Kill your library

Paper is simply not a long-term storage solution

Bye bye, school library.

Yesterday, I gave a presentation at EdmodoCon 2012, a global web education conference, about becoming a one-to-one computing classroom or school. It went pretty well until the Q&A, at which point someone asked me a question about funding these grand, expensive initiatives, and I was forced to go off script (always a mistake!). Judging by a few of the emails I got, I touched a nerve with my statement that we don’t need librarians anymore. If anything, this post doubles down on that assertion, but I want to explain why I feel this way, and how I think killing your library will help you go 1:1.

Let’s start by stating the obvious. Computers are to libraries what mp3s are to CDs. Your school simply won’t need a librarian or library for long after you hand out iPads, laptops, or netbooks, and the money you save can be pumped directly into your mobile computing deployment. I don’t want to see anyone out of a job, but I also don’t want schools with extremely limited resources to apportion them in a less than optimal way. So understand that I’m not anti-librarian; I’m just pro-2012. The skills and talents of librarians need to become part of the toolbox of every teacher. In essence, all educators are librarians now because we have to curate information and sources, and help students analyze and qualitatively assess data. And if we’re all librarians…

Getting started
Let’s assume your school is fortunate enough to have a full time librarian making between 30-50k a year. By eliminating that expenditure, you just bought between 75 and 100 iPads or (cheap) laptops. If you buy refurbished from the Apple store, you can get up to 125 iPads for 50k. That’s certainly the beginning of a deployment. And if you launch with a one grade or several-class pilot program, 125 should be enough to get the ball rolling. If it’s not, it’s time to take a look at the library and computer labs themselves.

There’s no need for a fully loaded computer lab in a K-12 one-to-one school. At the college level, students are working with specialty programs and processor-crunching applications that require standalone systems. But the majority of what K-12 students do can be done on an iPad for a fraction of the cost. In the event that there is some major computing task that does require heavy duty machinery, you might want to develop a relationship with a local college and use their lab on special field days, or outfit your school with a handful (ten to fifteen) of standalone PCs that allow more RAM-intensive programs to run without error.

The money
So let’s crunch some sample numbers: a typical PC monitor and tower lease will cost around a hundred bucks a machine for a term of three years. If you need a hundred machines, you’ve just dropped $80,000 for three years worth of PCs, and you’ve stuck them in a lab environment that by its nature limits the devices’ classroom applications.

You can lease iPads for somewhere between 400 and 500 bucks a machine, depending on vendor, length of relationship, etc. So let’s assume you need a hundred machines at five hundred dollars each. Good news: you just saved 30k. Celebrate by picking up 75 more refurbished iPad 2s with your extra money, and now you’ve got 200 iPads. Just like that. And you haven’t spent an additional penny.

The space
Now let’s look at the library itself. If you’re lucky enough to be in a school with an expansive physical library, I’m envious. Now start figuring out what you’re going to do with the space when the students are all carrying virtual libraries in their backpacks at all times. I spent my summer doing scholarly research on one-to-one deployments, and I stepped foot in a library exactly once (and I read over fifty studies and articles). There is little the physical library has to offer today’s student.

Maybe you rent it out, maybe you repurpose it, but whatever you do, STOP throwing money at an outdated, outmoded concept. Most schools spend hundreds to thousands of dollars maintaining a library. Divert that money to databases like JStor, LexisNexis, and Academic Search Premier and you will simultaneously cut the cost and raised the quality of your school’s library, whether it be a mix of virtual and physical or is exclusively virtual.

Reshaping education will not be without casualties. The key is adaptation; sometimes, our skills age poorly (I can still write raw HTML with the best of them, but I stopped keeping up around 1997…I know of what I speak) and we have to choose a new muscle to develop.

I think we can learn a lot from librarians, but unfortunately most schools and districts can’t afford to have it all. Supporting a full library, librarian, and mobile devices for every student probably isn’t feasible for the majority of public and private schools in the States. And if something has to give at this point, it can’t be the technology.


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