Beyond the Stacks
The School Librarian in the Digital Age.
By Cindy Long
In an age where seemingly everything is available online, will school librarians soon go the way of the card catalogue? Absolutely not, says Terri Kirk, since their role goes far beyond managing the checking-in and checking-out of all things printed and bound. “We teach students how to think,” she says.
Kirk is the librarian at Reidland High School in Paducah, Kentucky, a position she’s held since the early 1990s, the dawn of the digital era. But Kirk believes her role has never been more relevant.
“In the information age, who could be more important than a librarian?” she asks. “We specialize in information.”
Gone are the days when librarians could focus solely on stacking shelves with reference books from reputable publishers. Today, research starts with a Google search, and librarians need to help students develop critical thinking skills in order to find credible information amidst a barrage of sources.
“When researching a topic, students often start with the first source listed in the Google results,” Kirk says. “But they need to look carefully to determine whether that source is valuable and accurate or if they need to keep digging.”
It’s part of digital literacy, which Wikipedia defines as “the ability to locate, organize, understand, evaluate, and create information using digital technology.”
In fact, Wikipedia itself helps kids develop digital literacy. “Wikipedia is usually one of the first sources to turn up in a Google search,” says Kirk. “But a lot of students don’t know that the site is actually a wiki that anyone can edit. I show them how it works, and explain that it might not be consistently reliable.”
She’s often surprised by what students consider legitimate sources. When beginning research projects, they provide a list of 10 Web sites they want to use for information, and Kirk works with classroom teachers to help the students evaluate their sources. “I’ve seen students list Google,” she says. “One of them listed Comedy Central. And always, there’s Wikipedia.”
Rather than say which sites are credible and which are not, Kirk has students determine it themselves using her guideposts. She tells them to look for an author, recent dates, and extensions like .edu, .gov, or .org.
“But I’ve shown them that sometimes even a .edu site can be suspect,” she says. “I’ve taken them to a page that was posted by a university biology professor to promote his revisionist theory of the Holocaust.”
Beyond determining whether information is credible, Kirk encourages students to think about why it’s meaningful. It’s not enough to know facts, Kirk says. Kids need to know why bits of knowledge are important and what they mean to the world.
“With so much global competition, our students need to be problem solvers,” Kirk says. “I want to help them get there.”