strategies for advocacy. (He is also a great speaker and workshop presenter, despite being a fellow old white guy.)

Anyway, here is Gary's message:

In today’s electronic environment and damaged economy, the value of libraries per se is going to be questioned right along with questions about whether you can defend continuing to spend money on print as opposed to electronic resources. While the questions are valid, it too often seems that the one asking already has an answer – and the questions really are little more than disguised assaults on you and your program:

If that is, indeed, the case, then it seems to me that librarians need to respond vigorously, even aggressively. It’s not enough to say, “Well, you’re wrong” – or even to say “Well, you’re wrong and here’s why.” A passive response feeds into their stereotypical images of libraries and librarians. Display your expertise - politely and respectfully, but also relentlessly and mercilessly. Remember what Shakespeare had Richard III say about himself: “I can smile – and I can murder while I smile.” Bombard your adversaries with fact and demand that they respond with the same.

Never accept opinion without evidence, especially if you are challenged in public. Make your statement and then close with a question back to them. Don’t defend your library; make them defend the Internet. Put your antagonists on the defensive and make them think twice about ever attacking you again, especially in any kind of public forum.

You already know the standard and valid arguments regarding library value (if you need more or a refresher, I’m sure the ALA, the AASL, and the IASL will be happy to offer them to you), so there is no need to recite those here – especially the arguments regarding the untrustworthiness of so many Internet “sources”. Instead, let me add two other ideas that may be helpful. One has to do with the nature of copyright and the other with the nature of electronic materials.

First, copyright. A common line of attack is to characterize print materials as a thing of the past. Challenge this immediately. Ask what evidence they have that print is in decline -- then turn on them when they can’t produce it. Tell them that print isn’t dead, dying, or even ill. Even with the economic down turn, book sales in the United States stood at $24.3 in 2008. British publishers reported that 236.9 million books were sold last year in the UK at a total value of £1.773 billion. You can argue the new Kindle as a variation on print delivery, bringing books in a more convenient and portable form perhaps, but still bringing books. And that brings us to the copyright argument for libraries.

Ask library critics and Internet advocates outright what they know about copyright. It’s not likely to be much. Their ignorance is one of the main forces undercutting their Internet supremacy theory. Hitting at this is a useful approach in validating library value. You can use some of the fascinating arguments advanced by Thomas Mann at the Library of Congress to build a thought provoking case (“The Importance of Books, Free Access, and Libraries as Places and the Dangerous Inadequacy of the of the Information Science Paradigm,” Journal of Academic Librarianship, vol. 27, no. 4, July 2001, pp. 268-281). It is naïve, he says, to think that intellectual property laws are going to disappear or that human nature will outgrow the profit motive in the next century. If a profit is to be derived from copyrighted materials on the Internet, providers must limit who has access. Copyright restrictions mean that free access to everything produced probably will never come to the Internet. Libraries, on the other hand, freely make copyrighted material available in their print resources and can make copyrighted electronic materials available through their digital collections and database subscriptions.

Second, the nature of electronic resources even when they are trustworthy. Mann makes a powerful point that speaks to our educational goals. Exclusive use of electronic sources, he says, actually may undercut students’ ability to understand lengthy works. “Doing keyword searches … for particular passages is simply not the same as the much more important work of actually reading and absorbing their intellectual content as connected wholes.” Today’s students, you can argue as he does, certainly are comfortable with computers, but that’s not the same as saying that they’re comfortable reading and absorbing long works on a screen. The majority of the time, Mann argues, youngsters interact with screen displays that don’t require long attention spans and require less rather than more verbal interpretative skills. Because we want students to move from simple information access skills to knowledge development and application to understanding to wisdom, technology that fosters short attention spans is both dangerous and counterproductive. “Here is the important point,” Mann contends, “and there is no getting around it: If the higher levels of knowledge and understanding are going to be grasped, they require greater attention spans than do the lower levels of data and information.”

This tends toward a conclusion that libraries are vital to both education and the national intellectual life. Again, there isn’t room here to list the research studies that demonstrate the value of a balanced collection, and particularly the value of print materials – but you can easily find them through your own or a nearby university library’s subscription databases, and in back issues of publications like Library Media Connection, School Library Journal, Teacher-Librarian, and Emergency Librarian.

Be careful, though. These publications carry articles that are mixes of opinion and experience description, along with some articles that are research-based. While these are valuable for practice, they’re considerably less valuable for argumentation. It’s important that you separate research from opinion. You want to challenge your critics with factual evidence, not with another librarian’s opinion.

The research-based articles in these publications will have bibliographies that will lead you back to the original research reports. Track down those reports and use them in crafting your arguments. Of course, you’ll need to find more and different, but these bibliographies provide a running start. Once you’re familiar with the kinds of research journals that carry articles on topics likely to become contentious in your school or district, you can launch your search directly into those print and on-line publications.

Do your homework in advance. Put a list of supportive research article citations in your pocket calendar, PDA, Blackberry, or other device so they’re always handy. But also memorize at least a half-dozen so you can speak without hesitation. When you’re done, turn and ask your critics to cite specific evidence of electronic superiority, especially Internet superiority, in fostering student achievement. They won’t be able to do it.

Tuesday
May192009

Cambodia - same, same only different

Back in Bangkok waiting for my early flight tomorrow morning after four days in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Shuffling through the over 400 pictures I took and reflecting a little on my experiences.

Despite the sauna-like heat and torrential rains each evening (one which knocked out all the power in the city), the little piece of Cambodia I experienced was truly a remarkable place. And while the scenery and temples were amazing, I was left with a genuine affection for the Cambodian people - at least the ones I met.

Stepping out of the airport terminal, I requested "moto" transport into town. And I made my trip-long connection with Mr. Vong Hoy.

Mr. Hoy was the proud owner and driver of the small "moto" that I spent a rather large amount of time perched on the back. (Cambodia requires drivers to wear helmets but not passengers.) And while my big American butt felt somewhat cramped, I soon realized that I was rather selfish when such a bike could really serve as a whole minivan. Count carefully - that's a family of six on the bike below.

Mr. Hoy suggested the guest house where I was planning to stay was far too noisy and I would be more comfortable at the New Green Hotel, where he seemed to spend much of his downtime with other drivers in the restaurant/bar watching violent movies on TV. The New Green was a clean, if spartan accommodation that seemed a value. The bill for my three nights stay, five meals, many beers and waters, and even a load of laundry came to $89. 

I'll not bore you with blow-by-blow descriptions of all the temples. You need a picture of Angkor Wat, the Bayon, and more Hindu and Buddhist deity carvings than you can shake a stick at, let me know. But I am sure you can find far more professional images on Flickr or someplace. It's a magnificent collection of temples built when my European ancestors were still running around naked painted blue.

At each temple, the regular collection of touts quickly appeared. Often small groups of land mine victims played instruments, sometimes with stumps, adding a eerie music to the atmosphere of the place.

What seemed different here were the number of kids hawking books, post cards, cheap jewelry, etc. I do believe "one dolla" sung in a high pitch may well be the first words these kids utter as babies. US dollars are the primary currency in Cambodia and my 50 one-dollar bills I brought with me were gone in two days.

But how could anyone resist such a charming salesgirl who would sell you 10 postcards for "one dolla" and count them out for you - in English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Japanese and (in my effort to stump the chump) even Swedish. Or at least what sounded like Swedish to me. She was confused, however, when I asked her to count in Minnesotan. This selling, rather than keeping kids from school, usually financed their education. So the guidebooks and Mr. Hoy assured me.

Religious devotion is always present. Whether single nuns at small shrines in the temples,

or in the more flamboyant spectacle of brightly colored flocks of monks visiting.

The iconic image of the Cambodian temple is the peaceful smiling faces from the temple of Bayon. 

It is still a fitting image for the Cambodia people I met and talked to. Always a smile, a bow, a soft reply, and always unforced laughter. When I said something to Mr. Hoy that was clearly in error, his response was, "Yes, same, same - only different." A rather nice way of being told you are wrong. Mr. Hoy and his fellow moto drivers thought themselves very funny. The national beer's slogan is: "My country. My beer." 

To which Mr. Hoy always added, "But if you buy - "My country, your beer." Followed by a laugh at his own joke. 

Three small pieces of advice if you visit:

  • Read Geoff Ryman's excellent book The King's Last Song that intersperses a story of modern day Cambodians with that of King Jayavarman VII who built many of the temples in the area. Well researched and well written and it puts much of what one sees in context.
  • Visit the Angkor Museum, only 2 years old, in Siem Reap early in your visit. You'll understand some of what you are seeing in the temples. Many of the original carvings are actually in the museum instead of onsite. After you see how many statues have been decapitated to sell to collectors, you'll understand why much of what is left is under lock and key.
  • Oh, rent one of the motocycles that pull the little trailers behind them - moto-romauks. It will save your  butt and you'll probably get better photos.

Anyway, it was a very nice trip and I've added Cambodia to my list of countries where I would like to be a snowbird for a few months when I retire. (No trailer park in Arizona for me, I hope.) Back to my badly neglected e-mail that's been accumulating these last few days.

Some Cambodian smiles to close...

Tuesday
May192009

Libraries and commitment

Build it and they will come. - Ray Kinsella

The busy ISB Bangkok MS/HS Library, May 2009

I was surprised by the number of comments from my last post - "The Essential Question." Obviously, the survival and form of school libraries is front and center on many people's minds.

First, thanks to all who commented (often at length with great thoughtfulness). If you have not read through what others wrote, take a few moments and do so. 

For myself, the recommendations that Ann Krembs and I made in our initial report to the school brought home strongly just how interdependent library facilities, curriculum and methodology really are.

Not many years ago one could easily find recommended "numbers" for library facility planning: recommended square footage, size of collection, amount of seating, number of instructional areas, etc. But these numbers grow increasingly meaningless as entire schools commit to information and technology literacy skills taught in all classes, by all teachers. Or choose not to.

Let's face it, a school where text books, classroom book collections, and the "term paper" as the only means of student communication don't need much of a library. A small popular book collection and a word-processing lab with access to Google may actually be all that such a school needs. If the librarian and technology staff are viewed as not having knowledge that is sufficiently relevant to implementing and teaching IL/IT skills, the book room can be staffed by clerks and the techs can keep the e-mail server and student information system up and running from a small hidden office until those applications are outsourced.

At the same time, if a school truly decides they want all their students to graduate having mastered a sophisticated set of IL/IT skills, having learned how to solve real problems creatively, and having experienced the power of global communications and collaboration, then a lack of resources - physical plant, equipment and human expertise will truly undercut this effort. Such an undertaking will require 1:1laptop programs, well-stocked print collections, productivity labs, a fast and powerful network, good online materials, and, of course, a crackerjack professional staff to support both staff and students. 

I would have liked to have been able to consult some professional standards that would quickly satisfy administrators and architects.  I would really like to have been able to confidently state a "Library of Dreams" philosophy: Build it and they will come.

But we're not talking mystical baseball fields in Iowa cornfields here. Modern library facilities, technology and professional staff come at a cost that must be weighed against other possible efforts made to educate kids. And competing visions of what an educated student looks like.

No sense building a baseball field if you are only going to play ping-pong.