In some U.S. schools, librarians are no longer saying, 'Shh!'

The Hechinger ReportNovember 23, 2011 

NEW YORK — Buffy Hamilton, who calls herself "The Unquiet Librarian," holds the phone receiver away from her ear at the Creekview High School library in Canton, Ga., revealing a cacophony of noise in the background.

"It sounds like that a lot of the time," says Hamilton, who welcomes what she calls "the hum of learning" — students talking about projects, watching videos and even singing "Happy Birthday."

In 2009, Hamilton began re-imagining her role as a librarian at her new public high school of 1,800 in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In her new role, Hamilton focuses on enhancing lessons and class projects with tools of the digital world to access, organize and evaluate information.

Her job "is really about helping teachers and students explore new mediums for learning," Hamilton says. "So that's been a big shift."

Creekview High School's media center looks and sounds nothing like the more silent libraries of the past. The new emphasis on collaborative learning and the use of digital tools to produce dynamic research projects leads to a louder, more hands-on environment that can prove beneficial to students later in college. Hamilton says graduates have returned to thank her because their digital skills are more advanced than those of their college classmates.

Hamilton's transformation of the library's role in her middle-class suburb evolved from her exposure to research and thinking by R. David Lankes, director of the master's program in library and information science at Syracuse University, and Henry Jenkins, head of the comparative media studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, among others, regarding ways that digital natives learn through communication and collaboration. Her model challenges students to think more independently and go beyond a Google search to use digital media tools to deepen their researching, understanding and presentation of a topic.

The shift to a noisier and more interactive library model is relatively new in U.S. public school systems. Some examples are evident at universities and private schools in Georgia, New York and California, all of which have taken a lead in transforming their libraries. In Massachusetts, the Cushing Academy, a private boarding school for high school students, gave away its collection of more than 20,000 books two years ago and transformed its library into a digital center with e-books and searchable databases.

"I don't think it's a commonplace kind of model," Hamilton says. "There are certainly pockets, but right now it's piecemeal at best."

At Creekview, one class worked on a class-based project called Media 21, co-taught by Hamilton and 10th-grade English teacher Susan Lester. In a yearlong digital project, they were encouraged to do everything from create a multimedia report on troops in Afghanistan to compile a reference list using free information-organizing web services like Evernote and Netvibes.

Students also frequently use LibGuides, a web-based, knowledge-sharing system that allows them to contribute their research to a web document that is shared with others at the school. Students create YouTube videos, podcasts and original content from the research they conduct.

While veteran teachers have embraced the more interactive and project-based approach to learning, Hamilton has met with some resistance, most of it from unexpected sources, like newer teachers, or honors and advanced placement students, who may be used to a more traditional, test-driven style of learning.

Hamilton seems to be redefining what it means to be a librarian. She's active on Twitter, maintains a blog about being a "modern school librarian" and frequently travels around the country and world to speak about her model.

Creekview's was the only school-based library that won a 2011 American Library Association award for having a cutting-edge technology service that could be replicated by other school libraries around the country.

Hamilton thinks more school systems could adopt Creekview's library model, as many of the Web 2.0 technologies she employs, such as Evernote and Netvibes, are free. Schools must have the necessary hardware of networked computers and laptops, though, along with someone like Hamilton to train teachers and students on how to use the new tools.

The noisy library model is nothing new for the Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School, a progressive private institution in New York City for K-12 students where tuition costs more than $30,000 a year.

Little Red's middle school librarian, Jennifer Hubert Swan, says the school's curriculum is based on group-project learning, and as a result she's had a library full of noise for her entire 12-year tenure.

Swan believes the louder, more digitally centered model — in which collaboration and conversation are encouraged, and kids use iPad apps, LibGuides and other tools to complete multimedia assignments — will soon be the norm.

"People are uncomfortable because it's a 'big C' change, but I don't think there's any stopping it," Swan said. "I think it's progress. Not accepting it is just going to make teachers, librarians and the kids that they teach less relevant in the workplace."

(This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.)

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