How a national digital library system could serve K-12: A veteran teacher and school librarian speaks out

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Donald R. Smith spent 40 years as a public and private school teacher and as a school librarian. A Brown University graduate living in Howell, New Jersey, he is an Apple Distinguished Educator (“’Class’ of 1995,” the first). Also see other thoughts on the DPLA and K-12. – D.R.

DonaldSmithIn responding to your concerns for the development of a national digital library system that will meet the needs of the world beyond higher education, I must start out with an insight from my experience.

Particularly in the K-12 world there was a need for products to solve problems encountered daily in the classroom. Most teachers are searching for solutions which can be readily adapted to their students’ immediate needs.

Teachers want products and processes which will help them and their students meet local, state, and federal requirements in a timely way. Their world is totally different from mine when I began teaching decades ago. There were no national or state-imposed standards then. What happened in the classroom almost totally reflected the resources that were locally available, as well as the wishes of the school board. Students did not always receive the best education.

In proposing a statement of purpose for a National Digital Library I was simply seeking to state in a few sentences reasons which would describe a system that would better emphasize the real needs of our educational community and the citizen who is a product of it. I know that the scientific research and R&D communities need inclusion, but I’m really concerned about how my clients—our kids and their parents—are going to utilize the National Digital Library.

The front end to the system is of special interest to me. It must be tremendously user friendly and offer relatively quick downloads of data. But you can’t make it so easy that it becomes like a wiki. Maybe I’m just overly cautious because—between Google and Wikipedia—the average user just jumps in and then doesn’t really look around for other answers. I was a bug about kids browsing, especially when they were using a print library. Sometimes the book they really needed was there just six inches to the left and they didn’t see it. That’s why browsing on the Internet by going link to link to link has some worth to it. But often kids especially just go for the quick fix and don’t look for alternative answers to a problem. That’s where browsing skills are really important, because you begin to make associations that allow you to transition to more complex learning and skill levels. I’m very critical of the “show and tell” approach that so often goes in the classroom. Teachers have to make sure that students aren’t just satisfied with the first answer they find—even though that could be the right one or the one they really need. Students will only find that out by testing, by looking for alternatives, and the right interfaces for K-12 could encourage this.

In writing a mission statement for the nation’s digital library I am also concerned about the disenfranchisement of many of our citizens. I worked for years in a community where many did not have access to the internet in their homes and more than likely still do not, and I understood the need to serve everyone—urban, rural, rich and poor, gifted and nongifted, people with mental or physical disabilities, and Americans of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. But so often the wishes of the most vocal or powerful won out instead. If we do not provide for those of us in all cultural and intellectual realms, we will truly disenfranchise the people who most need the information that a National Digital Library could provide.

During my 40-year career, I also found that the world of educational professionals had limited access to the resources which were part of their major study. I’d like the DPLA to work toward a higher profile as a K-12 resource. As a generalist and librarian as well as a “searcher” of knowledge all my life, I often had a better handle on the availability of the “stuff” of a field of inquiry than most of the practitioners did in those specialties. The governors of the K-12 world are focused on delivery systems and not necessarily exploring and understanding the world of resources that are available. It’s possible that everybody is just looking for a “quick fix” for public education today in particular. We need more than that.

Another issue is the range of the DPLA’s content. Adults and K-12 students alike need access to information beyond all requirements of those in academia. Those in academia have the responsibility to assist citizens in acquiring necessary information to fulfill their daily lives. We cannot place intellectual barriers to our library and have it address some needs of the general population, but mainly those of academia. To deprive people of needed information is to disenfranchise them in many ways. I repeat my plea, “The National Digital Library should be the symbol to us of our most cherished freedom—the freedom to speak our minds and hear what others have to say.” That is why I support LibraryCity’s approach to development of a digital library.

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2 comments to “How a national digital library system could serve K-12: A veteran teacher and school librarian speaks out”
2 comments to “How a national digital library system could serve K-12: A veteran teacher and school librarian speaks out”
  1. David, I repeat my plea, “The National Digital Library should be the symbol to us of our most cherished freedom—the freedom to speak our minds and hear what others have to say.” But the greatest fear I have now is that our government through the NSA and other spying activities is cautioning each of us to "not to speak our minds and be unable to listen to what others wish to say." David, I truly fear for our intellectual freedom when I observe Sinclair Lewis's "It Can't Happen Here" now happening in our land. The Digital Library will mean nothing if we can not use it without worrying that we are being watched by those who enforce the Patriot Act. This is not Google, Amazon or Apple keeping track of our buying decisions, it is an insidious attempt to supplant mind control in the citizenry by those whom we entrust our freedoms to. Don Smith

  2. Thanks for your note, Don, and happy New Year!

    Sinclair Lewis is a favorite of mine. No Buzz Windrips or Corpos, please! Like you, I myself don't want NSA snooping on our reading habits.

    The frustrating thing is that even with private people handling our e-reading, snooping very possibly going to happen. So far, NSA has defeated some very impressive security precautions by Google and the rest. At least with a public system things can be a little more transparent, and public librarians with professional ethics can take care of the details, rather than the standard business types.

    If nothing else, I like the idea of state governments banding together to organize the public-library component of the twin-system configuration (the other system would be academic), even if it gets federal funding. Let's not allow Washington to run the entire show. From the early 1990s, when I was pushing TeleRead, I've advocated carefully delineated decentralization even though I favor national systems because of all the efficiencies possible and the additional bargaining leverage that libraries would enjoy.

    In addition, on both the public-library and academic-library sides, I favor other privacy-related precautions, so that, for example, one can use anonymous paper cash to buy or rent a book, including one of the print-on-demand variety. And I also want an independent private sector rental services to exist for those who prefer those business models and have more confidence in them.

    Careful, though. As you'll recall, Amazon is a major CIA contractor. No, I'm not saying Amazon is snooping for the feds, but you can see my point: Uncle is everywhere. So we might as well have the public approach as well as the private one. If nothing else, do we really want to surrender to the terrorist by depriving ourselves of the educational, cultural, scientific, economic and other benefits of national digital libraries just because we're worried that the anti-terrorists will snoop on us? Bottom line: Have the public systems. But don't let Washington control everything about them, and make certain that these libraries are not the only alternative.

    David R

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