21st Century Libraries | February 2013 Digital Edition

Making Digital Libraries Work, With or Without BYOD

Districts are experimenting with strategies for creating state-of-the-art K-12 digital libraries.

This article, with an exclusive video, originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's February 2013 digital edition.

Three years ago, when the nation's K-12 schools started thinking seriously about creating digital libraries, the Mesquite Independent School District (TX) purchased several Sony eReaders, loaded them with books, and circulated them to students. It didn't take long for the district to see the flaws in that initial attempt.

"It was a nightmare because e-readers are meant to be personal devices," recalls Debbie Swartz, library technology facilitator for the district, which serves 38,000 K-12 students. After being checked out, for example, the devices had to be authorized to an individual with an account, but then couldn't be authorized to anyone else. Also, if the students took the devices home and hooked them up to their own computers, those devices remained authorized to that home computer. "We realized pretty quickly that we wanted to back out of the device 'lending' aspect of the digital library," she says.

A River of Reading
Those specific limitations aside, device lending is still a feasible, if imperfect, option for some schools. At Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, MA, for example, librarians have put their faith in Amazon, using a combination of school- and student-owned Kindles and iPads tethered to a single, school authorized account to let students check out and read books and other digital content.

"We picked Amazon because we can have an unlimited number of devices associated with our account," explains Thomas Corbett, executive director for the school's Fisher-Watkins Library.

While Cushing Academy owns more than 100 Kindles that students can use to download books via the Kindle's mobile app, Corbett says they have "no special arrangement" with Amazon regarding the content or pricing. Like any Amazon account holder, the school works within the Amazon system of e-book distribution: Librarians typically purchase a copy of a book and wait for students to request it. When they do, librarians load the title onto a school-owned device for the student to check out, or else send it straight to the student. Depending on the publisher, the school may be able to put each purchased copy--called a license--on as many as six devices, Corbett says.

"We encourage [students] not to worry about what we already own, but to browse the bigger universe of titles that may interest them," Corbett says. In this way, "we can immediately satisfy demand, and get students connected into reading more quickly, because they never have to wait for a title to become available."

Not a "lending" setup in the traditional sense, Cushing Academy's digital library strategy has been well received by both teachers and students, and the library's budget has remained constant even as it has moved toward a "patron-driven" digital content approach. "We can meet demand better than we could before and we don 't have to manage a local, physical collection," Corbett says. In fact, he says, librarians should learn to embrace the new rules of content curation.

"It's difficult for librarians to get out of that mode of 'owning' a collection and being its gatekeepers," Corbett says. "But that's old-school."

The main issue with Cushing's model has been that Amazon's service isn't necessarily designed for institutional use, and Corbett hints that his school's strategy may not be sustainable. "In the future, we'd much rather support a recreational platform that is more sustainable," he says. "But it works for now."

Some publishers, for instance, are concerned that Amazon's six-copies-per-title policy could cut into their own profits -- a worry that Corbett feels is unwarranted. "We find that we're spending the same amount or more on digital content," he says. "Publishers aren't getting any less money from us than they were before, and students are reading more than ever. Isn't that a win-win?"

Shifting Into OverDrive
After the Mesquite ISD pulled the plug on its disastrous e-reader lending program, the district, still intent on building a library of digital content for students, decided to focus only on loading popular material onto student-owned devices. When a middle school librarian at a neighboring district introduced them to OverDrive's digital e-book offerings, which operate more like a traditional lending library, Mesquite decided to give it a try.

A digital library platform, OverDrive lets readers access digital books on all major desktop and mobile platforms, e-book readers, and MP3 players. Using the company's School Download Library, students check out desired titles online and then read or listen to them "offline" on virtually any device, from laptops to smartphones and e-readers. Librarians can build their schools' digital collections based on grade level or school curriculum using OverDrive, which has digital titles available across most subject areas.

At Mesquite, fifth-graders at one of the district's elementary schools are currently involved in a pilot program that combines student-owned iPads with individual OverDrive accounts. A broader, district wide initiative--which began as a home-based program that students and teachers used to download digital content to their own computers--is now being expanded to allow students to "check out" books to their own devices using the school's network and account.

Swartz, the library technology facilitator, says that the district has so far been pleased with its second attempt. "We liked OverDrive's model and how the content could be loaded to a variety of portable devices, versus other services that required students to read on school computers," she says. "What high schooler wants to be tethered to a computer to read the Twilight series?"

Taking the Plunge
School librarians nationwide are asking themselves that and many other questions as they move into an era in which students more or less expect their favorite books, study materials, and other content to be available in a digital format. And while print books continue to be the mainstay in most K-12 libraries, districts like Mesquite ISD are serving up more flexible options for the 21st century student.

"It's kind of like when movies went from VHS to DVD--it's a logical step for libraries," Swartz says. Using OverDrive's mobile app on their own devices, for example, Mesquite students can select "read an e-book" or "listen to an audiobook," and then scroll through the available options (most of which are popular fiction titles). Students who don't own mobile devices can download software to their own laptops or desktops and access the content that way.

When placing orders with OverDrive, Swartz delineates whether the content is for elementary, middle, or high school students--or in some cases, all three. This allows the district to regulate which titles are available for the appropriate age levels. Funded with excess district budget funds, the digital library was initially populated with Texas Library Association reading list books, but it has expanded from there. Picking titles across the three different reading levels is one of the biggest challenges.

"I have to review the title, check the reviews, and determine which grade level(s) it's appropriate for," explains Swartz, who also uses the district's "Help Us Build Our Site" option (which she created herself using an online Google spreadsheet) as a way to solicit input from the community. "I set aside time on a regular basis to check out those suggestions and order the materials." First-time users encounter their own challenges, particularly when it comes to getting authorized to use Adobe educational software, as the company employs a somewhat confusing authentication process.

 However, "once users get through the initial set up, we don't usually get too many questions from them," says Swartz, who is currently training the district's 45 librarians on how to administer and use the digital content and looking to add non fiction titles to the district's lineup. "We know it will take about three years for everyone to be comfortable with the setup and using it successfully."

Online Resources for Digital Librarians

Amazon: A large selection of fiction and non fiction books are available for download to mobile devices including Kindles and iPads

American Library Association --Transforming Libraries: A resource supporting libraries in their transformation from print to digital content

Goodreads: A social networ k that lets readers recommend books, compare what they are reading, keep track of what they 've read and would like to read, find new books, and form book clubs

ibiblio: An online public library with freely available software and information covering topics like music, literature, art, history, science, politics, and cultural studies

JSTOR: An online resource for searching journals, primary sources, and books

NoveList: Helps librarians advise readers and make recommendations with reviews, book guides, and tools to improve library catalog listings

OverDrive: A digital distributor of e-books, audiobooks, and other digital content

World Public Library : A global, coordinated effort to preserve and disseminate classic works of literature, serials, bibliographies, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other reference works