I could see a tiny question mark floating over the head of a ninth-grader as he stared at the computer screen. I tapped him on the shoulder. “Can I help you?” He nodded gratefully and pointed at the screen. “Is this a book? Is this a database? Is this an Internet source?”
These questions are being asked more and more in our library, and they’re becoming harder to answer as the line between print and non-print becomes more and more blurred.
Our students will face very different challenges in college, not the least of which is being a savvy user of information. We’ve come a long way from my first years at McCallie, when teachers routinely told students they could only use the books in our library for their papers. We knew the collection, knew that each book was carefully chosen to fulfill an assignment. There was never a question of reliability or authenticity.
In many ways, I admire the boldness of our boys in tackling the new technologies. They grab a Kindle or an iPhone, and just start pushing buttons.
Now, Google routinely spits out millions of sites for our students to choose from, from Wikipedia to third grade blog posts. As a result, we’ve had to drastically change our approach. While presenting research projects, we explain the elements of a good website, showing them the good and the bad. Instead of scoffing at Wikipedia, we show them how they can mine that site for more substantial information. Some of our teachers have even adopted a separate set of guidelines for evaluating our students’ resource choices.
In many ways, I admire the boldness of our boys in tackling the new technologies. They grab a Kindle or an iPhone, and just start pushing buttons. They never seem to worry (as those of us of another generation do) if they’ll delete something important or even break the equipment. Yet they are often inefficient users of both the devices and the resultant information.
My continuing challenge is to guide them in using technology, and to help them see that technology is just one of the tools available to them as they search for information.
So now we offer resources in as many different formats as possible – print of course, but also Kindles, audio books, electronic books and online databases. In the spring, we acquired the Gale Virtual Reference Library, a fantastic collection of over 400 reference works. Once upon a time, they were published as “real books,” but now the full print edition is available in a digital format – all photos, graphics, indexes, and text are included. Students can simultaneously search the entire collection of books, plus all of the Gale magazine databases, using the Power Search feature. Imagine having all of that information so quickly available – not having to look through hundreds of books and magazines.
One thing that has not changed: it’s still hard to get students to ask for help or to admit they even need help. I must constantly scan the crowd, looking for that tiny question mark floating over their heads, for it often only appears for the briefest moment. I have to quickly offer help, for it’s in those brief exchanges that a great amount of instruction can take place. And the instruction isn’t one-sided – I learn so much from them every day. They’re constantly pushing me to be innovative, to try out new things and new ideas, to challenge my own ideas of what a library should look like. Together, as partners, I hope that we will continue to assist each other in conquering the challenges of this new digital age.
Beth Reardon has been the head librarian at McCallie School since 1983. This article also appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of McCallie Magazine.