Linda Houle is immersed in books. As a school librarian for 18 years, she helps students find the right research materials, while restocking shelves and thumbing through catalogs to buy the newest titles. But today she often finds herself involved with computers as well.
Houle, the media center director at Westmont Junior High School in Westmont, Ill., is in charge of more than the book collection. She also runs a computer lab and manages the school’s audio-visual equipment, including TVs, VCRs and projectors. In addition, she designs and updates the school’s Web site, and is the first person teachers and students run to if they have technology problems.
“At any given moment, I’m at my desk, and five seconds later, I’m down the hall to fix computers,” Houle says. “Librarians need to have a strong knowledge of technology. We’re no longer just ‘bookkeepers.’ We’re information directors.”
Technology is nothing new in libraries. Between 1910 and 1920, libraries began housing film and music collections. In the 1930s, they used microfilm to archive newspapers and magazines.
“During the 1960s, school libraries started being called ‘media centers’ to reflect the fact that their collections include not only books, but audio-visual resources as well,” says Christine Jenkins, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Continued advances in technology have driven librarians to become some of the most tech-savvy people in schools today. Libraries use computers and software to create online card catalogs and automated book-checkout systems. Libraries subscribe to online newspaper and magazine databases to replace antiquated microfilm systems. And librarians, in turn, teach students how to use computers and conduct Internet research.
Jenkins says many school librarians receive a master’s degree in library and information science or education technology, where they are required to take technology classes in hardware, software and networking computer systems, as well as in Web design and Internet research.
Because of a shortage in the field, classroom teachers in some states can become librarians if they take a few library courses. With or without a library degree, school librarians regularly update their skills by attending workshops on weekends, going to classes during the summer or learning on their own.
Studies show that schools that have librarians outscore schools without librarians in standardized tests, which proves that librarians play an important role in student achievement, Jenkins says.
Librarians use books, the Internet and other media to motivate students to learn, she says. “We always tell people, ‘We don’t know everything, but we know where to find it.’”
High school students know how to use computers, but librarians working in elementary and junior high schools say part of their job is to teach youngsters computer skills: from Internet research to working with word processing and presentation software.
As an example, students visit Denice Pazuchanics’ library at Lincoln Elementary School in Bethel Park, Pa., twice a week. There she reads to them and has them practice Internet searches and work on their Microsoft Word and PowerPoint skills.
“Presentations are the new thing that teachers are experimenting with so the kids do a lot of things with PowerPoint,” says Pazuchanics, whose students recently developed PowerPoint slides on U.S. inventions.
The librarian believes that teaching computer skills is part of her regular duties. “It has to do with developing information skills,” she explains. “You want students to be comfortable getting and using information.”
Westmont’s Houle agrees. She teaches sixth- to eighth-grade classes research skills—from finding books to searching the Internet—as they work on term papers and projects. As part of her training, she teaches students how to distinguish between good online sources and unreliable or sketchy Web sites.
Houle also developed a Web portal site that serves as a launching pad for students to begin their online research. It includes extensive Web links to sites on core subjects, as well as electives.
The portal also includes links to sites that offer homework help, as well as English as a Second Language sites that offer grammar and vocabulary exercises. Students can also tap into online databases to which the school has subscribed, such as EBSCO Information Services, which offers current issues and archives of newspapers and magazines.
On every school computer, when a Web browser is launched, the media center’s portal Web site pops up. “That’s the main page,” explains Houle, who developed separate portal sites aimed at teachers and parents. “I know what research the students will be doing, so I find the good sources for them. At their age, they’re still learning vocabulary, so searching on their own wastes time. If they key in ‘teenagers,’ for example, they get so many hits to decipher and weed out.”
To cut costs some schools have begun to rely more on online resources, rather than hard copies of publications, to save money. Amy Easterling, a library media specialist for Post High School in Post, Texas, has canceled some hard copy subscriptions because online magazine and newspaper databases are more cost-effective and give students access to more publications.
“It’s important to get some things on hard copy, such as encyclopedias, because students need to do research other than on a computer,” explains Easterling, who still subscribes to about 15 magazines. “But we no longer subscribe to some publications because we can get them online at a cheaper price.”
Her library also subscribes to Roth Publishing’s LitFinder, a database for poetry, short stories and plays, as well as Facts on File, which features a database on career guidance and school subjects.
Automating Traditional Tasks
Most libraries have replaced their old handwritten or typed card catalogs with library management software that allows students to check online whether books are available. The software, from companies such as Follett and Sagebrush, also automates the book-checkout process by using digital bar codes to track which books have been checked out.
When new books arrive at the library, Easterling downloads the information from the Library of Congress, and then imports the data into her online card catalog software. “I can’t imagine going back to the old way and having everything done by hand,” she says.
Westmont’s Houle says this allows students to search for books in multiple ways, including by subject and author. It also automatically calculates fines for students who are late returning books.
Easterling manages Post’s audio-visual equipment, as well as videoconferencing equipment that enables students to take distance learning classes from the closest community college, about 40 miles away.
The videoconferencing system allows the school’s 315 students to take classes for college credit. The students can watch the class on TV in the library and talk to the teacher via a microphone. The teacher can also see and talk to the students.
“We don’t have many opportunities for our kids to get college credit, so distance learning is important,” Easterling says.
Providing Tech Support
When it comes to learning technology, many librarians are self-taught, while others have learned through classes and workshops. For example, John Mangan, librarian at Sehome High School in Bellingham, Wash., is a former classroom teacher who was interested in technology and volunteered to provide tech support at his previous school.
He then got formal technology training at the University of Washington: More than half of the 27 units that are required for a library certification focus on technology. In recent years, Mangan has taught himself Web design, and he now maintains the school’s Web site, along with providing help desk support.
Because today’s librarians are so knowledgeable, teachers and students often turn to them to troubleshoot their tech problems in libraries and classrooms. Often, the problems are simple: Printers get jammed with paper. Students can’t get computers to read the disks they bring from home. A VCR is not working because a cable is loose or the television is turned to the wrong channel.
“I’m always available,” says Houle, who as Westmont’s technology facilitator also teaches the faculty about new technology they can use in classrooms. “I put out little fires and want people feeling satisfied.”
If the problems or issues are more complex, such as when an Internet connection is down, librarians can call in the tech support staff, which generally works either in the school or in the school district. In general, school district IT staffers manage the security issues, such as antivirus software and Web-filtering software.
Sehome’s Mangan says that he often helps other staffers with their technology projects. For example, one of the school’s counselors wants to put additional scholarship applications online to make them more accessible to students. So the counselor is scanning in the hard copies of scholarship forms, and Mangan is converting them into HTML documents and publishing them on the Web.
Mangan says the technology work is sometimes overwhelming, preventing him from focusing on other library duties. But that’s OK.
“Sometimes you get out of balance,” he points out. “The technology seems to take over and eat up a lot of your time. But we have three main areas of responsibility: We promote and support reading. We assist students and staff in the use of technology. And we assist them in becoming more effective users of information. It all goes hand in hand.”
Wylie Wong is a Phoenix-based freelance writer who covers technology.
Libraries Can Help Raise Test Scores
Students in schools with the best-developed libraries increased test scores.
Elementary schools: 15 percent
Secondary schools: 18 percent
Students in schools with the most collaborative librarians increased test scores.
Elementary schools: 8 percent
Secondary schools: 21 percent
Students in schools with the most high-tech libraries increased test scores.
Elementary schools: 13 percent
Secondary schools: 25 percent
Source: How School Librarians Help Kids Achieve Standards: The Second Colorado Study (2000)
In a recent survey, the Internet eclipsed the school library as the primary student resource. Students in grades seven through 12 listed the following when asked their first step when writing a school report:
Look for information in textbook - 5%
Other - 9%
Ask teacher for help - 9%
Go to the library - 10%
Do an Internet search - 67%
Source: NetDay, Speak Up Day 2003 survey results
Monitoring Internet Usage
Years ago, nothing annoyed a school librarian more than students who talked too loud or sneaked food into the library. Now add downloading music, playing games, surfing inappropriate Web sites and e-mailing friends to the list.
School districts install Web-filtering software on the network to block unwanted Web sites, but they’re not infallible. Librarians say they’re often too busy to keep constant watch, but they do walk through frequently to put a halt to any non-educational computer usage.
“I keep an eye on what they’re doing, especially at lunch time,” says John Mangan, librarian at Sehome High School. “I also watch out for video streaming because that could fill up our bandwidth and slow everything to a crawl.” The district periodically scans each student’s personal folders on the network. If it finds MP3 music files, Mangan disables that person’s e-mail and Internet access for two weeks.
Some schools make students and parents sign a consent form, whereby the students agree to abide by rules or lose their technology privileges—and possibly get suspended or expelled. Another way schools can monitor Internet usage is by limiting each student’s hard drive space, says Linda Houle, media center director at Westmont Junior High School. “We don’t give them enough room in their network folders to download music,” she says.