At its best, the school library media center serves as a catalyst for school reform efforts and operates at the center of innovative teaching practice. What products and services are essential to support the state-of-the-art school library media center? Which bells and whistles truly improve student learning?

Multimedia school libraries feature the basics we all know and remember, enhanced by a suite of value-added applications:

  • A public access catalog, now online, with robust machine-readable bibliographic records (known as MARC format).
  • Automated circulation and data management systems, relieving library staff from the tedium of manual processing and record keeping.
  • A host of professionally produced reference tools, such as periodical indexes and full-text databases, electronic encyclopedias, and multimedia atlases.
  • Access to the vast array of resources that are available on the world wide web.
  • Seamlessness

    The digital age has finally delivered on the promises of the audiovisual and microform eras. The modern school library media center now showcases computer workstations that seamlessly connect what were once considered disparate data sources.

    Networking makes the mode of delivery relatively “transparent” to users, even as implementers in the background scramble to keep up. Underneath the connectivity, individual formats will always be in flux. Once-expensive filmstrip projectors sit in closets gathering dust. The same fate might await the CD-ROM platform, now that DVD is the new kid on the block. But from a user’s point of view, the library’s internal and external walls are only as thick as electrons.

    Most information retrieval systems now employ standardized technical standards (Z39.50) to facilitate the sharing of bibliographic records with other libraries and database providers. Students can access their school library’s resources from home or find out what’s in the local public library while searching in the school library.

    The Nichols Advanced Technologies product Athena Weblink allows cataloging of web sites, integrating those searches with any search of the library’s catalog. When a student looks for information on a topic, a list of records is retrieved. If one of the records is a cataloged web site, a special icon appears. By clicking on the icon, the browser automatically opens to the site. The reach of the library’s catalog is free from previously defined boundaries.

    In the not-too-distant past, an electronic reference source might have been purchased as a CD-ROM disk and installed on a single machine. Eventually, schools established CD-ROM networks and purchased site licenses for reference tools, much in the same way they did for office software applications. Management of local area networks became a necessary skill for either the librarian or the school’s educational technology specialist.

    Now schools, along with everyone else, are moving toward online connections to remote data sources. Assuming good internet access, online access means fewer worries about updating software and a reduced reliance on the foibles of local CD-ROM networking.

    Libraries do not own information that is retrieved online, but license it for specified time periods. Licensing terms generally involve an array of factors, such as the number of simultaneous users and the time period of the license.

    Schools are often wise to work within a consortium, which can pool resources to license an otherwise prohibitively expensive product. Some tools that were never in the reach of small schools, such as full-text periodical databases and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, can now be made available through these consortia arrangements.

    Students can print, download, or eMail documents to themselves. Electronic databases often have hyperlinks to other locations on the web, providing a more directed use of the internet as well as greatly expanding the reach of a reference product. Other databases have links to fee-based services, a new incarnation of interlibrary loan in which articles or documents are delivered by a commercial vendor instead of another library.

    Internet service

    We no longer ask if a school library media center will have internet access, but rather when it will have access. Cost has remained a huge barrier. The eRate program was established in 1996 to provide internet discounts to schools and libraries. But now that program has been beleaguered by controversy, its future now in doubt.

    Beyond the physical and financial access issues, districts need to decide exactly what flavor of internet access they will provide to their students. Will access be filtered? Will Usenet be part of the service? Will students be given individual accounts? Will they have personal eMail? Will the district support student web pages? Who will teach students to use these tools and exactly what skills will be taught?

    Pesky practical points

    Be prepared for a continuous cycle of equipment upgrades. Libraries used to bear costs for labor-intensive activities such as card catalog maintenance. Now libraries bear the costs of keeping equipment up to date. With the accelerating pace of technological development, every system has a finite shelf life. Not exactly planned obsolescence, there is nonetheless an inevitable cycle of upgrades in software products, which require ever-faster processors and more memory, which then precipitate updates in software products, ad infinitum.

    At the same time, all these advancements do not result in the mythical paperless society. The availability of online full-text databases means that printers are working overtime. The cost of ink cartridges alone can send a district scrambling for new sources of funds.

    With so many improvements in access to information, it is more important than ever that library media specialists receive adequate technical support. The librarian’s role is first and foremost instructional. It is essential that the librarian understands the technology at a reasonably proficient level, but it is a waste of school district resources to assume librarians will also act as computer lab monitors and system administrators.

    It is much more productive in today’s wired school building to have technical personnel who are dedicated to the tasks of complex network management as well as the routine upkeep of school computer equipment.

    Library automation

    Yes, students still need to find books, which means that their libraries must be equipped with adequate catalogs — online or otherwise. High-quality data conversion continues to be a pressing issue.

    Unfortunately, administrators are often tempted to take short cuts, failing to understand that the lack of good cataloging ensures that books sit on the shelves because no one can find them. Sometimes a school’s catalog data are not very good to begin with, having been cobbled together over a long period of time by untrained clerks or volunteers.

    Fortunately, vendors offer many good solutions, typically in a form such as CD-ROM disks which contain already-existing, full bibliographic records in MARC format. Staff then match local collection holdings to the appropriate records and download them to the local system. Districts often catalog centrally or contract out to a regional library service system. Either solution is viable, as long as standard cataloging practice is employed.

    Automation systems do a lot more than catalog books. Library work, like housework, is often labor intensive and never-ending. Automation streamlines thankless tasks such as daily circulation and inventory management. Reporting functions have the potential to be much more informative and flexible and can supply managers with valuable data. Undreamed of applications are now possible. Many systems, for example, offer multiple language interfaces.

    Database providers

    Database providers typically deliver their products either online or on CD-ROM. If connections to the internet are good, the online option might be the superior choice, although some products are easier to manage on stand-alone or networked CD-ROM workstations.

    Libraries also have choices about whom they will buy from. Everyone once purchased the familiar green-covered Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature volumes directly from the H.W. Wilson company. Now Readers’ Guide also comes in at least three electronic flavors from at least as many vendors — Wilson, Ovid, and OCLC FirstSearch. This is a new world of licensing and distributed access, leaving plenty of potential for confusion.

    Students might be using a single vendor-developed interface to access a suite of products that come from a variety information producers. Or students might find themselves hopping from one vendor “look” to another, all the time unwittingly accessing the same data.