Is Stocking Library Shelves with Nonfiction Content a Waste of Money?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the school library this week and I’ve come to a conclusion that might just be half-baked and is definitely going to rile more than a few book lovers up:  The cash that schools spend stocking nonfiction titles in the library is wasted and would be better spent on classroom devices that can be used to access the web.

Kinda makes you want to scream Lithuanian curses at the computer screen, right?  If you were here, you’d hit me for even suggesting that books bought by libraries are a waste of money, wouldn’t you?  How could anyone ever hate books.  Or libraries.  Especially a teacher.

#sheeshthisguy

Gimmie a chance to explain:  My learning team is restructuring a part of our day to create a Genius Hour for some of our students.  Like other teachers who have experimented with turning a part of each school day over to students, my hope is that our Genius Hour will be a time where my kids learn about things that THEY are passionate about, whether they are defined in our state’s curricula or not.

I introduced Genius Hour on Monday and since then, kids have been sussing out topics that move them.  Every time they pitch a topic to me, though, I cringe because I know that we don’t have the resources — either digital OR print — to support their studies.  The entire week, in fact, has been an experiment in frustration as 30 kids wait to use one of my two classroom computers to begin looking for resources for their Genius Hour projects.

The experience led to this Tweet:

Sheila May-Stein —  a public librarian in Pennsylvania — pushed back, arguing that well stocked library collections built by media professionals working in tandem with classroom teachers to identify student interests could meet my needs just as well as access to the internet:

Now PLEASE don’t get me wrong:  I am NOT arguing against the importance of libraries OR librarians.

I work in the local public library three or four times a week and am constantly inspired by the vibrancy that surrounds me.  There is literally something beautiful about people coming together in a central location to learn and to study and to read and to grow — and librarians play a vital role in supporting that work.  Heck, just last month I was singing the praises of the library publicly on Twitter.

But I’m incredibly skeptical about the ability of any librarian to build a nonfiction text collection that can meet the ever-changing interests of today’s kids.  

There are just too many interests and too few dollars to go around.  Worse yet, class schedules — for both students and the library — automatically limit the times that students can get to the stacks sitting on the first floor.  That means even if a library DID have books on the topics that move every kids, those books would rest just out of reach until teachers and/or students could arrange a visit to sign out titles.  The result of these sad realities is students who are forced to study what they CAN study instead of what they WANT to study.

In five short days, momentum for our Genius Hour has died as my kids realized that the physical limitations of our library’s collection and the lack of internet connected devices in our classroom would play a HUGE role in defining their studies. They saw through my “you can study ANYTHING you want as long as it moves you” message pretty darn quickly.  What I really meant was “you can study ANYTHING you want as long as you are willing to wait in line for the two computers we have in the classroom OR as long as you are lucky enough to be interested in a topic that our library happens to have books about.”

#crappytradeoff

In a perfect world, there’d be a bajillion dollars set aside to buy a bajillion books on every nonfiction topic for a bajillion library shelves.  Schools would have six librarians to manage the collection, constantly adding titles based on the changing interests of the students in their buildings.  Coding’s hot?  Let’s get some books!  Someone’s interested in the lost art of macrame?  Let’s get some books!  The sixth graders are curious about animal dentistry?  Let’s get some books!

But we don’t live in a perfect world, so maybe it’s time that we stop building the nonfiction collections in our libraries.

If underfunded education budgets are going to leave us stuck in a limited world, maybe the money we spend filling shelves with books about a limited range of topics that can be accessed only when schedules make it so would be better spent on devices that can provide kids with access to the unlimited sea of content on the web that surrounds them every minute of every day.

Give a kid access to a really great nonfiction collection in the library and he can occasionally study the topics that someone else figured he’d find interesting. Give a kid access to the web and he can study literally anything RIGHT NOW.

Does this make sense or am I talking crazy again?

________________________

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