LibraryCity’s take on K-12 libraries and the Digital Public Library of America

edtecharticleYes, LibraryCity has been on an S. R. Ranganathan kick lately (here and here).

Still ahead is a DPLA-related essay on his Five Laws of Library Science as applied to K-12, including school libraries—a follow-up to the LibraryCity post by Apple Distinguished Educator Donald R. Smith, a teacher-librarian with 40 years of experience. If you want to share any relevant thoughts for the next Ranganathan-inspired essay, just e-mail LibraryCity or use the comments area of this post. The essay should be online in the next week or two, after some crucial research materials arrive.

Meanwhile—some other ideas on K-12-related matters. The DPLA should work with state and local libraries toward the creation of a public national digital system with a strong K-12 component. The public system should cooperate with but be separate from the mostly higher-ed-oriented system that the DPLA seems eager to create despite some good work in the K-12 area.

Don’t let the university dog wag the public tail. Both count, so, no, the metaphor isn’t exact. Still, I fear that academics and friends are imposing their ways on the rest of the world or at least accidentally shortchanging it.

Consider this example in a K-12 context: Harvard Prof. Robert Darnton, the originator of the DPLA idea, says in the New York Review of Books that experts could update some math and agronomy books and others in the public domain. Excellent. I also like DPLA leader John Palfrey’s vision of the DPLA providing shared resources to help schools meet the new Common Core Standards (Core site here). Both ideas would cut schools’ content costs for those items. And yet they are hardly a full-fledged solution, even with plenty else thrown in. Schools, for example, may find that software apps written from scratch, not traditional textbooks and reference works, are the answer in more than a few math-related situations.

Also, don’t forget the nature and extent of the crisis (beyond the outrageous layoffs of school librarians despite their proven importance to students’ academic development). It isn’t simply about the sizes of school libraries, of which the numbers of books are tiny fractions of major Internet e-bookstores’ offerings (despite improvements). Rather the issue is also about how current and otherwise appropriate the content is for individual students with widely varying needs and interests. An abundance of appealing up-to-date books won’t hurt. Good luck at this. For the year 2012, drawing on reports from 4,385 school libraries, the American Association of School Librarians found that the “Average copyright year for the Dewey range 610-619, health and medicine, was 1996.” Imagine—fast-changing fields, and yet our K-12 students were relying on 16-year-old books written when Bill Clinton occupied the White House! Now think how up-to-date the library holdings were on government matters and other topics. Just how far can the DPLA go in facing those challenges, even if the copyright lobby will somehow miraculously allow terms to be shortened immediately and even if the library group experiments with new models for content creation for the schools?

Innovation is a “must,” but as DPLA leaders would agree with me, it is no substitute for decent funding of school libraries. Significantly, a 2011 School Library Journal article alerts us to major gaps in school library funding between rich and poor districts, which, as I see it, strengthens the case for a a more national approach, in partnership with public libraries, blighted by the same “savage inequalities.”

Alas, we’ve been through this before; will policymakers ever learn? Back in the 1990s a Clinton Administration man was telling me, right there in the Executive Office Building, that wiki-style sites would reduce the need for real e-libraries for K-12 students. I’m sorry, but alternatives to the usual copyrighted material will go only so far in the schools today despite the many glories of the public domain, Creative Commons, and wikis. And yet I haven’t seen specific, fleshed-out solutions from the DPLA to content-related fiscal issues, beyond abbreviated copyright terms; and even if the organization comes up with ideas, I worry that K-12 and general needs will still lose out to university needs during the implementation. As a partial remedy, something doable even with all the talk of “fiscal cliffs” and the rest, LibraryCity has published a detailed proposal for a National Digital Library Endowment to help address the inequalities by making it more attractive than now for the wealthy to donate. K-12-related efforts could be a major recipient of funds from the endowment, which would focus on the super-rich and big philanthropies rich to reduce overlaps with local money-raising efforts.

Let the DPLA, however worthy, not preempt far more focused K-12 efforts such as the ones LibraryCity has suggested, especially in the area of recreational reading, where schools rely heavily on copyrighted content, not the top priority of the Harvard-originated group. The DPLA or at least an academic system forked from it should also benefit handsomely from the endowment. I just don’t want people in Cambridge, Boston, or Washington to be the overlords of America’s public or school libraries in the far future, having slowly expanded the DPLA’s role year after year even if the group’s founders did not intend that. A national public digital system answerable to state and local librarians, and funded in multiple ways, including but not limited to the endowment directly or though the Institute of Museum and Library Services, could care more about the library needs of K-12 students and their role models, their parents. Certainly when it came to K-12, the Department of Education could also play a role in helping to fund the public system. But especially given the multigenerational aspects of the literacy crisis—book-shunning parents breed book-shunning kids—we shouldn’t just farm the school library issue out to Education and leave IMLS out of it. In fact, IMLS already helps support school libraries among others.

coslaAs I’ll note in the next essay inspired by Ranganathan, child-and-family-friendly efforts are too important simply to fall within the DPLA’s “big tent,” especially when the DPLA was deaf to the pleas of the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies to drop the “Public” from the Harvard-originated initiative’s full name, the Digital Public Library of America. The word “Public” harms the franchise of our country’s brick-and-mortar public libraries. Similarly the DPLA has not included public school librarians or educators from K-12 public schools in its leadership—yet another reason why we need one digital system for universities and a separate but tightly intertwined system for the rest of America. K-12 libraries are a long way from being general public libraries. But they are even more different from academic libraries (even though, if anything, colleges and universities should provide more content for K-12 and public libraries than they do now). Here’s why this matters. The issue isn’t just raw information or public domain classics, but also how to package content for K-12 and also develop teachers and students’ own research skills, some of the very points Don Smith made. Better for the DPLA to concentrate on other areas, where it’s stronger. John Palfrey to his credit has recognized such musts as K-12 students’ need for information literacy to separate facts from hooey, and he himself is now head of school at the elite Phillips Academy Andover, even if it’s a far cry from a public school with a full Bell Curve’s worth of students. But based on the DPLA’s past performance as a group, I just don’t see the organization as neglecting university-related essentials to give K-12 and public libraries a break.

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mattRenwickLikewise of K-12 interest: Librarians should check out an EdTech article, headlined Why Our After-School Book Club Can’t Wait to Get Its New E-Readers, by Matt Renwick, a Wisconsin elementary school principal, who has also written on the topic here and here in his blog, Reading by Example.

Notice the success he is enjoying with the kids in turning them into regular readers? And his awareness of the times when paper books may be better for K-12 students than e-books? No oversell. And also a recognition that digital reading “requires a shift in instruction” (such as teaching students how to measure the progress in reading a book by way of a bar at the bottom of the screen, rather than by how many physical pages remain). I also like his displeasure with the quality of popular-level journalism on e-book-related topics.

On the Diigo site, Matt Renwick assembled useful pointers to both good and bad articles for advocates of e-books for K-12. Will the DPLA give the same loving attention to those matters that he and other K-12-oriented people are (yes, I’m aware of the organization’s laudable interest in a summer reading app—one way to help fight the famous fourth-grade slump)? Although the DPLA can try to respond, the real solution is the twin-system one.

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Also coming up on the LibraryCity site (I’m not sure when): Public libraries and the Internet Archive.  COSLA should encourage public libraries to work with the Archive’s Open Library Project right now. But that is no substitute for trying to patch things up with the DPLA while simultaneously insisting on the dual-system approach as well the dropping of the highly problematic P word from the DPLA’s full name. I’ll explain why in the forthcoming post. Despite all my caveats, I actually see the DPLA as far more of a potential positive than negative for America’s public and school libraries.

Note: It’s early Tuesday morning as I wrap up the above. This is a “first edition,” and I’ll welcome corrections, however minor.

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