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Navigating the 'Wild West' of Digital Collections in Schools

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 ( Flickr/US Army Garrison Red Cloud)

School libraries are no longer simply quiet places for students to study or check out printed materials. Many have transformed themselves into vibrant hubs of school life, boasting makerspaces, computer access, collaborative work areas, quiet zones, and many more ways for students to access information. Students are now using a variety of devices to do schoolwork and access textbooks or other class materials. To help meet their needs, librarians are scrambling to curate effective digital collections accessible through a variety of devices, but it’s a complicated and often expensive task.

“Every outgoing senior class is vastly different from every incoming freshman class,” said New Canaan High School librarian Michelle Luhtala in an edWeb webinar. “When we look at our collections, are we ready for that shift? Every year is a different cohort.”

Shifts in student population and usage patterns, in addition to a quickly changing media landscape, make the school librarian’s job difficult (if the school even has a librarian). While the e-book market is growing, it’s not yet clear how it will play out in schools where educators have diverse needs for books. Some e-books can only be licensed for a limited amount of time to schools, which might be a good thing if schools are constantly changing curriculum, but also means the school doesn’t own the book outright.

“It is still the Wild West,” Luhtala said. “Things are changing before our very eyes. That’s exciting and fascinating, but it requires a lot of attention and knowledge and it can be confusing.” In the past, Luhtala might have ordered seven print copies of a new book, now she’s ordering four print books, two e-books and an audiobook to offer various avenues for students. But it might cost $200 extra for that diversity of formats.

“My administrators have no idea that we don’t pay the same for an ebook as they do on Amazon,” Luhtala said. A book that costs a consumer $39 might cost a school $150, in part because if the school will own the ebook in perpetuity, many more people will read it than one consumer.


And school librarians aren’t just stocking library catalogues, they’re also ordering books for courses and supporting teachers with resources. Increasingly digital access to books is part of classroom instruction. At New Canaan, students read Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond every year at the same time. That’s difficult for Luhtala because that particular e-book title used to only be accessible under a year-long license, even though her students are only using it for a few weeks. That money has to be spent again the following year.

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The many ways schools use titles make it difficult for publishers to figure out pricing. Plus, they’re concerned about losing control over the intellectual property they’ve worked hard to create.

“One of the great moves that we’re seeing is that some publishers are realizing that for the same title they need to offer single user, multi user and limited licensing,” said Randal Heise, co-owner of Mackin Educational Resources. Heise’s company aggregates digital content on a platform that schools use for easy access. His company is a middleman between the needs of educators and the business interests of publishers. They worked with publishers to offer an ebook sale, for example.

“The biggest fear, and the reason the publishers didn't just jump into the ebook world, is the infrastructure wasn’t there,” Heise said. “They’ve come into this world begrudgingly.” That’s why their recognition how schools use books -- and the necessity of various forms of licensing -- is a step in the right direction.

Another possible new development that hasn’t fully been fleshed out is the “classroom license,” which would give access to a book for six to nine months, during the school year. “The classroom license is really an exciting possibility,” Heise said, although he acknowledged that right now there are a lot issues with how to keep track of such licenses.

“If you could buy access to material for three months that you could use with your students for four-to-five dollars per student, those are some economies of scale,” Heise said. “I think it’s going to take some time for people to wrap their heads around it on both sides of the industry.”

This shifting landscape might lead educators to disavow digital collections completely and stick to paper books. But Luhtala doesn’t think it’s fair to give students only one way into the library’s collection. Worse, she worries it might turn them off if they can’t access their reading in ways that are most natural to them.

“We really want the kids to have as many avenues as possible to the collection and have the most seamless entry,” Luhtala said. “They should be able to be instructed about all of those options and have the ability to make that choice.”

Many librarians see the digital collection as an inevitability and are working to make publishers aware of their needs. A new advocacy organization called Transform Your School Library has even begun serving as an intermediary between educators and publishers. Heise helped start the organization.

“Tell us what you want,” Heise said. “Tell us where you’re going. Tell us what’s not working for you. The whole industry gets better when we get better. We’re sort of the little engine that could.”

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