Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Digital Defense of School Librarians

Books are giving way to e-books; newspapers to news aggregators; encyclopedias to Wikipedia. And that is why we need librarians, especially school librarians, now more than ever.

If you think that librarians are archaic, you’re most likely thinking of a 1950s bespectacled stereotype. Librarians are no longer – if they ever were – those hushing and shushing guardians of books. They are media specialists, guiding children and adults through every form of media, from books to databases, newspapers to blog posts, and even from YouTube to Twitter.

In the libraries of old – the ancient days of 1990, say – mastering the Dewey Decimal system was enough to get you started on your research. But there is no card catalogue 2.0. In order to use the Internet as a library, you need 21st-century research skills: the ability to pick out reliable sources from an overwhelming heap of misinformation, to find relevant material amid an infinite array of options, and to navigate the shifting ethics of creative commons and intellectual property rights. As good as your kid may be on Facebook, she is not born with a digital M.L.S. These skills are learned, not instinctive, and the only way for students to learn them is for someone else to guide and teach them.

This seems as elementary as the ABCs – but apparently nobody’s told the school districts. Librarians and teacher librarians, who are double-credentialed, are being driven out of their increasingly stripped-down libraries. Painful as it is, it’s no surprise to come across a tweet like Shankhead’s: “being an engaged school librarian, at least in my neck of the woods, now means being an ‘Austerity Specialist.’ Whatever it takes.”

I’m not sure what it takes to convince the school districts of common sense, but it definitely takes librarians to teach students how to evaluate credibility, create content of their own, and conduct research in their increasingly interconnected world. And it might take the SKILLs Act, a bill in the House of Representatives, to ensure we still have school librarians to train the next generation.

Students will create and consume online content, and even social media will find a way into their research. Should a student trust a blog as a source in a paper? If not, then how about a blog on The New York Times website? A blog run by an online magazine? Can they use collaborative technology, like wikis? Even teachers need help answering these questions. There are no official guidelines to using the Web, and even if there were, they would change by the minute.

As the information landscape becomes more and more complex, why would we abandon our professional guides to it?

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