The Magazinist
Critical Thinking for Publishers

Libraries & Cyber Kids

March, 2012

Lately we seem to be talking a lot about public libraries here at the Magazinist, not from an informed perspective… more from a simple appreciation that continues to rise as time passes.  Besides, we always root for underdogs.  The government slashes its budget and the media proclaim its obsolescence, but our little local library just keeps on getting better.

People who haven’t visited one lately sometimes say that libraries have been superseded by the Internet, but the libraries we visit are adapting to digital technology enthusiastically.  We sometimes wish that the Internet was more like a library, but we’ve never wished that libraries were more like the Internet.

Our appreciation of libraries was boosted another notch or two by a new service called Link Plus, recently introduced at our public library here in the Bay Area suburbs.  The Link Plus program provides access to books from more than 50 other participating library systems throughout California and Nevada, including several dozen college and university libraries—at no cost to patrons.  We’re told that more than 5 million unique books and documents are available through the Link Plus system.  Finding them is easily accomplished through our local library’s online catalog.  Magically, books appear in about three or four days—poof!

One of the reasons why Link Plus is so wonderful is that the program provides access to corners of specialized knowledge—in countless subject areas—that are otherwise unavailable to most people.

Sometimes the same books are available through other sources, such as Google Books, Project Gutenberg, Amazon, or Bookfinder, to name a few.  These are extraordinary resources which we embrace with delight and use liberally.  But each has drawbacks as well as advantages.  At retailers like Amazon or Bookfinder you can find virtually any book… but you have to buy it, which can be expensive.  The book we’re reading at the moment costs $48 at Amazon and $43 through Bookfinder, and at those prices a borrow beats the tar out of a buy.  Digital sources like Google Books provide a facsimile—a picture of the book—which is great, but not the same thing as the book itself.

Why isn’t it the same?  We don’t know.

Recently a history project has us using a group of books published in the late 1800s.  Most of them are available from Google Books—conveniently downloadable and portable—yet for some reason it’s much easier to work from real books than the Google e-books.  Tasks like selecting passages to be quoted, relating an observation made in one chapter to an observation in another, comparing two books, reading endnotes, and simply navigating the pages are all more convenient in three dimensions than in two.

We’re speaking for ourselves and don’t expect universal agreement.  One man’s meat is another man’s poison, and you may be reading the opinion of the last remaining person on earth who would rather work from a book than a tablet or laptop.

Here’s a big group of people  in apparent disagreement with us: the 250,000 K-12 students in American “cyber-schools.”   One of the largest of these is Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, based in Midland, PA, with an enrollment of 11,000.  In some ways, PA Cyber is incredibly successful.  Its 2011 revenues ($109 million) surpassed expenses by more than $7 million, its assets on hand exceed $50 million, and the organization is growing rapidly and expanding into new endeavors.  But in other ways, PA Cyber is not exactly a shining paragon of pedagogy.  Its students’ math and reading scores are below state averages.  Annual student turnover is about 25 percent, and all that funding comes from school districts whose resources are reduced by upwards of $10,000 every time a pupil transfers to PA Cyber.  Of course, the school districts are stuck with the consequences—they have to serve their remaining students with their remaining resources.

Scenes from a recent PBS Newshour segment on PA Cyber reminded us more of Dickens and Orwell than anything else.  Picture a boiler room of cubicles, each with a teacher managing an online class of “virtual” students, who sit at screens by themselves, in homes scattered all around the state.  No physical interaction or socialization is possible.  In the Newshour segment none of the students seemed to take any pleasure in the experience of cyber-learning, and there was nary a textbook in sight.

Can it be that thousands of parents believe putting their children under house arrest is preferable to sending them to school?   Here’s a snippet from a Newshour interview with a former PA Cyber student:

Student: I had to do six hours a day, and I did like an hour every day, if that.

Reporter: What did you do instead?

Student: Play “Call of Duty.”

Reporter: Video games? For how long?

Student: All day, until my friends came home. Then I went outside.

The image of schoolchildren spending entire days in front of a screen, whether they’re playing “Call of Duty,” or whether they’re sincerely trying to learn reading and writing, is pretty chilling either way.

We can’t help but think that if you sent these kids to the public library for six hours a day they’d learn more on their own than they get from cyber-school.

In our experience, evidence that computers improve learning is scant, but in the interest of fairness and full disclosure we should mention that the Mooresville, North Carolina school district has implemented a computer-based learning program for students in fourth through twelfth grade with results that the New York Times recently summarized:

“The district’s graduation rate was 91 percent in 2011, up from 80 percent in 2008. On state tests in reading, math and science, an average of 88 percent of students across grades and subjects met proficiency standards, compared with 73 percent three years ago. Attendance is up, dropouts are down. Mooresville ranks 100th out of 115 districts in North Carolina in terms of dollars spent per student — $7,415.89 a year — but it is now third in test scores and second in graduation rates.”

The Mooresville program, which draws educators from around the country who hope to duplicate its success, is conducted in real schools with real classes… but not real textbooks.

We sincerely hope that the program’s results are sustainable and widely imitated.  We’ll add, however, that we hope it includes time at the library.  An appreciation of books is an essential part of every student’s education… not because books are the repository of centuries of human art and wisdom, but because working with books is more or less the definition of scholarship.  A high school senior who can use a library proficiently is well on the way to success in college and in life.  A high school senior who can use a computer is just another kid.

Some of America’s greatest publishers, including George P. Putnam and James T. Fields, educated themselves at the library after work… at a time when a good library offered access to mere hundreds, not millions, of books.  True, both men were blessed with unusual talent and motivation, but it’s hard to imagine anyone today achieving the same level of knowledge sitting alone at a computer.

Imagine a helpful adult putting a good book into the hands of a curious student.  It’s a very pleasant picture, one repeated at American libraries thousands of times a day.

Now imagine the same student sitting alone at a screen.  It kind of makes you shiver.

Well, PS.  Just this morning came news that J.K. Rowling has agreed to make her Harry Potter books available in e-book format to more than 18,000 schools and libraries.  This seems like a move that should be cheered by everyone, not just the millions of kids who love her books.  If only more publishers shared her commitment—and if only more authors had the same clout..!

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More info...

PBS Newshour on Cyber-Schools

PA Cyber

New York Times on Mooresville NC Schools

Harry Potter e-Books