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THE MEDIA CENTER: From Card-O-Log to Catablog

By Mary Alice Anderson - Posted Jul 1, 2009
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In 1980, a computer programmer working for a local entrepreneur stopped by to ask if I would be interested in using an Apple II-based checkout system and online catalog. I couldn’t quite imagine the online catalog, but we did go for the checkout system and implemented it while local skeptics expected the business would fail. A couple years later at a different job, I made the leap to a computer catalog. It took me no time at all to dump the old file drawers. Innovative stuff for the early ’80s.

Multiple-drawer card catalogs have long been relegated to storing bulbs and batteries in media centers or nuts and bolts in garages. Static OPACS accessible only in the media center have become web catalogs accessible throughout our schools and beyond; WebPACS have evolved into full-featured, one-stop-shopping access points for media centers’ collections, websites, databases, customized lists of state award winners, top checkouts, ebooks, book excerpts, and thumbnail images of book covers.

The New Generation

Media specialists use these next-generation systems to create reading lists and webliographies. A second-grade teacher who loves her system explained: “It is very handy to have all of the information in one place. If I log in to the system, I have access to lists the media specialist has created … resource lists related to the curriculum classroom teachers are teaching. The lists include books in our media center related to my topic. It makes it much easier to pull books related to what we are teaching.” Another teacher loves to have students create their own reading lists at home so that they are prepared when they go to the media center the next day. Another elementary media specialist said her students love the book covers they can view online. Home access also means more parent involvement in the child’s learning. According to one media specialist: “Students still have some trouble finding the call number and then the book on the shelf, but they can show me on the screen what they want. They are really excited about the features that are more visual and interactive.”

Students at Naples (Fla.) High School access Follett Software Co.’s Destiny Quest from the school’s award-winning website maintained by media specialist and school webmaster Adam Janowski. Information about new arrivals and popular titles appears with a mouseover. Search results pop off the screen. Features such as these speak to Digital Natives and help bring libraries into the 2.0 online world. When you are done checking out Destiny Quest (, be sure to take a peek at Janowski’s colorful, student-centered media center website at (see Figure 1). It’s bound to draw students to reading with its lively and colorful interface.

Social Searching

Student reviews posted on web catalogs have led to a new level of involvement. Students are no longer just searching for books but contributing to the catalog’s content. Ivy Demos, a media center paraprofessional in Maine, coined the term “catablog” to describe these newer options. Demos, a teacher, and a library media specialist are collaborating on a grant project involving Maine authors. Destiny Webcat allows students to review and rate a book with one to five stars and write comments. Students post their book reviews, and the LMS “publishes” them if they are deemed appropriate. They have also applied for a grant to expand their project with student accounts.

Anne Marie Griffin, an elementary media specialist in Rochester, Minn., is also excited about the potential, noting: “We just recently turned the reviews feature on and our students have enjoyed it. I see it as another way to give the students ownership of their reading and their library.” Griffin and other district media specialists edit student responses to be sure they are appropriate and grammatically correct. She says:

I warned my students before they began that reviews that just said “Great book!!!!!” would be deleted. That said, I have been doing my best not to change the students’ language, but to just fix things like capitalizations and punctuation. I limit the entries to one exclamation point as well. We have seen some students who really enjoy posting reviews and have been doing so from both home and school. The opportunity to personalize the web catalog experience makes it much more enjoyable for the students.

Other vendors have created products with visual tree searching, concept mapping, acquisitions, serials management, interfaces for younger patrons, portals for accessing standards-based content and links, mobile features, and additional customization features.

These current-generation systems have long surpassed basic management designed to make life easier for busy media specialists or basic look-up stations designed to help students search for books efficiently. These systems are about advocacy, promoting reading, and helping meet the needs of 21st-century learners. They have the potential to help change the perception of the media center and involve a broader spectrum of the education community. They will no longer be only the media specialists’ domain and will require media specialists to think differently about how they do business.

Some Things to Consider

While many media specialists are excited about this blend of web catalog, Web 2.0, and, others are asking if the cost of software, hardware, and training is justified. One who contacted me asserted: “If the system in place is capable of doing what is needed—helping users find information—I think it does not need to be able to do anything more.” Another asked if having a WebPAC has influenced the number of students physically coming into the media center. “These new systems seem to have so much to offer, you would anticipate increasing circulation and use. But there is also the fear that students will fail to find what they think they are looking for,” she notes.

Will the draw of a jazzy search tool lead to disappointment or a jaded view of what they’re finding? Does pizazz in the access system mean the collections have also improved? Do high school kids find them as cool as the current teen lit and graphic novels? Some media specialists have expressed concerns about having the time to effectively manage the system and take full advantage of all it offers. This can be become especially problematic in an era of professional staff cuts, more media centers managed by paraprofessionals, or media specialists assigned to multiple buildings.

Some schools benefit from current-generation systems managed by consortiums. Media centers at several small schools in northwestern Minnesota benefit from membership in the Northern Lights Library Network that manages the online system for more than 50 rural school districts, a community college, and an early childhood center. Check out the impressive range of partnerships at

Another possibility, and a less expensive option, is open source software from vendors such as Mandarin Library Automation and Media Flex. Open source software may present potential issues of stability and management. Will the trade-off for lower costs require more in-house expertise?

Alternate Routes

With or without the luxury of next-generation catalogs, media specialists can also use wikis, blogs, or their own websites to encourage reading and promote the media center in ways that attract Digital Natives. Some media specialists do both. Pat Kuhn, library media specialist at South Brandywine Middle School in Pennsylvania, takes advantage of multiple Web 2.0 tools including Shelfari, a blog, and a wiki ( in addition to creating resource links with Destiny Quest. Kuhn’s wiki promotes reading and provides a link to the catablog (see Figures 2 and 3).

With most school media centers now automated, vendors are focusing on developing more product enhancements to create third-generation systems with functionality and greater integration capabilities that extend well beyond the media center.

Final Thoughts

Regarding the catablog, I admit to a touch of jealousy. My district currently has neither the finances nor staff to do what I’d love to see happen. I’ve gone from early cutting edge to feeling a bit left behind.

When we cleaned out some media center cupboards this spring, I discovered several card-o-logs—small card catalog sets packaged like a deck of playing cards. The first-generation computer catalog we used in 1985 was a far cry from those quaint teaching tools and a longer way from current systems. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have gotten started early in the evolution. I know to never say never.

Note: This column is not intended as an endorsement of Follet’s Destiny Quest but a sharing of information about where automation systems are headed. For more information about what other vendors are offering and automation trends, refer to Barbara Fiehn’s “Library Automaton in K–12,” Parts 1 and 2, MultiMedia & Internet@Schools, September/October 2006 and November/December 2006, plus her upcoming article in the September/October 2009 issue.

Mary Alice Anderson is a contributor to professional ­journals and is available as a conference and workshop presenter. She is the lead media specialist for Winona Area Public Schools in Minnesota and is an online adjunct ­instructor with the Online Professional Development for Educators Program in the school of education at University of Wisconsin–Stout and Minnesota State University–Mankato. She received a Top Online ­Educator recognition from SurfAquarium. Her personal websites can be found at < > and < >. Communications to the author may be sent to

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