A steady murmur of voices emanated from the Cedar Creek High School library. But as librarian Christine Finn walked toward a table of students, it wasn’t to quiet them down, but to assist in their history project creating a wiki on the Great Plains.
“We are not about shushing,” Finn said of the image of a librarian with her finger raised to her lips. “We are about connecting.”
Three local high schools opened new or renovated libraries in the past few years, including Cedar Creek, the Atlantic County Institute of Technology and Mainland Regional High School. Others have modified existing spaces to meet modern demands. All still have the familiar shelves of books. But librarians (or media specialists as they are also called) say the school library has become less a static place to look up information and more of an active jumping off point for learning.
“It’s not a container for information, it’s a gateway to information,” said Dorsey Finn, supervisor of curriculum and technology at Mainland Regional.
A survey in 2010 commissioned by the New Jersey Association of School Librarians found school librarians in the forefront of teaching students how to do research and responsibly and effectively use new technology. And yes, they still promote a love of reading, including popular fiction.
“We bought some Nooks (electronic readers), and got The Hunger Games trilogy on them for less money than buying the books,” said Atlantic City High School librarian Veronica Gaskill, who also bought some hardcover books. “It was a way to entice students to try a new technology, and they do borrow a lot of fiction.”
Fran King, president of the New Jersey Association of School Librarians, said that two years ago, when schools lost state aid and the recession ate into school budgets, many libraries were in jeopardy and some even closed. But, she said, most have rebounded as schools realized the important role they play in student learning.
“Research is done differently now,” she said. “Everything is more electronic, using databases. But students still need guidance. They may be digital natives with technology, but they don’t always know how to search effectively or responsibly. They believe if they find it on the Internet, it must be true.”
Atlantic City has upgraded all of its school libraries over the past several years, and Gaskill said she has seen the difference in students’ knowledge of how to use a library effectively.
The Atlantic County Institute of Technology library includes two technology labs for classroom use, and while the library still has a lot of books, technology is replacing some reference and textbooks, curriculum coordinator Johanna Johnson said.
“We can’t teach 21st century skills using a 19th century model,” Johnson said. “We need to use what (our graduates) are going to use.”
Use of technology, especially smartphones and tablets such as iPads, has drawbacks, including the chance that a classroom comment could become a YouTube sensation. Some schools have disabled the camera function, and librarians said abuse concerns have made other staff resistant to using the technology.
“The library is a way to model appropriate behavior,” Mainland Regional’s Finn said. “It is more like a college library here, a place to come together and collaborate.”
Mainland Regional’s library has borrowed from Borders and Starbucks to become a social hub at lunchtime, where students can work in a computer lab, buy a bottle of water from the coffee shop, or sit in comfortable chairs and read, talk or even text on their cell phones. The library hosts book talks and Poetry Out Loud events.
“It is a community builder,” Finn said of his library, which features posters of students and staff reading. “And the kids know being able to use their phones is a privilege that can be taken away. Sure, a few break the rules. But why make decisions based on what 5 percent of the students might do?”
Mainland Regional seniors said students almost never came to the library before.
“But now we hang out here, talk, do homework,” said Bella Urdinaran a senior from Linwood.
“It has good vibes,” junior Jaquan Baker said.
Cedar Creek history teacher Stephanie Tarr said she likes to bring her classes to the library where they can use laptops and work in small groups in an open setting. A high ceiling and wide bank of windows are a break from the traditional classroom.
“The students have a little more space to spread out,” Tarr said. “They’ll do their project, then just email me the link.”
Tarr said having a good librarian is an asset to the staff.
“She’s up-to-date on websites and projects for history classes,” Tarr said of Christine Finn. “She’ll send samples of new things and link us with new ideas.”
King said that with so much information now available, the librarian is also a curator, reviewing databases and websites. Finn said she also asks students what they want, and Cedar Creek’s library has a collection of audiobooks popular among students with reading disabilities and those with long bus rides.
Junior Dylan Slocum, of Mays Landing, offered some suggestions for graphic novels and said he likes to spend his free time in the library because it is relaxing.
Finn said there is a core group of graphic novel enthusiasts at the school, and she will expand her collection as the budget allows. Some shelves are still empty due to prior budget restrictions, but Finn said they will be filled.
High school libraries may also stay open after school to accommodate students, especially those who may not have a computer or Internet access at home. Gaskill just got 10 iPads and would also love to see more teachers doing lessons using smartphones, since students in Atlantic City are more likely to have a smartphone than a computer.
“There’s so much they can do with a smartphone, and it would help our students compete,” Gaskill said.
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