Fitting In: Technology and Children’s Library Practice

A reflective essay

Photo: Nijugrapher

Libraries used to be the record keepers of the past.

They were expected to be slightly antiquated because they were meant to enable us to retreat, to discover something recorded and make sense of it in the present. The atmosphere was a collusion of many lives and millions of ideas living in a confined space. There was the air of expectancy but also of the need to linger, to seek at length and to dwell on what was discovered.

Today there is a subtle pressure on libraries to be spaces of the future.  Open, bright, airy. Chrome and glass are considered fitting materials and an absence of clutter is modernist. Time is critical and the faster you find something the seemingly more efficient the library system appears to be.

Some of these spaces are even referred to as Libraries of the Future and Modern Libraries as if the others are old fashioned and will not bear survival in a future age.

What makes a library modern?  Thousands of lay users would imagine ‘technology’ as the game changer and use an understanding of that element to differentiate a modern library from an old one. The trend is so insidious that it is not uncommon to be asked if you stock e-books or have internet access, number of consoles at hand or even if pre-loaded e-book readers can be checked out. The irony is that not many of these questions come from people who actually read. A reader would never ask about the form of the book, a reader would come looking for the book itself.

But to return to the threat of labeling, we need to ask ourselves as a community of library educators – what do we want our libraries to be? What does modernity look like to us? And what role do we want for human interaction and technological access in the future?

We need to ask these questions because time is changing and technological ways have affected collections, management, human resource, browsing, referencing, recommendations, reading and access to libraries.

This sentiment of change and shifting interests comes across beautifully in Allen Say’s picture book Kamishibai Man(2005) in which, despite the presence of television in every house, the Kamishibai Man’s story telling brings people out of their homes to listen. The afterword tells us: “As Japan became increasingly affluent, Kamishibai (meaning paper theatre) became associated with poverty and backwardness with the advent of television. “

In a must read book titled Technological Literacy and Curriculum(1992), Michael Apple asks us three fundamental questions:  if we claim technological use as progress – particularly in education – whose idea of progress is this? Who really benefits from technology use in education and what really are the causes and effects of technology on relationships with learning?

For the library educator, there is often very little space and time to think about questions like this. Being a role and function that is often trapped between the curriculum and the administration, or between popular opinion and a public service, change comes to the library from multiple doorways. A grant might mean a whole bank of desk tops in the library and the removal of shelves of books with the promise to digitize everything in the near future. A comment from a parent might mean the school library suddenly provides internet access for reference work so that a host of Non Fiction texts are now obsolete or outdated. From hand made lending cards, there may be a new check-out system that requires the full attention of one adult and flashing screen lights to symbolize a futuristic aura in the library.

Photo: Nijugrapher

Time to plan and design library based activities may get wrenched away with the deferred promise of more time once the digitizing of all record keeping is finished by the library program – pinning the librarian/ library educator to a desk for months on end, until the program crashes or becomes obsolete, whichever comes first.

We must however take the future of our work in libraries in our own hands or at least into our own minds. We must make space to desist what the market research, the grant givers, the technology soothsayers are forewarning and make up our minds for ourselves.

There has been word on the block about the collapse of the physical library for a while now and some of us may declare, “Look, we are still here and doomsday has not come” and this is true. But we must also recognize that many of the print libraries are still here because we are in the catch up game. Technology access and provisioning is a mighty expensive invention and until a godmother comes waving a virtual wand, these are hard provisions for financially constrained economies to make. But the wands are here, making their way into villages and small communities where electricity is still not assured but technology access is being promised. So it seems relevant and worthwhile for a forward thinking educator to think.

I will share how in my own practice of library work, we have chosen to use technology tentatively and with some discretion:

Interactions with users

We consciously continue to use a paper and pencil approach to this essential record keeping activity. In smaller locations of library work, the children maintain their own records on cards and, in some of our work with larger groups and tighter time frames, a library educator records book numbers that are identified by the children, even as young as 6 years old, painstakingly and proudly reading out one numeral at a time and ensuring that it is being recorded as is.

What this act – seemingly time consuming and easily consigned to a device does is that it allows a human interaction with the borrower – it enables an autonomy and responsibility in a careful scaffold mode with the child and it mediates the relationship between borrower and book. The adult can have a conversation about the book being returned, about the book being borrowed and even about the weather…it should not matter. The critical thing is that a conversation is sustained and our human connections through books is kept alive.

Where technology has played a role in our practice is in cataloguing our books and generating an accession number and sometimes, I feel even this has taken away from the first reaction to a title call out. But it seems to be a compromise we made and we try to be aware that the number does not make the book. We also transfer all the paper-pencil data to soft copy for our Reading Administration Tool to crunch up and spew out but more on that later.

Digital books

Despite great advances in technology, the going soft of the picture book has taken longer than text books. This was a good thing because all present literacy research reminds us that children need print. They need the physicality of the book for multiple sensory, visual perception and cognitive reasons.

We know of some research that says that very early exposure to digital media alter some perceptual functions of children. Yet we find the market flooded with lures that hint at the digital world. If we interpret the market prompts, we begin to think these lures work. So titles that are also available in soft copy or codes to read the book and move the action forward can be found on the publisher’s web site. Soft copy forms of many books are far cheaper to buy and price point may compel some purchases over others.

But we know from hard experience with thousands of children every week that nothing compares to the book. Children are hardwired to turn pages, explore drawings and paintings at their own pace, go back and forth to make connections, read haltingly or with ease and allow words to transport thoughts and also put the book in their bags and reinforce the idea of being a reader – physically!

What we have done however is develop a data base of books that have digital partners or digital versions of the print book that can be enjoyed, used as prompts, used as reinforcing – re tell – repeated readings. It would be foolhardy to limit the wonderful resource that technology offers us in the form of animation films, author interviews, podcasts, spoken word poetry, rare book images, books retold and sometimes, in a hard pressed economy like Bookworm, a scanned version of an expensive book.

Photo: Nijugrapher

Administrative management

We must acknowledge that in the absence of technology  a technologist and  thinking, we would have not been able to reach the number of children with  a diverse yet good match of books in schools and community sites.  It is technology and our in-house program called RAT ( Reading Administration Tool) that enables us to ensure that the right number, level, type, range and frequency of books go to each class and school. It is also because of  RAT that we are able to assess the kinds  of books children are borrowing, make recommendations, review our collection and refresh the selection. We code and tag our books with intensity that comes from reading, discussions, arguing about genre – suitability – treatment – literary content and then we allow the program to do its work. Without this human engagement, we would have a list of books that a machine could output, but we would not know what the list meant besides a numeric value.  This is important to remind ourselves about in library work.

Networking and Team Building

It seems almost ironic to imagine that the very quality of sharing, talking with each, learning from each other and collaborating that make us human is what is enabled by a non-human entity – technology. But it does in our work. We work varied hours within the team and also from remote locations, so it is because we are networked on a technologically supported platform that we talk to each other every day: through reports, sharings, informal message systems and voice calls. This incredible resource keeps us knitted together, so that we learn from each other, hold each other firm when new or unsure and share all the rich insights that library work with children offer us.  In the very same way, we are able to share what we do and learn from others outside our circle, because of technological connectivity and we think that is a terrific thing for library work.

What we do and how we use facilities and services within a library space comes back to how we envision library work.  There are so many ideas that are presenting themselves to us in our work through technological advancement and market forces. Many have opportunity to strengthen our choices, others might detract from what we intend to do or know how to do.

We must draw back to a book like Judy Finchler’s Mrs. Malarkey Leaves no Reader Behind(2006) to try, in one way or the other, to pursue our vision and keep our practice of fostering relationships with texts and children alive, just like she won over even the most reluctant reader – a dedicated videophile – with a good selection of books put forth by a good library educator.

2 thoughts on “Fitting In: Technology and Children’s Library Practice

  1. Dear Sujata,

    As I read your article, “my heart leapt up…” in many places, because I beheld “a rainbow in the sky”, to quote Wordsworth. I totally agree with a lot of what you say and am delighted that you say it all with such convincing clarity.
    “…they were meant to enable us to retreat, to discover something recorded and make sense of it in the present”
    I loved this line because you voice exactly what we have felt viscerally.
    Thank you!

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