February 17, 2018

Ebook Summit Preview: Should Kids Get Ebooks in School?

By Eric Hellman, January 4, 2011

Eric Hellman wonders which is more important, a librarian in every school, or an ereader in every backpack?

Libraries, Ebooks, and Competition
Should Kids Get Ebooks in School?
If Librarians Ran the Supermarket
Explosive Change in the Library
(See more essays at LJ‘s Ebook Summit Preview)

ebook_125x125(Original Import)

This essay is part of a series leading up to the LJ Ebook Virtual Summit on September 29.


Searching for information is NOT like trolling for fish. You know the saying: “Give a man a fish and you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish and you have fed him for life.” Answer someone’s question, and most likely they’ll go away for today. Teach someone how to search for the answer, and they’ll continually hunger for more.

I thought about this when a librarian friend related to me how she loves working the reference desk. One of her favorite patrons is an elderly gentleman with a passion for baseball statistics. This patron will have nothing to do with the Internet, which is a shame, because we live in a golden age for baseball statistics thanks to the deluge of raw data made available online. My friend can answer her patron’s question of the day by pulling up Baseball-Reference.com, the Baseball Cube or some other site.

Over the course of his life Mr. Elderly Patron learned to use the reference desk in his library to answer his questions, and maybe it’s unfair to ask him to change. But it seems to me that it would be a crime for anyone to be taught the same information seeking strategy today. Kids need be taught to find the answers to the vast majority of their questions directly, without the mediation of a librarian. As one school librarian told me, “we’re not the gatekeepers anymore. We have to train people to be their own gatekeepers.” What could be more important than teaching our kids how to navigate a world of information that gets more complex every day?

Library vs. Internet?
Unfortunately, school librarians are under severe pressure as tight budgets cause administrators to cut any services perceived as non-essential (just look at the Nation without School Librarians map). In my own town, state budget cuts have led our district to eliminate library staff positions.

My own high-school-age son expressed to me that he was relieved that it was school library staff and not teachers that got cut. He thinks that the high school library is useless when he has all of the Internet at his fingertips, so why pay people to shelve books? I quizzed him about this, and he has a point. He recently wrote a paper for history class on the Philippine-American War. The school library has only the six brief paragraphs in Encyclopedia Britannica on this neglected episode of U.S. History, and the electronic databases that the school subscribes to weren’t much help. He ended up using material from Google Books and public domain material in Wikisources for his paper, both of which are quite extensive, and don’t cost the school anything. At the same time, my son wishes that his school offered more instruction on “how to get stuff.”

The entry of ebook technology into schools will only increase budget pressures on school libraries. Declining prices for ebook readers will soon make it economically feasible for schools to issue ebook readers to all of their students. Each reader would be loaded with an array of textbooks, reference works and reading material tailored for the student’s grade level, in quantities that surpass almost any physical library. School districts will inevitably be invited by educational publishing companies to compare the cost of these complete content packages with the cost of operating a physical library.

Difficult choices will present themselves. In the 1990s, parents demanded that schools incorporate computers into their curricula so their children would be computer-literate, long before anyone knew whether computers in schools really benefited students. In the 2010s, many parents will want their children to have all the advantages of ebook-based school libraries. How should school administrators respond to these pressures? What is best for the students?

Libraries and Student Performance
A careful look at the available research on the benefits of school libraries might give hints as to what’s important. Most of the studies find correlations between student performance and school library services, but they’re not much help in figuring out how school libraries should address changes in technology in the midst of budgetary pressures.

In California, decades of budgetary pressure could provide insight into the effects of cutting services. One large-scale study on the effect of libraries in California schools gave inconsistent and contradictory results. The study, by education consultants Stacy Sinclair-Tarr and William Tarr Jr. found disappointingly small correlations between school libraries and student performance [PDF]; in some cases students with access to libraries were found to have done worse on standardized tests. What on earth was happening in California?

These odd results led Douglas Achterman, a teacher librarian at Hollister High School in California and also an Adjunct at San Jose State SLIS, to go back and took a closer look at the California data for his dissertation research at the University of North Texas. His conclusion:

Successful school library programs are much more than books, bytes and buildings. As results from this study demonstrate, the level of library staffing, both certificated and clerical, is directly related to the kinds and number of services such programs provide. And at the middle and high school level, where there is at least a critical mass of professional staffing, the levels of staffing are directly related to student achievement. At all grade levels, the levels of services regularly provided by the library program are significantly related to student achievement.

The previous study had problems with control methodology, but more importantly, it neglected staffing or funding levels. Achterman’s re-analysis of the data showed that it’s not having a library that helps students, it’s having sufficient staff to allow librarians to have meaningful interaction with students and teachers. This is a conclusion that transcends the form of the library’s content. Neither books nor ebooks will teach kids how to answer questions all by themselves.

A Reality Check
Ph.D. dissertations are all well and good, but real sixth and seventh graders provided me a reality check. I interviewed two daughters of friends who live in another state. They love their school libraries. “The library is a great place to study. They have nice computers and everything. Our librarian is really nice, she doesn’t get upset if we talk. She helps us find stuff.” Both of them report that they alternate a library class every few weeks with a technology class, where they learn to use spreadsheets, word processors, and the like. They have research projects that require them to use books, websites and databases.

My interview subjects, though both voracious readers, were not enthusiastic with the idea of replacing their print books with an ebook reader. They were both familiar with Kindles through their parents, and they don’t like that Kindles don’t tell you how much of a book you’ve read. They hated when the batteries ran out. They carry heavy backpacks to school, but not because of books. It’s because they never clean out their backpacks.

It’s likely that ebook technology will be marketed to schools as replacement for print collections, backpack-emptiers, and cost-savers. But the available research shows that it’s having sufficient staff—not sufficient content—that really works. Switching to ebooks will make sense for school libraries only when they result in savings of time and money that allow library staff to increase their focus on instruction and interaction with students and other teachers. Despite the benefits of putting large collections into student backpacks, stocking the pond just isn’t that important. Once a young mind discovers how to fish the Internet for intellectual nourishment, the fish don’t stand a chance.

Author Information
Eric Hellman (eric@hellman.net, @gluejar on Twitter) has spent the last 12 years developing technology for libraries. He blogs at go-to-hellman.blogspot.com