A Discussion with Will Richardson: Librarians & the Read/Write Web

By Michael Stephens | Richardson, Will (Stephens post 10/31/05)I’ve heard Will Richardson (that's him, at your right) speak twice at various conferences, including last week in Monterey; he keynoted the Internet at Schools conference that ran concurrently with Internet Librarian. Jenny did a bang-up job reporting on his talk here.

Will writes one of my favorite blogs, Web-logg-Ed. His day job is Supervisor of Instructional Technology and Communications at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, NJ. The blog focuses on “discussions and reflections on the use of Weblogs, wikis, RSS, audiocasts, and other Read/Write Web-related technologies in the K-12 realm, technologies that are transforming classrooms around the world."

I wonder how these same technologies will transform libraries and information services?

I think the changes will be huge, given the proliferation of library blogs, wikis, and uses of RSS. I also believe librarians from all types of libraries need to make an effort to learn, embrace, and use the Read/Write Web (or Web 2.0 if you prefer)—if the technologies fit with their missions and services. And I can’t imagine that, in 2005, the usefulness of a library news blog or harnessing content via RSS isn’t on every tech-savvy librarian’s radar.

To better understand Will’s “blogvangelism" with educators, and because I’m fascinated by all things related to this ever-growing set of collaboration and communication tools on the Web, I asked Will if we might chat a bit about what this means for libraries and librarians. Here's part of the Q&A session Will and I had:

MS: What role do school librarians need to play with the Read/Write Web?

WR: I think the main role they need to play is to model for teachers and students what information literacy means these days. Libraries used to be information centers, and while that might be shifting in terms of moving away from bricks and mortar, the need for librarians is even more acute these days. But they have to be information masters, meaning, they have to know how to use these tools efficiently and effectively to find relevant information, and they have to be able to teach those skills.

MS: What must they be aware of?

WR: They need to be aware of the tools, specifically RSS, blogs, and wikis. They have to be aware of how these tools can serve useful and not-so-useful purposes. They need to be aware of the general Web illiteracy that's out there right now and find effective ways to combat it. I think librarians have a huge role to play now that locating, assessing, and using relevant information has become so much more complex.

MS: Students also visit public libraries and eventually may find themselves in the academic library. If they are comfortable using the tools in school, we need to understand how these young folks meet the world. What can we learn about these library users from the Read/Write Web?

WR: I think students are, by and large, pretty skilled with using the technology, but they still need a lot of help in terms of using it well. Students are going to want to use blogs and wikis as resources, and I think librarians are going to have to know how to help them evaluate what they find there. There is a lot more teaching that needs to be done these days by information specialists, not so much in the creation of content but in sound ways of consuming relevant content for learning.

MS: I might counter here that one role public librarians should focus on is helping users—children, students, adults, seniors—not only consume but create content. I'd like to see libraries offer "How to Podcast" classes in their technology-literacy programs or host blogs for non-profit organizations. I love the idea of an educator assigning kids a podcast or wiki entry or blog post. I would hope librarians would be on hand to assist in that creation!

WR: I really don't think there is that much difference. Everyone needs to understand these changes. Certainly, from an academic research viewpoint, the landscape is undergoing a lot of upheaval. More and more quality content is coming online and being offered without the normal review that we've become comfortable with.

But the bottom line is that even the person walking in off the street needing information about an illness, or any other topic, needs to be taught the new strategies for information retrieval. It's a new literacy.

MS: At the keynote for Internet at Schools you said, "the best teachers
aren't the ones given to us; they're the ones we find...."

WR: And I've really come to believe that. It's a lot to expect of an individual classroom teacher to be able to tap into the passions of each of his or her 25 or 30 students. There's just not enough time to make those connections. So we have to learn to find our own teachers, the ones who are passionate about the things we're invested in.

MS: So what do the best school librarians do?

WR: I think the best school librarians know how to connect those learners and teachers, know where to find those communities of practice that will engage students in ways, that for all intents and purposes, can't happen in the classroom.

MS: I’m still processing a question presented in a session at Internet Librarian, a question raised when we were discussing the benefits of “playing" with these tools. [How would you respond to this] question from the audience: What about librarians that are "tired of technology?"

WR: I would ask, "Are you tired of information?" Because it's not about technology any more. These are tools—just like card catalogs, reference databases, and pencils—that connect us more deeply and more widely to information. Used ineffectively, we'll all get tired of trying to make sense of all that content. But used intelligently, these tools can connect us to what's relevant and important to our lives and our studies. And in that way, I think it can be motivational, not fatiguing.

Thanks to Will for taking the time! Please add Will's blog to your reader! http://www.weblogg-ed.com.