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Virtual School Libraries­--The Time is Now! [Available Full-Text, Free]

By Audrey P. Church - Posted Mar 1, 2005
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Scenario 1:

Brandon realizes that his biology research project on genetics is due tomorrow. It is Sunday evening, 6 p.m. No problem! He logs on to the Internet, opens his Web browser, does a quick Google search on genetics, prints out information from a few dot-com sites, and he is good to go.

Scenario 2: Brandon realizes that his biology research project on genetics is due tomorrow. It is Sunday evening, 6 p.m. No problem! He logs on to the Internet, opens his Web browser, goes to his school library Web site, and clicks on the pathfinder created collaboratively by his library media specialist and classroom teacher. Using their suggestions, he finds basic information in an encyclopedia through Grolier Online, and journal articles and newsletters from the SIRS Knowledge Source and Infotrac Student Edition. Through the library's online catalog, he reads portions of a few Follett e-books on genetics. To finish off his research, he visits a couple of the Web sites suggested in the pathfinder. Works cited? Referring to the works cited section of the school library Web site, he soon has his references listed in complete MLA format.

Don't we all wish that the Brandons of the world functioned under Scenario 2? Yet, much of the research out there shows that this is not the case. The 2002 PEW Internet & American Life Project report, "The Digital Disconnect: The Widening Gap Between Internet-Savvy Students and their Schools" [], confirms that today's middle and high school students use the Internet heavily. "Virtually all use the Internet to do research to help them write papers or complete class work or homework assignments ... as virtual textbook and reference library. ... For the most part, students' educational use of the Internet occurs outside of the school day, outside of the school building, outside the direction of their teachers."

"Outside the direction of their teachers" frightens me. There is so much good information out there, and it is our job as library media specialists to point our students to it! There is so much bad information out there, and it is our job to teach students how to evaluate what they find. "Outside the school building" has implications as well: If we are to help students become information-literate--critical assessors, evaluators, and users of information--we have to meet them on the Web and provide library service and instruction online, at the point of need.

The free Internet, subscription databases, and e-books make information available outside of physical library walls, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. With the proliferation of data and information in electronic format, virtual school libraries must be entities of the present, not the future. We must provide access to quality resources and instruction in how to use these resources virtually. What does this mean for today's library media center? We must offer school library Web pages that provide reference and curricular information for students, and we must provide information literacy guidance and instruction online.

Best Practices: Virtual School Libraries

At Thomas Dale High School, Chesterfield County, Va., library media specialist Kathy Lehman introduced the concept of a virtual library to her faculty and staff during the 2000-2001 school year when their school library facility was undergoing renovation, the print collection was in boxes in a gym, and she wanted to maintain visibility and services. The Thomas Dale High School Library Media Center Virtual Library Web page [] offers links to online public access catalogs, subscription databases, Internet search engines and Web evaluation guides, the Big6 research model, a virtual reference desk, and--a key component--Classroom Links, class lists of hotlinks and research assignments developed through the collaborative efforts of classroom teachers and library staff. Even after the reopening of the traditional library facility, Lehman has maintained and further developed the virtual library collection and services for students and teachers.

Joyce Valenza, in the Springfield Township School District in Erdenheim, Pa., uses the Springfield High School Virtual Library Web page [] to supplement and accent services provided in her physical school library. Prominent on her page, in addition to links to catalogs and databases, the reference desk, and pathfinders for research, are links to the school's Research Guide, Online Lessons, and Information Literacy Lessons. She uses the online environment to teach search strategies; resource evaluation; and summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting skills.

Murray High School, Albemarle County, Va., is a nontraditional high school, a school of choice, which offers an experiential approach to education for at-risk students. Murray has no traditional library, so Tom Mix, social studies teacher and Web coordinator, created the MHS Library Home Page [] to provide access to electronic resources and information literacy instruction for students. In the absence of a physical library, Mix set up the virtual library Web page to provide instruction at point of need (How to Search Effectively and How to Cite Sources) as well as links to good resources (Ready Reference and databases provided by the school division, the public library, and the state).

On the Walter Reed Middle School Library Web page, Los Angeles Unified School District [], library media teacher Mark Bobrosky provides links to the online catalog, online databases, and various curriculum-related Web sites. Additionally, he gives detailed instructions for using the library (including understanding Dewey, what call numbers mean, and how to search the online catalog) and the research process (including research steps, using note cards, and citing sources).

Recognition of the need for virtual instruction in information literacy skills is evidenced by creation of the KCTools Web site by the American Association of School Librarians []. Patrons using this site receive basic instruction on search skills, evaluation of resources, and proper respect for intellectual property in the electronic environment. The Kentucky Virtual Library details How to Do Research [] and offers a tutorial [] for elementary children to "Hop Aboard the Research Rocket."

Studies done by Keith Curry Lance and others in numerous states [] show that academic achievement is higher in schools where library media programs have quality collections, library media specialists take an active role in curriculum and instruction, information literacy is taught, and information technology is used effectively. All of these elements come into play with virtual school libraries.

Taking Virtual Service a Step Further

Public and academic libraries now commonly offer "Ask a Librarian" services, either via e-mail or live chat. Are these services coming to our K-12 environment? The Florida Virtual School [] offers students enrolled in its courses a free online information service, Ask a Librarian, available via e-mail 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and live, online help from a librarian for 7 to 12 hours a day.

Rochester (New York) City School Libraries offer e-mail Ask a Librarian services []. Students complete the Web-based form and receive an answer within 24 hours during the school week.

In Skagit, Wash., six local high schools and two colleges currently offer Virtual Reference Services [] to their students as part of an Institute for Museum and Library Service-funded grant. Librarians are available at least 12 hours a day, Monday through Friday, and for limited times on weekends. When students click on the "Ask a Librarian" link, they are connected online in chat mode. If no library media specialist is available online, students are prompted to submit their question by e-mail and will receive a reply as soon as a librarian becomes available to answer their question.

Virtual Is Here

In the 21st century, we live in a digital, online environment. Periodicals, general nonfiction, and reference works are readily available and widely accepted in electronic format. Our patrons like this electronic environment. Library media specialists who ignore the fact that students prefer information in electronic format will be left behind. To survive and thrive in the 21st century, school libraries must rethink collections and services. Collections must include electronic resources, and services must be designed to reach patrons who are outside of the physical library walls.

A building-level library media specialist for 20 years, Audrey Church is now in her fifth year of teaching in the graduate school library media program at Longwood University. She is a frequent presenter at regional and state conferences and author of Leverage Your Library Program to Help Raise Test Scores: A Guide for Library Media Specialists, Principals, Teachers, and Parents, Linworth, 2003. Communications to the author should be addressed to Audrey P. Church, Instructor/Coordinator, School Library Media Program, Longwood University, 201 High Street, Farmville, VA 23909, 434/395-2682,


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