Librarians as important as ever, but with more emphasis on technology

Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Fourth-grade student Kelsey Steele watches as Amy Heuer helps Liam Bryant with his computer program at West Lane Elementary in Jackson. Students were participating in a World Book online scavenger hunt. (Laura Simon)

When Sharon Anderson was a kid, her dad attached a bigger basket to her bicycle so she could haul more books home from the library. When that still wasn't enough, he added a couple saddlebags. Today, as youth services coordinator at the Cape Girardeau Public Library, Anderson is still hauling books home from the library and reading past her bedtime, even as she pursues a master's degree in library science. Books remain a huge part of any library, but libraries have evolved greatly along with technology.

"The way people use the library is changing, and of course the Internet is a huge part of that," says Anderson. You're more likely to see today's librarians showing students how to find credible sources on the Internet than pulling books from the shelves. The books themselves have also changed: Instead of solid blocks of text, they are more graphic, with information in spurts, much like you would see on the Internet."

Danna Bruns, librarian at Jackson High School, spends her days on everything from troubleshooting on the library computers to helping teachers implement new technology in their classrooms.

"I do a lot more technology than I ever would have thought when I started seven years ago," she says.

Each Jackson school received 30 iPads to work with this year, and the high school's tablets are used for current events, video, foreign language assignments and more.

"When they do research they go straight to the computers," says Bruns. "It has changed what I purchase. We used to have a lot of nonfiction books that were used for research, and now it's more memoirs that you just want to read."

Students at West Lane Elementary are using iPads to learn keyboarding, says Amy Heuer, library media specialist at the school.

"Next year students will do testing online, so they need to have keyboarding skills," she says. "We try to keep up with the times. Technology is constantly changing, so it's an ongoing process."

Students arrive at school with a wide variety of technology skills, even at the elementary level.

"Some come in knowing more than I do, while some come in not knowing how to turn the computer on," says Heuer. "But I'd say it's more toward the end of knowing more than I do."

Anderson sees this at the public library as well, where many children and teens arrive with their own laptops, tablets and smartphones. However, there are still a lot of kids who don't have their own digital devices or Internet access at home, and libraries play an important role in this "digital divide," she says.

"The library serves a lot of people, and not all of them need or want a book," says Anderson. While parents take classes or work on job applications at the library, kids have access to 16 computers in the youth services area, where they can listen to music, watch movies, do research, read periodicals, even play an Xbox or experiment with iPads. Anderson loves for kids to take away positive thoughts about the library, whether they're reading a book or listening to music -- after all, she says, someday they'll be the ones voting on taxes that affect library funding.

But plenty of kids are still hitting the books and reading for fun. The library stocks multiple copies of the most popular books, and they fly off the shelves, says Brenda Renner, youth services assistant at the Cape Girardeau Public Library. The transformation of these books into movies (think "Harry Potter," "The Hunger Games" and "Twilight") adds fuel to the reading fire. It's a sort of peer pressure, says Renner: many kids come in and say "My friend read this book," and they want to read it, too, so they can talk about it with their friends.

Part of the library evolution means that "reading" does not always signify a book with paper pages. Students can now listen to books on their iPod, read ebooks on their tablets or read current events on the Internet.

"They're still reading and interacting with the text, even if it's not a book, per se. ... We have lots of ways to keep kids coming back for more," says Anderson. "We don't necessarily want to be dragged along (with technology), but we at least want to be jogging along next to it. We want to keep up with it."

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