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School libraries urged to embrace the digital–cautiously

Printed or digital, the focus should be on the best way to provide students access to quality materials that will bolster their education, a trio of panelists from Houston Independent School District, ITT Technical Institute in Austin and Bexar County’s own BiblioTech library agreed in a discussion Thursday afternoon.

BiblioTech continues to generate international attention as one of the first libraries to go all digital, with no titles in traditional print media, and has been pushing partnerships with local schools to keep students interested in reading.

One key approach librarians can use to reinforce why they are relevant is a renewed focus on personal interaction with readers and learners, said Elizabeth Philippi, who oversees Houston ISD’s massive school library system, which is shifting more of its resources online.

She said librarians can provide a highly customized and productive level of customer service that a digital device is incapable of. Librarians should not fear technology but embrace it as a tool–instead of re-shelving and categorizing books, they can spend more time providing one-on-one instruction with visitors, helping them find materials, Philippi said.

Bookless libraries pose their own challenges, though. In some communities, a more tech-savvy setup must factor in the time needed to teach people how to use digital devices if they haven’t had to access them previously.

Digital devices can get broken or stolen. And as BiblioTech’s head librarian Ashley Eklof noted, some places in the United States still don’t have access to the Internet or families can’t afford to get the service at home.

Even the design of new libraries, centered around a focus on customer service and the use of the space as a learning center instead of a room of books, poses new challenges, Philippi said. New libraries tend to favor more open areas for groups to gather for project-based learning, she said.

That makes some administrators uneasy — it’s harder to monitor students to make sure they aren’t goofing off, or, in some cases at the high school level, engaging in sexual activity, Philippi noted. She wasn’t joking.

“Do I see a bookless library at our high school level someday?” she asked. “Yes. But I assure you from what we’ve seen with ‘Twlight’ in recent years, some students will always want a printed book and so we just have to be providing both formats.”

©2014 the San Antonio Express-News. Visit the San Antonio Express-News at www.mysanantonio.com. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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