The Digitally Re-Shifted School Library: A Conversation with Christopher Harris

By Michael Stephens | Michael Stephens, Librarian, Author, and Tech Teacher In late January, I spoke at the Panhandle Library Access Network's Tech Day on technology, staff, and users in libraries. “Planning, People & Participation" took the attendees through a gamut of social tools and ideas for effective use of technology in all sorts of libraries. In fact, some of the most interesting discussions came from the school-media specialists, who were excited by what they heard and saddened by their situations. Some background:
  • I polled the group of about seventy; by a show of hands, only a couple of hands went up for blogging efforts or IM efforts in their libraries. Some reported blog plans in the works but none reported active blogs. That's fine—folks all over are still turning on to how these tools can improve presence in libraries.
  • The night before the talk, a news story broke on two of the local northwest Florida television stations: students at a local high school had been trash talking on BLOGS about teachers, administrators, and other students.
So, I touched on podcasting and user-created content and some of the other technology issues facing us. And one of the school-media folk in the front shot up a hand: “iPods aren't allowed in our schools," she said.

I wanted to weep.

I wanted to weep because I think about the incredible work of Will Richardson and others, and how podcast creation in classrooms takes participation and collaboration to new levels.

I mean, I do get it—because students plugged into their favorite tunes during a history class or, in the words of one of the attendees, "listening to their own recording of test answers," is a bad thing. But there can certainly be rules like, "No iPods during tests or class lectures," while still enabling students to use their devices to share their created content at other times. Come on, folks!

Later, after talk of IM, wikis, and a couple of slides devoted to Library 2.0, another school librarian asked: “How do we get the IT department to let us do this stuff? They always say no! And what about the teachers and principal?"
Christopher Harris, 'Infomancy' Blog Author
Here, I once again invoked Will Richardson's name and work as well as that of Christopher Harris, who writes the Infomancy blog. I also was asked for an example of school blogging success, and I was happy to discuss Margaret Lincoln's Night Blog project with them.

Chris at Infomancy had covered it as well and had started blogging about School Library 2.0 in a series of thoughtful posts and “toe wiggles."

“Check it out," I told them.

So, then I thought, "Why not invite Chris over here to chat about his thinking about change in school libraries?" And the results are thus:

First, Chris, tell us about your background and how you find yourself working for libraries.

CH: If, at times, I sound a bit too much like a geek, it is because my background involves a lot of technology. I do like to assure people, though, that I started out in the elementary classroom, teaching third and fourth grade in North Carolina. After that, I had an opportunity to become an Instructional Technology Resource Teacher for an elementary school. In that position, I worked very closely with the librarian on a number of initiatives, including the formation of some fifth-grade reading groups. I spent about five years in educational technology as a teacher—then an administrator in North Carolina and more recently in Western New York.

A little over a year ago, though, I had a chance to become the director of a School Library System here, and I took the plunge. I was becoming frustrated with the technology fetishism I often encountered, and I was excited about the prospect of entering the library world where the focus is on selecting the best tool/resource for a situation. Oh! And it probably doesn't hurt that my wife is a school-library media specialist, so I have long held that profession in the highest regard.

MS: "Technology fetishism" sounds dangerously close to Technolust!

A School Library Media Specialist in Florida stopped me on break and wondered, “We are so far behind, what can we do?"

I urged her to experiment with a social tool. Blogging is a good one to start with, so I suggested that, to push through the decision with IT and/or the administration, to use my presentation, as well as the myriad wonderful resources out there in the Blogosphere, as "evidence."

I also believe that a very important step lies in getting library boards, school boards, and other trustees/governing bodies on board with Web 2.0 ideas as well as the changes we are discussing here.

Maybe we're preaching to the choir, in some ways, when we're presenting to rooms full of librarians who are ready to move forward or change. Maybe we need those other folks in the room as well. I'd charge any board members, educators, or other folks reading this to get serious about what's happening with technology and library services and maybe have a Tech Day for the board, etc. It's time!

Chris, what would you say to the librarian that whispers: “We are so far behind, what can we do?" in respect to schools that don't allow iPods and outlaw blogs.

CH: In some recent workshops I have held about blogging, I have encountered this same type of question. One of the things I repeatedly address is the need for school libraries to adapt practices in order to meet new, outside pressures. We know that the big thing facing schools right now is the whole issue of standardized testing and accountability under No Child Left Behind (NCLB). So, one of the things we worked on was the creation of a testing-information blog, which is being used to disseminate information about testing, through librarians (as information experts), to our member school districts.

We also need to ask ourselves: How can libraries work to be a foundation
—as demonstrated in the librarians' standardized-testing info. blog above—to support blogging and podcasting within the overall school environment?

Another key point, as you mentioned, is to go into these conversations armed with plenty of knowledge. I would be very upfront in agreeing that sites like MySpace represent the less-desirable aspects of blogging. Still, you cannot ignore that students are using MySpace. We are treating this as a foreign technology, while they are living it on a daily basis. Schools can pretend that blogging doesn't exist, but a quick search for any district on MySpace should reveal that sticking one's head in the sand doesn't mean blogging isn't happening. Wouldn't it be better to create a safer, more controlled environment where students could interact?

If you're feeling behind on a personal level, I suggest two things. The first is to play. B
ecome familiar with the tools being discussed so that you can better explain them. Do you use RSS yourself? Think about setting up an aggregator page at SuprGlu to share "information" with teachers and administrators. To see what I mean, you can look at a school library blog page I set up at or educational blogs at

I would also suggest playing some games to get a quick peak at the next thing that we'd better start preparing for. If you aren't familiar with massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG), I would suggest you head over to Runescape or Second Life to see why schools that get stuck on outlawing minor things like blogs are going to really get left behind in the coming year.

MS: I can't agree more. The concept of sandbox or technology-encounter center is one we should explore. This is such an education piece! For those that get their information about social tools from the media, we need to find ways to educate them and show them the success stories from the mash up of schools, blogs, and student/teacher/librarian conversations. Where is the job description for 'Next Generation School Media Specialist?'

Chris, at Infomancy, you wrote:

Maybe instead of School Library 2.0, we can call this new idea a Digitally Re-Shifted School Library. That brings in not only this idea, but also the Web 2.0 elements of digital interaction with students and staff to provide them with the information they need in the most appropriate format while recognizing that school libraries have long used digital resources.

Yes books are still the most appropriate format many times; I am not saying get rid of the books. What I am saying is that if school libraries fail to make a digital re-shift, they are going to loose relevancy in the world of digital information. As David Warlick reminds us, today's information is networked, digital, and often overwhelming. We are still needed, perhaps now more than ever, to serve as guides through the digital chaos.

What can School Media Specialists do now to start the ball rolling? What are some concrete steps they might take?

CH: It is always interesting to go back and read what you have written. I found this especially true reading this again after reading some articles about re-branding libraries. The point here is not to get rid of the word "library," and certainly not to get rid of the books in the library, but to think about a digital re-shift. We started the shift a while back with library automation, CD-ROMs, then online databases, and now reference e-books. Where else can we digitally shift the school library to do more with less and stay current with learning needs?

I think staff members at school libraries who want to get started can begin by looking at some of their basic practices. Librarians create pathfinders, and many librarians create pathfinders that can be accessed electronically so links are active. But many of these pathfinders are also static documents. A quick Google search for "library pathfinder wiki" shows that some libraries are starting to recognize the power of easy editing—but maybe we can take it a step further as well.

With some small amounts of coding, I am sure we could create an easy solution for building a living pathfinder that imports RSS feeds from for Web sites; RSS feeds from your OPAC for any new books that are added; RSS feeds from search queries on databases; and more.

Now that's more of a "coming soon" view of digitally re-shifting, but the same ideas can be incorporated into the here and now.

A high-school librarian could use something like Moodle to create a 'Research 411' site for each class coming in for a project. Sidebars can include RSS feeds from and other updates. A discussion forum would allow students a way to interact with each other, their teacher, and their teacher-librarian. As I wrote in my posts on School Library 2.0, we can use these tools to quickly and efficiently set up flexible workspaces on an as-needed basis.

I also love what Robert Eiffert has done with the Pacific Middle School Library BookBlog; he's created a space for students to share their thoughts about books they're reading. Two students fill in as facilitators and guides to keep the workload down for the librarian. This isn't just taking a bulletin board of book reviews/suggestions and them putting it online, though. The point is to use the digital re-shift to start conversations about the books being read.

MS: I read through your posts again to prepare for this conversation. Michael Casey asked a question in the comments I'd like to pose to you here as well: What do you envision as school library 2.0 in five or ten years?

CH: I struggled with this, and I guess I ended up not specifically addressing this in my later posts. Let me start by admitting that I am young enough that ten years is still a rather long time for me. Anyway, here goes…

Have you read Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash or William Gibson's Neuromancer? These are not only some of the best examples of a wonderful subgenre in science fiction, cyberpunk, but also some glimpses into the future of what librarianship may become. These books feature information ninjas, highly specialized experts that navigate the chaos of a world with too much information. These books were a huge inspiration for the title of my blog, Infomancy. I have linked the definition of infomancy to three key concepts: voice, search, and guide. The last two will probably continue to grow in importance for librarians.

The role of the school librarian in ten years will be to serve as a guide through the chaos of information. The Internet is not a neat, ordered system like information scientists like to create in databases: it is our modern-day wild frontier. Librarians are the new "mountain (wo)men" that will blaze the trails through the chaos to the information zones. This will only be possible, though, if they also posses the drive to search. Not find, but search.

Is everything in these two example books going to be reality in ten years? Probably not, but if you dismiss them as mere works of fiction, you need to take a serious look around. Snow Crash's Metaverse—a digital world where people buy virtual real estate and set up alternate lives—is getting started in SecondLife. For more information on the future, check out the SecondLife Public Library.

School libraries should be content hubs.Beyond my more esoteric response of "search and guide," I think school libraries will also need to work to firmly re-establish themselves as the foundation of instructional practice. The library space will become more flexible, perhaps moving toward the idea of a university-like information commons with mainly digital non-fiction and reference collections, but still possessing high-quality fiction and picture-book sections. School libraries can work to embrace new technologies and become the iPod content hubs as well as the place for books. The school librarian will also become more flexible – moving in and out of the library and classrooms as a curriculum and instructional pedagogy-consultant teacher. As education works to meet the needs of the so-called "21st-century learners," school librarians will have a key role in supporting an increased demand for information literacy and knowledge management throughout the content areas.

I think many of the things we are talking about now—e.g., setting up Moodle sites for classes doing research, connecting through online conversations, and creating living pathfinders—will help us prepare for what's coming. If you look at some other great books, Stephenson's The Diamond Age or Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, you will find that tablet-PC-like devices serve as the primary tools in education. Libraries today need to be aware of what's happening in one-to-one computing discussions or implementations of laptop usage in schools.

As the line between handheld computers/PDAs and cell phones blurs even more, I would certainly predict that within five years we can easily expect students to have one-to-one computing capabilities through their personal communication/information devices. Maybe, when you build that new library Web site, you should create a version that is only 320 pixels wide so it is designed from the start to display on a mobile device?

MS: Absolutely! If we've learned anything from all the top-ten lists and top-tech-trends talk is that we need to pay attention to converged devices and the way folks expect to use them. It will be fascinating to see what the static, school-library pathfinder becomes in the days ahead of shared content, mashed up RSS, and wiki-like spaces.

Thanks, Chris, for sharing your vision and thoughts on School Library 2.0.

For more on schools, blogs, and enhancing students' experience, read Margaret Lincoln's article at School Library Journal, "Witness to History."
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