Curious about what's happening in our digital library these days? Here, our new Digital Literacy Librarian, Amy Frazier, gives a glimpse into the Fisher-Watkins Library happenings.
Back in 2009, when the idea of being a librarian was still mostly an abstract concept to me, some librarian friends told me about a tempest taking place in the field. It surrounded Cushing Academy, a New England boarding school that had decided to make its library “bookless.” It was one of the first concrete examples I’d seen of the library as digital hub first and foremost, and it was likewise one of the first things that made me start thinking about librarianship more seriously. Not even five years later I find myself working in the very same library as the Digital Literacy Librarian, tasked with helping our studentsmake the most of the digital library that Cushing built.
I have yet to meet the librarian that doesn’t have a soft spot for paper-and-ink books, so I completely understand the wariness with which some meet the idea of a library with no print books. But the term “bookless” has always been a bit of unfortunate labeling -- as it stands today, Cushing’s Fisher Watkins Library owns a modest collection of roughly 5000 print volumes. The emphasis, however, is firmly on our digital resources, which make our real collection vast indeed: hundreds of thousands of academic e-book titles, journals, and audiobooks, all instantly available to students anywhere on campus 24/7 through the library website, plus on-demand access to millions of current titles and bestsellers via our fleet of Kindle e-readers. Our collection of books is less tangible than that of most similar libraries, but the move to an all-digital library has increased the number of books available to our students many, many times over.
The change has not only increased the number of books available to our students, but has also measurably increased circulation, especially of books for leisure reading. Our collection is an ever-shifting, organic thing that can change to meet the needs and wants of our students and faculty on a day-to-day basis. A call or an email from a student, and we can have nearly any title they want in their hands within a few minutes. Ask for the Hunger Games, and you shall receive. This kind of dynamic, instant responsiveness is a primary reason why our library went digital.
But e-books have some other advantages that make them particularly compelling within the context of a school library. For one, they are more accessible than print books in ways that go beyond simple availability. Students can customize the text on their screens to suit their individual needs, and text-to-speech conversion can be a vital aid to students with visual impairments, learning differences, and those still gaining fluency in English. One recent study suggests that high school students with dyslexia may have an easier time reading on an e-reader than on a printed page.1 By providing students with e-books, the library becomes an active participant in every student’s academic support network.
More than that, the shift toward digital resources is part of an effort to make using the library a comfortable, intuitive experience for students. The primary interface on our library website has been designed to look and feel as much like an Internet search as possible, with a simple keyword search covering the complete content of our academic e-book collection, as well as a huge variety of full-text magazines, journals, and reference works. This familiar interface invites students into the library’s resources and paves the way for further development and instruction.
And instruction is really the name of the game. An intrinsic part of moving into the digital milieu is teaching our students how to navigate the information landscape confidently and effectively. Focused instruction in information and digital literacy is a big part of what we do every day. We’re using the tools and resources we’ve put in place to teach information skills that will help our students in every aspect of their education not just while they’re here with us, but in college, in their careers, and throughout their lives. Our ability to make the most of this opportunity is greatly aided by a library that can be used from anywhere on campus: in the dorms, in the dining hall, on the playing field, or on a sunny knoll on a warm afternoon. The Fisher Watkins library is more than a building or a collection of books: it’s an approach to learning that literally reaches into every corner of the school.
The technology behind our library is constantly changing, and in many respects the library itself is always a work in progress. No single product or platform meets all of our needs, so our systems are built from available tools and products combined with a bit of ingenuity. And as new technologies emerge and evolve, the tools we use today may not be the tools we use tomorrow. Having committed to a fully digital library, we have also committed to continual re-assessment in order to make sure that we’re always meeting the needs of our school community. But our core philosophy is built on concepts and principles that remain sound no matter where the technology leads, and so offers our students a library that is at once current and enduring.
1Schneps, M., Thomson, J., Chen, C., Sonnert, G., & Pomplun, M. (2013). E-readers are more effective than paper for some with dyslexia. PLoS ONE, 8(9). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0075634