From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

November, 1993

Libraries of the Future

by Jamie McKenzie

Even though forecasting change is a highly questionable enterprise, this chapter is devoted to imaginations regarding possible futures of a smokestack information system (McKenzie, 1993) we once called "libraries." What are we going to find when we visit in 2005? Will we still have library media specialists working in schools? Will they still work in spaces which students visit once each week in order to provide prep time for classroom teachers? Will there be even more feet of shelving to hold books? Will there still be books?

I. Worst Case Scenario: The Information ATM

Lessons from Banking. One productive source of insight for would-be futurists is to draw analogies with other institutions which may share intersecting and interesting connections with the one under study. To provoke thought regarding libraries, we turn in this article to banking, once the paragon of conservatism and resistance to change.

Remember banker's hours? Twenty years ago banks were remarkably insensitive to client needs. They made it very difficult to deposit money, withdraw cash or make loans. They were open few hours - a few inconvenient hours which made them nearly impossible for working people to access.

What happened? Banks were forced to change by the arrival of new technologies, de-regulation and a marketplace driven by client demands for convenience, quality and customization.

When was the last time you actually walked into a bank lobby to deposit funds or cash a check? A large percentage of banks now offer 24 hour services which include deposits and withdrawals at countless convenient ATMs. Most employers offer automatic electronic deposits of paychecks. To find a balance or check an account, one calls an 800 number and punches in some code numbers. Many people find they have much greater and more convenient access to banking services without setting foot inside a bank itself.

Implications for school libraries. Because information was relatively scarce during the 1950s and 1960s, it was "housed - usually in the form of books - in spaces called libraries, out in the community and often in schools. The operating paradigm for such libraries was centralization. Citizens and students left their normal places of reading and thinking (homes, workplaces and classrooms) long enough to "withdraw" information - usually in the form of books or notecards - which could be consumed elsewhere. Access was relatively limited for some of the same reasons that bankerÕs hours caused difficulties.

Even to this day, students in many schools are permitted a single weekly visit to the library or expected to find information in spare moments close to the opening of school, recess, lunch, or the closing of school. Enterprising library media specialists do whatever they can within the constraints of contracts and resources to provide more flexible scheduling and more open access, but often these efforts collide with other school program interests and priorities.

The worst case scenario is that new technologies and electronic access to information threaten to eliminate both school "libraries" as we have known them and those who have been serving as information "tellers." In some schools employing site-based decision-making, this elimination has already occurred as classroom teachers vote to "excess" "specials" teachers (art, music, phys ed and library media) in order to carve up the resulting dollars to reduce class size and purchase new technologies.

David Thornburg has warned that electronic consumer products might well out pace what we are trying to do in schools. He has described $250 devices with amazing connectivity and processing power. Imagine the impact of Information ATMs on school and community libraries - small, hand-held PDAs with wireless connection through satellite to all the information centers of the world.

Even now we find that some schools are connecting all classrooms to each other in LANs (local area networks) which allow students to access information in the school library media center without leaving their classrooms. CD-ROM towers resident in the library or some other information center provide encyclopedias and immense databases of articles, visuals and numerical data such as U.S. Census data which students can consult without a visit to the library. Some of these schools have taken their networking even further, developing WANs (wide area networks) which link all of the classrooms, the LANs and the information centers of one district together, allowing communication and transfer of data throughout the district. Students and staff can communicate over bulletin boards and electronic mail systems even when school buildings are closed for the night by remote dial-in access from home units. The district may connect its own WAN with a regional or statewide network in order to share across district lines, thereby gaining access to students, educators and information far and wide. As part of this link, the district may gain access to Internet for both staff and students, or it may establish its own Internet node which would permit easy access directly from classroom PCs.

The PC in the classroom and the PC at home become Information ATMs in such districts. Students, parents and staff have access to information which is as convenient as the automated tellers provided by banks.

But never mind the Internet and the reality described above. Given the kinds of products and services predicted by Thornburg, by 2005 they may well be sailing and navigating through something more like CyberNet. Internet will be remembered as the horse and buggy of the global information sharing system.

Visions of this electronic library, according to King (1993) include guidance for the searcher provided by artificial intelligence, expert systems, hypertext, knowbots and gophers. Visionaries, King reports, predict the following elements:

without walls, seamless, transparent, a 'virtual reality'; global network or matrix of digital data, information and knowledge banks, warehouses, refineries, archives and repositories; broadband expressways for transporting multimedia in bits and bytes to end-users in distributed environments; artificial intelligence, expert systems, hypertext, gophers, client servers, WAIS servers, knowbots to navigate 'cyberspace'; 'just in time' delivery to universal scholarly workstations; independence from time and place constraints; gateways, doorways, windows and intelligent switches and links

King quotes Matheson's (1988) summary of the vision:

The emerging goal is a seamless electronic environment in which individuals may access a variety of information and knowledge sources in a manner that is simple and easy, and independent of time and place and subject discipline, for the purposes ranging from augmenting and refreshing memory, to learning, decision-making, and creating or uncovering new knowledge.

The words "independent of time and place and subject discipline" pose the greatest promise and the greatest threat. The new technologies promise to deliver information far from what we have called libraries. Many students already navigate online databases and explore CD-ROM encyclopedias at home. While this may liberate students and other information consumers in many respects, King is quick to point out that increased access does not automatically lead to insight or increased understanding. King outlines serious obstacles blocking achievement of the cyberspace dream and she suggests that some aspects of the dream may prove nightmarish. Fortunately for library media specialists, King sees their role as critical to a healthy future.

II. Best Case Scenario: Media Specialists as Pilots, Information Mediators, IT Managers and Curators

While new technologies promise to deliver more information in less time, the challenge of developing insight from all this information may be compounded by an overabundance of data. Toffler warns of "info-glut." Drucker claims that an information overload leads to "information blackout." Despite the revolutionary changes influencing school library media centers, at least four emerging roles offer considerable promise:

Media Specialists as Pilots.

Because more information is not always better, the smokestack agenda of showing children how to find information by "looking things up" will be shifting to the task of showing children and teaching staff how to navigate through oceans of data purposefully, how to find that information which will cast light on the question being studied.

King cites an example of one researcher whose electronic search identified 1000 articles on the question being explored - of which only three proved useful and illuminating. The media specialist who sharpens her or his searching skills will prove an invaluable team member and consultant as classes venture out on LANs and WANs and Internet. This kind of consulting and piloting may occur remotely, in classrooms or in the space we once called the school library.

For the next five years or so, large group instruction in such hyper-navigating may optimally occur in library media centers if they are equipped with pods of PCs linked to searching technologies while classrooms have just a handful of PCs. An entire 3rd grade class can sit in the library with their teacher to learn the use of an electronic encyclopedia, for example. The library media specialist demonstrates good searching and provides staff development at the same time with the ultimate goal of equipping teachers to provide similar guidance remotely. Unless they can return to a classroom with 4-6 PCs linked to that same encyclopedia (highly unlikely resources in most schools), they will need to make frequent class visits back to the library to conduct research.

The enterprising media specialist learns to navigate Internet before anybody else in the school, knowing that they can then provide guidance to both students and staff as they tackle this often frustrating information source.

In the Fall 1993 issue of the Staff Development Journal, Philip Schlechty offers a superb article on planning staff development for five different types of teachers. He calls them trail-blazers, pioneers, settlers, stay-at-homes and saboteurs. This is a great article worth reading independent of the topic at hand, but library media-specialists who decide to serve as trail-blazers and pioneers, leading their schoolÕs charge into the Age of Information, will find their roles strengthened and enhanced.

Media Specialists as Information Mediators

Media specialists might assist information users as they assess and filter data and information. King sees them showing users how to "handle overload, judge quality, identify needs and apply information." She offers the following recommendation:

"The field of library and information science must return its focus from the technology to the user, to the practice of librarianship and to the study of information itself. Researchers need to investigate with renewed energy how individuals process information cognitively; how information contributes to problem-solving and decision-making; how the quality of information products and services can best be assessed; and what role information plays in society."

With all of the attention currently being devoted to whole language and integrated curriculum at the elementary level, media specialists can support the development of such learning experiences by helping staff and students to identify and evaluate literature and reading which is worth their time. Several publishers now offer CD-ROM products which support thematic word searches which produce carefully targeted reading lists along with recent book reviews. The media specialist who offers such information mediating support to a team of curriculum planners is modeling the kinds information skills we hope students will acquire.

Media Specialists as IT Managers

IT (Information Technology) - the design of information systems and supporting hardware is a field of study rarely investigated by school librarians, but the proliferation of LANs and WANs suggests that someone in each school had better know how to design such systems to meet student and staff learning needs. In many districts such designs are created by systems people who may have relatively little instructional experience. Media specialists are in a particularly strong position to safeguard the educational vision of the school as they influence the design of these systems. The question is not as simple as connecting all classrooms and information systems. Someone also needs to ask what information services will reside upon such networks with what kinds of access? Can a single CD-ROM encyclopedia serve all 45 classrooms? Should it be multi-media or text-based? How many users can access Internet at a time? Need there be any scheduling?

Media Specialists as Curators

Quaint as it may seem, with so much information shifting to electronic and digital formats, one role of the media specialist may be to protect artifacts of various kinds, which could include pictures, objects, old manuscripts, taped interviews of local figures and many other items which deserve multi-sensory study - touching, smelling, tasting, etc.

While the quality of formats keeps improving, a videodisc image of an oil painting is not the same as the real thing. On the other hand, the kinds of prints purchased by schools are also photographic in nature and have their limitations. Media specialists who think of their space as a community gathering place to feast upon information will want to gather as rich a collection of objects as possible to attract a crowd and keep them tuned into something other than "virtual reality." Perhaps the media center will become the place for real things.

Media specialists will find support for this direction in Information Power, the 1988 ALA publication which provides a mission statement and seven objectives:

The mission of the library media program is to ensure that students and staff are effective users of ideas and information.
1. Provide intellectual access to information 2. Provide physical access to information 3. Provide learning experiences that encourage users to become discriminating consumers and skilled creators of information 4. Provide leadership, instruction, and consulting assistance in the use of instructional and information technology 5. Provide resources and activities that contribute to lifelong learning 6. Provide a facility that functions as the information center of the school 7. Provide resources and learning activities that represent diversity


This list is not meant to supplant or replace all existing roles. The time-honored tradition of introducing students to literature with book talks and dramatized readings deserves protection. So does the careful coaching of individual students so that passions meet with good books and reluctant readers develop appetites for books. The basic point is the necessity of adjusting roles to meet the challenges of new technologies. Media specialists can maintain a leadership role as schools move into the next century with school media centers serving as the core of an active learning program dedicated to student inquiry, investigation and research.

times since August 15.

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