E-Books | Feature

Not-So-Extreme Makeover

As school libraries shift their reference materials from print to digital, educators are seeing the wisdom in the move.

For Hackley School in Tarrytown, NY, the decision to make the switch from print to digital library resources came in a flash. A flash of lightning, to be specific. In mid-2007, the school's 100-year-old library building burned to the ground after being struck by lightning. No one was injured in the early morning blaze, but the library's extensive reference collection wasn't so fortunate.

"There was nothing left but the walls," says Laura Pearle, head librarian for the private day and boarding school that serves about 850 K-12 students. The destruction left Pearle and the rest of the staff with the task of rebuilding the library's collection of books and reference materials. At the heart of the effort was one big question: Repurchase print materials lost in the fire, or replace them with online and digital resources?

Hackley's decision? Digital all the way--or at least wherever possible.

"We went to the different departments and said, 'This is your chance to create a perfect collection. You tell me what you think we need on our shelves,'" Pearle says. "When they said, 'We need these reference books,' I looked to see if we could purchase them digitally."

Before the fire, Hackley had subscribed to a number of databases, but they were underused, Pearle says. The school opted to convert to electronic resources wherever they were available, and to not purchase replacement print materials when there was a digital solution available-- a decision that wasn't popular with all its faculty members at first.

"It took them some time, but they came around," Pearle says. "We stress to teachers that this will help students, and we show them the age of print materials versus the freshness of digital content. Now the majority of teachers feel that for reference, digital is absolutely the way to go."

In many ways, Hackley's rebuilding process was a dramatic and accelerated version of the shift school libraries around the country are going through as they work to equip students with the research tools and skills that will meet their 21st century needs.

Meanwhile, reference book publishers like World Book, Scholastic, and Gale, whose names were once synonymous with the bulky print volumes of yesteryear, have reinvented themselves for a digital world. And they continue to adapt their online research tools to answer the changing demands of schools, as libraries move from being repositories of the printed word to campus media and technology hubs.

Not-So-Extreme MakeoverREINVENTED Well known reference book publishers such as World Book have adapted to schools' changing needs by developing a wealth of digital resources.

"This isn't your mother's encyclopedia," says Gayle Geitgey, a former school librarian who is now the integration specialist at INFOhio, a statewide virtual K-12 library that provides online educational resources, including research databases, to schools and students in the state of Ohio. "They're not just electronic resources any longer; they're 21st century resources."

Take the case of Gale, which maintains more than 600 databases in various forms. In 2010, the publishing group reconfigured several of its databases on topics including science, history, and biography. The new database series, which is called In Context, includes audio, video, interactive maps, text-to-speech translation, and customizable reading levels. Gale recently launched an iPhone app called AccessMyLibrary, which makes available to students any of their school library's Gale resources.

"Rather than hiding assets behind tabs, it now has the look and feel of a website," says Peter Scott, school library publisher for Gale. "We're making sure multimedia is front and center."

Other educational publishers have taken a similar approach, enriching their content with podcasts, video, and audio components. World Book, whose World Book Web databases are available in three versions for varying grade levels, also offers translation into 30 languages. Scholastic's Grolier Online database, which provides a reading-level ranking for each entry, links to thousands of outside websites, all of which are reviewed by Scholastic's researchers for content and reading level.

"The most basic shift is that all of our material and the enterprise of learning are no longer location specific," says Paul Kobasa, World Book's editorial vice president and editor in chief, observing that students can tap into digital resources from anywhere they have internet access. "That's having an impact on how teachers teach and how learners learn, and on us as providers of educational content."

Making information available to all students, regardless of location, is one of the goals of INFOhio. The organization, which is a project of the Ohio Department of Education, provides a statewide database featuring a core collection of about a dozen databases covering art, literature, science, reference, newspapers, and magazines. Any Ohio student can access the databases from school and public libraries, or at home through a login and password.

But it's not enough to just provide the databases. "If we have these great resources, we want to make sure students are using them," says INFOhio Executive Director Terri Fredericka. "If we say we want kids ready for college, we need to not just provide resources, but show them how to use them. We have to make sure they're embedded into the classroom."

Integrating digital resources into students' learning experiences is Keith Schroeder's ongoing mission. As the library media specialist at Bay Port High School in Green Bay, WI, he has stopped purchasing print-based reference materials.

"We had an awesome, extensive [print] reference collection," Schroeder says. "My problem was that I very seldom saw reference books being used. They got moved to get dusted, and were put back."

The school's library still has shelves of reference volumes, but they're a dwindling species; as Schroeder acquires e-books and online databases, he discards other printed books. Now Bay Port students rely primarily on resources like Encyclopedia Britannica online, World Book, Gale Virtual Reference Library, and EBSCO History Reference Center. The Bay Port library is home to about 30 desktop computers, with 60 computers on wheels and computer labs throughout the school. Students can also access all school databases from home.

To decide whether a particular research tool is a good fit, Schroeder and Pearle recommend free trials, which most databases offer.

"It's mainly finding the databases you know are going to work," Schroeder says. "Get them in the hands of teachers and students. Getting them involved in the process helps that buy-in down the road."

"What I think libraries should try to do is get trials to databases that are concurrent with research projects," Pearle says. That way, he explains, students and teachers can try out the resources on real-world assignments.

Beyond deciding which materials to purchase, school librarians and media specialists must ensure that students and staff, once they have access, know how to tap into all the capabilities provided by digital research tools. That means training students to move past simple internet searches.

"I saw a lot of Googling," Schroeder says. "We've had to educate both staff and students about how to evaluate resources. It is impressive to see that about 98 percent of students are now limiting their searches."

Library staff also need to make users aware of all the features a database offers. "Content is wonderful, but you have to be able to do something with it," says Gale's Scott. "Professional development needs to be practical and meaningful. Some of these digital assets don't necessarily make it into the classroom. Districts quite often buy multiple things and don't know what they have."

To keep schools up-to-date with new features and changes to their products, most publishers offer online support and training. World Book, for example, holds in-person training, and also presents live and recorded webinars to help users navigate its site, while Gale offers webinars, e-newsletters, online tutorials, and tip sheets for teachers and librarians.

According to Schroeder, the drive toward digital research tools offers more than just a better way to do a research project: It represents a move away from textbook- based instruction toward a more resource- based curriculum.

"We're moving away from the textbook being the bible," Schroeder says. With so many resources available, he believes teachers should ask, "'What are the key things we want students to understand?' Then staff pulls the meat out of curriculum and determines how to cover it. ...It's important for the media specialist to be part of the curriculum planning process."

For libraries, that means that, even though they may be losing the bulk of their traditional collections, their role on campus is more important than ever.

"To people who say libraries are dead," says INFOhio's Fredericka, "I say, 'Are you crazy?'"