Friday, December 10, 2010

A Dozen or So Reasons I Applaud Lamar High School for Ditching School Library Books

Librarians, educators, and parents are up in arms after Principal James McSwain of Lamar High School in Houston, Texas ditched many of the books in his library and re-opened the facility as a high-tech Reading / Research Center & Coffee Shop this year. To Principal McSwain, I say kudos for your foresight and bravery, though I know many of my paper-trained librarian friends and colleagues give this principal a big thumbs down.

The principal was awarded the “Rotten Apple in Education” award on the School’s Matter blog, and there were more than 100 mostly angry comments posted on the Hair Balls section of the Houston Press with this headline, Lamar High's Library Ousts Books, Re-Opens as Coffee Shop. It’s no surprise that the blog and newspaper enjoy the sensationalism of the story. The same thing happened last year in Boston when The Globe reported on the Cushing Academy library's radical and sudden decision to throw out their library books which also polarized school librarians on everything from their philosophy on reading, to student rights, to process, to the fundamental question of whether a space without books had the right to call itself a library.

In reporting about the latest library to give itself an update, the Houston rag indicates the Library is now a Coffee shop and there was this from the School’s Matter blog.
This month’s Rotten Apple in Education Award goes to Larmar High School principal, James McSwain, who has dumped, burned, who knows, most all the books and "repurposed" the school library into a coffee shop run by students. I guess you might say McSwain is really serious about preparing his high schoolers to compete for those 21st Century American jobs.

Similarly, The Houston & Texas News Chronicle had this to say, “Critics worry that students without Internet access at home will be at a disadvantage, and that all students will miss annotating texts or bringing a good book to bed.”

When I posted the story on my Facebook page High School librarian Barbara Mehlman said the following:

This librarian hates it. When I read a book, I often go back to reread certain passages. And when I return to a book, I frequently reread certain parts or skip back and forth, depending on the kind of book I'm reading. I find this very difficult with eBooks. I read 100 pages at a time and a computer screen is just too tiring for the lengthy bit of reading. In many of the books I read, I like to take notes, highlight, underline and that's too difficult with eBooks. It's also impossible to thumb through pages with an eBook. I realize you think that I feel that way because I'm "old," but there's a reason that books have survived so long, and they will continue to do so -- alongside eBooks. One doesn't supplant the other; they're complementary and anyone who throws out paper books is shortsighted and doesn't fully understand the joys of the reading experience.


Lynne a Library Coordinator in New York had this to say,

"Of course the kids love it. Who wouldn't rather hang out in a coffee shop than attend a class in the library? Where's the learning? Where's the differentiated instruction? This principal took an old concept of a library, added a coffee shop and plugged it in. Not well thought out at all. Limiting the collection to only what's available via e-books misses the mark for me. Oops! Just lost connectivity - wish I had a book! Why didn't they create a Learning Commons like Chelmsford (MA) High School?


Of course, these reactions don’t surprise me, first, because reading and writing digitally is something that is brand new and change is difficult, second, because it just makes such a dang good story to get up in arms about. Library becomes coffee shop. Burning books! Where have our values gone???

So why would an innovative educator and former librarian like me say kudos to this principal for dumping the books? Well for starters because every accusation above is untrue and also because behind all the hoopla, when we dig past the surface we find this new model for libraries in the digital age is a brave and smart decision that is gaining momentum and kudos for preparing 21st century learners. Here’s why.

Reasons to Ditch Library Books
  1. Up-to-date information
    For non fiction resources, a computer beats paper hands down. There is just no way encyclopedias and reference materials can keep up with information that can be accessed online. Rather than replacing sets of encyclopedias, reference books, etc, the school has accessed repositories of free and purchased materials.
  2. More access to periodicals
    Let’s face it the newspapers and periodical industries are a dying bread. These subscriptions are all available digitally and with services like Flipboard and Paper.li digital reading enables us to Provide Students with a Personalized Newspaper Everyday for Free!
  3. No internet required for eBooks
    The criticism that eBooks require students to have the internet is wrong, wrong, wrong. The book is downloaded and accessible on the device. No internet required. They can read the book at home or anywhere regardless of whether they have internet.
  4. Battery Life
    Some say they prefer pBooks (paper) to eBooks because the battery might run out. With most eBooks having a battery life of 9000 pages and rechargeable anytime, this isn't of much concern for digital readers. And, for the adults or students who share a room with siblings if the lights go out, with an eBook, you can still read.
  5. Books can be borrowed from outside the school
    Digital books can be borrowed from the local public libraries. When the school library makes a connection with the local libraries, there’s even more resources available to students.
  6. eBooks can be EZ on the Eyes
    eBooks and digital devices have special readers that are developed to make reading as pleasing and easy to the eye as paper. Software like Microsoft eReader provides a free eReader for laptops and computers that don’t have one installed. Research on the topic indicates that reports of digital eye strain often stem from the early computers and televisions that used an outdated technology. The students who are reading more on screens then on paper, seem to be voting with their eyes and it seems strain hasn't been much of a factor.
  7. Adaptive technology comes with the territory
    Digital books allow for really cool adaptations like these below.
    1. Hear the author read “Where is the Love?
    2. Read and Personalize Books for Free with MeeGenius
  8. Access to primary sources
    Primary sources don’t need to be housed in a library. They can be found on the web.
  9. Digital reading assists readers
    While some adults believe there’s nothing like the experience of a book, paper, and turning the page, those fluent in reading digital texts can make a great case for the benefits of reading digitally. For instance:
    1. I can click on an unknown word to learn the definition and pronunciation. This allows for a smooth flow of reading and comprehension.
    2. I can easily and quickly search for a passage I want to reference.
    3. I can instantly go to a page and never have to worry about losing my bookmark.
    4. I can have a word, passage or the whole book read to me.
    5. No paper cuts!
  10. Superior annotation capability
    Paper annotations are no match for digital annotations. With an eBook I can annotate my heart away...taking notes, highlighting, underling, bookmarking to my little hearts desire. I never need to worry about damaging the book and it’s searchable too.
  11. Collaboration
    Collaboration could very well be the number one reason digital books are superior to paper tombs. In fact, it is exactly what led to The End of Books? (For Me, At Least?) for Will Richardson. Read his post to find out amazing ways that reading digitally provides unparralled collaboration and my post about why I love that Social Books Unlock Reader’s Voice and Provide Opportunity for Conversation.
  12. Anytime/anywhere access
    Students have anytime/anywhere access to thousands of nonfiction books, research texts, and fictions books. Every student is given an ID and remote access code for logging into the system from any device (laptop, eBook, even their phone!) whether it’s their own or the school’s.

Freeing up all this space from books means more space for students to come, read, write, receive tutoring, and learn in a hip, stimulating environment that is inviting to teens.Hurst, who has been the librarian at Lamar for 13 years, said she ditched books that had not been checked out in more than a decade, those in poor condition and those that were easily available electronically resulting in more reading opportunity for students at the school. There is more thinking and learning going on in the library now then in the past. In fact, since the library has opened this fall the number of books being checked out at Lamar has more than doubled according to data from the librarian. The number of students visiting the center this years has already increased threefold. "We've never had this kind of traffic in here," McSwain said.
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