Is Stocking Library Shelves with Nonfiction Content a Waste of Money?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the school library this week and I’ve come to a conclusion that might just be half-baked and is definitely going to rile more than a few librarians up:  The cash that schools spend stocking nonfiction titles in the library is wasted and would be better spent on classroom devices that can be used to access the web.

Kinda makes you want to scream Lithuanian curses at the computer screen, right?  If you were here, you’d hit me for even suggesting that books bought by libraries are a waste of money, wouldn’t you?  How could anyone ever hate books.  Or libraries.  Especially a teacher.

#sheeshthisguy

Gimmie a chance to explain:  My learning team is restructuring a part of our day to create a Genius Hour for some of our students.  Like other teachers who have experimented with turning a part of each school day over to students, my hope is that our Genius Hour will be a time where my kids learn about things that THEY are passionate about, whether they are defined in our state’s curricula or not.

I introduced Genius Hour on Monday and since then, kids have been sussing out topics that move them.  Every time they pitch a topic to me, though, I cringe because I know full well that we don’t have the resources — either digital OR print — to support their studies.  The entire week, in fact, has been an experiment in frustration as 30 kids wait to use one of my two classroom computers to begin looking for resources for their Genius Hour projects.

The experience led to this Tweet:

 

Sheila May-Stein —  a public librarian in Pennsylvania — pushed back, arguing that well stocked library collections built by media professionals working in tandem with classroom teachers to identify student interests could meet my needs just as well as access to the internet:

 

Now PLEASE don’t get me wrong:  I am NOT arguing against the importance of libraries OR librarians.

I work in the local public library three or four times a week and am constantly inspired by the vibrancy that surrounds me.  There is literally something beautiful about people coming together in a central location to learn and to study and to read and to grow — and librarians play a vital role in supporting that work.  Heck, just last month I was singing the praises of the library publicly on Twitter.

But I’m incredibly skeptical about the ability of a librarian to build a nonfiction text collection that can meet the ever-changing interests of today’s kids.  

There are just too many interests and too few dollars to go around.  Worse yet, class schedules — for both students and the library — automatically limit the times that students can get to the stacks sitting on the first floor.  That means even if we DID have books on the topics that move my kids, those books would rest just out of reach until we could arrange a visit to sign out titles.  The result of these sad realities is students who are forced to study what they CAN study instead of what they WANT to study.

In five short days, momentum for our Genius Hour has died as my kids realized that the physical limitations of our library’s collection and the lack of internet connected devices in our classroom would play a HUGE role in defining their studies.

They saw through my “you can study ANYTHING you want as long as it moves you” message pretty darn quickly.  What I really meant was “you can study ANYTHING you want as long as you are willing to wait in line for the two computers we have in the classroom OR as long as you are lucky enough to be interested in a topic that our library happens to have books about.”

#crappytradeoff

In a perfect world, there’d be a bajillion dollars set aside to buy a bajillion books on every nonfiction topic for a bajillion library shelves.  Schools would have six librarians to manage the collection, constantly adding titles based on the changing interests of the students in their buildings.  Coding’s hot?  Let’s get some books!  Someone’s interested in the lost art of macrame?  Let’s get some books!  The sixth graders are curious about animal dentistry?  Let’s get some books!

But we don’t live in a perfect world, so maybe it’s time that we stop building nonfiction collections completely.

If underfunded education budgets are going to leave us stuck in a limited world, maybe the money we spend filling shelves with books about a limited range of topics that can be accessed only when schedules make it so would be better spent on devices that can provide kids with access to the unlimited sea of content on the web that surrounds them every minute of every day.  Give a kid access to a really great nonfiction collection in the library and he can occasionally study the topics that someone else figured he’d find interesting.

Give a kid access to the web and he can study literally anything RIGHT NOW.

Does this make sense or am I talking crazy again?

________________________

Related Radical Reads:

Teaching Nonfiction Reading Skills in Science Classrooms

Biographies Matter

Message from Myers: Reading is NOT Optional

Are YOU Looking to Buy a Boy a Book for Christmas?

 

18 comments

  1. Bryant McEntire

    Hi Bill,
    What a great topic. And I am familiar with your context having worked in BCS near Asheville. Triage seems to be a common educational theme nationally for sure. This is my first time on your blog so I keyed in quickly that you are in Raleigh. I now serve as a Teacher Librarian at an International Baccalaureate diploma program school (MS to HS) in Hong Kong. Rather than actually enter the discussion about NF collection vs web access that you posit, I simply want to say thank you for starting the conversation because it is such reading and follow up commentary that are the seed beds for new ideas. I started a web based program called IBOB (www.intlbob.com) just this year and have been involved in other Battle of the Books (BOB) programs consistently since the late 90s. North Carolina has one of the best tete-a-tete BOB programs in the country. Having said that, it has always bothered me how our reading programs do tend to focus almost exclusively on fiction. Sure, we throw in the occasional NF title or Bio but lets get the pink elephant exposed and recognize it for what it is. Someone commented and pointed this out. And behold a seed was planted: why not shift the way BOB has been done traditionally and give teachers and students options from a broader range of titles annually that are all NF based? This would bring immediate ‘value addedness’ to the NF ‘stacks’ as you say in school libraries. Shift the database of questions away from simply book titles and author names to actual content. The “Horrible Histories” by Terry Deary come to mind. This could be very easily facilitated and sustained by students themselves as they could generate the questions to feed the database. I would willingly fill this niche and have a colleague here in Hong Kong who has written a database that can handle the very complex distribution requirements so that this idea can have legs with tremendous return on investment. Again, thank you for spurring us on.

  2. Pingback: Non-Fiction Friday | Doing Dewey
  3. Jennifer

    Hey Bill,

    I think the answer to this (as with most questions) all depends on what student outcomes we’re looking for.

    If we’re talking about informational text (digital vs analog) for research then it’s hard to argue for print simply because by the time it hits the shelves, it’s already out of date. Plus, some educational non-fiction titles are often no more accurate/reliable than the most poorly edited wikipedia article.

    However…

    If we’re talking about reading and the teaching of reading, I think there’s a case to be made for access to high quality texts in both places. I’ve seen some research that indicates that reading on the page and reading on a screen activates different parts of the brain. I think the jury is still out when it comes to knowing if digital reading results in the same kind of cognitive constructs as analog reading does. Until we know that for sure, and probably after we do too, it seems preferable to provide their brains with varying and diverse types of neurological kindling.

    If we’re talking about inquiry, discovery and making new knowledge from old knowledge, (which is what libraries should be about, in my humble opinion) then I think, again, there’s a case to be made for both. How print non-fiction is organized (with glossaries and indexes and bibliographical notes etc., can provide scaffolding for kids who are trying to suss out the relationships between things. It can also give clues to the author’s bias as well as help kids construct their own ideas about how to organize their works in ways that make them easier to digest for new readers.

    And finally, if we’re talking about letting kids explore topics, tap into their passions and generate their own questions, then again, I think they need access to high quality texts that are both digital and analog. Both you and your previous commenters have talked about serendipity so I will only add that I agree. *high five* However, I think it’s also important to note that unless we go through some pretty extensive lengths to ensure otherwise, kids (and adults) who access information from the web, do so through algorithms that are designed for one purpose only: to sell them stuff. The more they search, the more their searches are customized to increase the odds that they’ll click on an ad and, as such, results that vary from the opinions/views that the algorithm thinks the searcher values, become fewer and fewer. And there ain’t nothing serendipitous about that. More and more libraries are going to “genre shelving” or the book store model as a way to build bridges between kids and information, but even the Dewey Decimal System isn’t a commercial venture. No system is perfect, but to me there’s value in providing kids access to information in an environment whose purpose and mission isn’t based on profit margin.

    Unfortunately, I am not at all convinced that any of these are the actual reasons behind why monies are spent on nonfiction print for libraries (though, I have to tell you, in my experience very little money is being spent in libraries at all these days). Still… if you are lucky enough to have a library that is flush with funds for non-fiction texts, I think there’s a lot of good that can be done for kids with those resources.

    j

    • Bill Ferriter

      Jennifer wrote:

      However, I think it’s also important to note that unless we go through some pretty extensive lengths to ensure otherwise, kids (and adults) who access information from the web, do so through algorithms that are designed for one purpose only: to sell them stuff. The more they search, the more their searches are customized to increase the odds that they’ll click on an ad and, as such, results that vary from the opinions/views that the algorithm thinks the searcher values, become fewer and fewer. And there ain’t nothing serendipitous about that.

      ———————–
      This is an incredibly important point that I hadn’t considered, Pal.

      By pushing kids to the web for nonfiction content, I’m feeding that corporate maw — and the moments that I perceive as serendipitous while searching the web ain’t really serendipitous after all.

      Thanks for adding that to the conversation. Now I’ve got something else to wrestle with!
      Bill

  4. K. Lee De Groft

    Ah, non-fiction in a school library is a beast that needs to be poked and prodded. A couple of issues arise. One: it is time to move away from the Wilson or Follett recommended non-fiction titles that “should” be on school library shelves. We recently completed a targeted weed of our nonfiction collection removing many such titles that had not been checked out once in the school’s sixteen year existence. It takes on-going interaction and conversation to then add titles (not tomes, no more 400+ pagers, please) that speak to and spark student’s natural interests. Once in the collection they need to be displayed with bells, whistles, links, audio and video.

    Two: Reading nonfiction takes a major nosedive in middle school where “reading incentive programs” primarily reward only fiction books, the longer the better. It is the work of librarians to do whatever they can to make nonfiction accessible and engaging and hope that ship has not yet sailed and their interests can be recaptured. Ditch the reading for points programs that force students away from where they would naturally go in a library.

    Three: Once on the web, send students where they can find what they want, such as books.google.com where I recently previewed almost the entire contents of “Small Animal Dentistry” and “New Macrame!”

    • Bill Ferriter

      K. Lee wrote:

      Three: Once on the web, send students where they can find what they want, such as books.google.com where I recently previewed almost the entire contents of “Small Animal Dentistry” and “New Macrame!”

      ———————-
      You win, K!

      That made me laugh out loud.

      Thanks for sharing — and for your insights on both the challenges of weeding out a nonfiction collection and keeping kids engaged in nonfiction content.

      Bill

  5. Pingback: This May Shock You, but I REALLY DO Love Libraries, Librarians AND Nonfiction! | The Tempered Radical
  6. agarry22

    My first inclination is to tell you that this is a conversation that students have been having for years. They repeatedly say that they think the library should be a place to relax, collaborate, and learn. The space should be about individual and collaborative time as they utilize all sorts of information (paper-based or digital). Kids will tell you that they want less non-fiction and more fiction in the library. I am not sure I understand the notion that the web is not organized for randomness and stumbling into learning, if anything the web is the best example of how we stumble into new ideas and learning.
    As far as the access question goes, I think that your district has been fighting a fight that they need to give up. If your kids were able to bring their devices to school your Genius Hour would have been a huge success. You would have enough devices to supply those kids that don’t have something to bring and the barrier would be removed. Not sure why this is not more of a conversation in the county?????????????

  7. Paul Cancellieri (@mrscienceteach)

    Wow, what a great topic and I totally dig the conversation that has started here.

    I’m with Chris about the difference between non-fiction and reference books. My own 10-year-old son reads almost exclusively nonfiction books when he has a choice. And, I think that he often has the serendipitous experience that Mike wrote about. Without that combination, I don’t know that Cole would be the avid reader that he is today. And, we are a house chockfull of internet-connected reading devices. He just prefers the printed page (a hipster-ish quality that I don’t share with him).

    Plus, the issue of cost is not irrelevant. As I understand it, those limited funds that you referenced, go a lot farther when purchasing paper books than electronic databases or hardware. Given the choice, does Genius Hour trump serendipitous nonfiction reading?

    Not in a world where so many students can do the former at home, but the latter only seems to happen at school these days.

    • Bill Ferriter

      Paul wrote:

      Plus, the issue of cost is not irrelevant. As I understand it, those limited funds that you referenced, go a lot farther when purchasing paper books than electronic databases or hardware. Given the choice, does Genius Hour trump serendipitous nonfiction reading?

      ————————–

      This is the key question, Paul — and it’s a good one. Kids ARE engaged by nonfiction content, and given the role that nonfiction plays in our world, I want them to have as many interactions with nonfiction as we can possibly provide regardless of format.

      A related question is would we encourage MORE serendipitous encounters with nonfiction content by spending more on digital access than we do by purchasing print content for the media collection?

      As is currently happens, those serendipitous moments happen infrequently at school simply because classroom schedules and the library schedule make it difficult to get kids to the nonfiction content. Digital access would address that challenge.

      I don’t know much about the cost of either resource, however. My vote will go to whatever resource allows us to buy as much nonfiction content as possible.

      Bill

  8. M. Stewart

    This day and age, technology rules everything. This article was about nonfiction books, and not the need or utilization of librarians, because they are very much needed. Nonfiction books, for the most part is that section in the library that students only go into when they have to research or they are forced to set foot in there by their instructor. Kids love fiction and that is fine. But, even for those students that enjoy looking into the nonfiction section, it is true that with publications, there is only a certain point the book can reach because print cannot be updated. The internet is a vast resource available for the information needed and it has the opportunity and capability of being updated, making the information available more credible. It is more up to date, and current for the topics of choice. I don’t think that the nonfiction section should be removed, but I think that it should be drastically cut down due to the lack of utilization to its more efficient capacity. What can I say, I’m only a student.

  9. Chris Wejr

    Hey buddy. I think the key piece here is that you are talking about traditional libraries and non-fiction as reference books. I would agree with you that we should not spend too much of our resources on reference books that quickly become outdated. However, I would argue that your frustration makes the role of modern libraries (learning commons) with effective teacher-librarians that much MORE important. A modern library is not an either/or of books vs devices but has both – along WITH a teacher-librarian with the experience to help students develop a joy in reading based on their interests (this is where non-fiction stories can be HUGE), help teachers and students with projects and inquiry-based learning (often co-teaching), and help students and teachers become more skilled at researching using the many tools available (online, offline).

    You raise an important question but I think this is very context based. In your situation in which resources are almost zero and teachers have to buy resources out of their own pockets with no support and a miniscule salary, this is a valid question. In other contexts, I see the huge benefit of a well-stocked library with non-fiction books that students (often boys) cannot wait to read and dive deeper into the STORIES. Websites for references are great but, as you know, they do not compare to getting engulfed by a good story. I think also about local stories that are often available through non-fiction books. If we had only devices with access to e-books and websites/apps, we might miss out on the local stories only available in books.

    I think that we need to always question how we prioritize our resources and that is why we need to prioritize teachers (including teacher-librarians) and learning commons models that place learning with a variety of resources with adult support at the forefront. (again, I realize how context is so key in this discussion).

    If we consider non-fiction as solely reference, I see moving away from this. If we consider the endless powerful stories that can be found in non-fiction, we need to ensure that these continue to be available in out classroom and school libraries.

    • Bill Ferriter

      Chris wrote:

      A modern library is not an either/or of books vs devices but has both – along WITH a teacher-librarian with the experience to help students develop a joy in reading based on their interests (this is where non-fiction stories can be HUGE), help teachers and students with projects and inquiry-based learning (often co-teaching), and help students and teachers become more skilled at researching using the many tools available (online, offline).

      —————————-
      Yup. Definitely agree, Chris. Teacher librarians and learning commons are both essential for a vibrant learning space.

      I also agree that this shouldn’t be an either/or question — but the sad truth is that at least in our setting, it seems like EVERYTHING is an either/or based question. There simply aren’t enough funds to go around.

      Chris also wrote:

      In other contexts, I see the huge benefit of a well-stocked library with non-fiction books that students (often boys) cannot wait to read and dive deeper into the STORIES. Websites for references are great but, as you know, they do not compare to getting engulfed by a good story.

      ————————–

      I’m with you here, too — and am CONSTANTLY buying nonfiction books for my classroom library. In fact, I give my librarian a ton of guff because we do a schoolwide reading project every year called Salem Reads that is always centered around a fiction title. Not only do I think that nonfiction is important, I know that it can be incredibly engaging.

      I just know that right now, I’ve got a Genius Hour that is pretty darn hard to pull off because I can’t get my kids connected to any resources — print or otherwise — on their diverse interests.

      Any of this make sense?
      Bill

      • Chris Wejr

        I hear you when it comes to Genius hour and other inquiry projects. My concern is that there are people that actually believe books are not necessary and we can just use devices. The ideal place is to meet in the middle and have both.

        • Bill Ferriter

          Chris wrote:

          My concern is that there are people that actually believe books are not necessary and we can just use devices. The ideal place is to meet in the middle and have both.

          ——————-

          I’m with you, Chris — and I really DO wish that we could have both. But if I were forced to choose — which is all too often the uncomfortable truth in schools here in the States — I’d take devices simply because they give me access to more content from more places.

          It’s a sucky tradeoff for sure, but sucky tradeoffs are the name of the game here in the American public school system!

          #ickchat

          Bill

  10. gfrblxt

    Ah, because I’m feeling curmudgeonly about technology at the moment…:)

    The argument that there are too many interesting things out there in the world to put books about into a library has always been true. But what makes libraries special – unique, even – is that they are as much about serendipity as they are about focused research. I’m completely unconvinced that you can learn about new things as serendipitously on the Web as you can when poking around the shelves in a well-stocked library. Serendipity on the Web means finding another cat video or celebrity fashion disaster. The difference is in the fact that libraries are curated – the Web isn’t.

    Also – the fact that kids only get specified times in the library is a flaw in scheduling, not in the existence of libraries themselves. Perhaps a school could be designed in which the library/media center/internet hub/whatever was accessible to all kids any time they (truly) needed it?

    • Bill Ferriter

      Mike wrote:

      I’m completely unconvinced that you can learn about new things as serendipitously on the Web as you can when poking around the shelves in a well-stocked library.
      ——————–

      I’m with you here, Mike — I love that when kids DO find things serendipitously in the library, it’s going to be something that is age appropriate and selected for a reason by someone with experience. There’s no doubt that the quality of the collection built by a librarian is going to be better and more efficient to navigate than the quality of the content that kids find trolling through the Internet on their own.

      Mike also wrote:

      Serendipity on the Web means finding another cat video or celebrity fashion disaster.

      —————————-

      This is entirely possible, Mike — but if that’s what’s happening, we’ve failed. The flaw isn’t in the web — it’s in how the user is searching the web, which is a lesson that we’ve got to start doing a better job teaching.

      Let me put another crazy thought out there: Don’t nonfiction collections curated by the library make it too easy on our kids? Aren’t we enabling them to avoid the hard work of internet search when we see the library as our primary resource collection?

      The uncomfortable albeit simple truth is that our kids are going to get most of their information from the uncurated web during their lifetimes. That’s just how adults operate. Turning to an internet connected device is just plain easier than finding the time to get in the car, head to the library and sift through the stacks.

      If that’s the case, shouldn’t our kids spend MORE time learning to search the web than learning to search the curated stacks?

      Thanks for thinking about this with me,
      Bill

      • gfrblxt

        Bill –

        Love this conversation 🙂

        I’m thinking about serendipity some more. When I think about it, I am literally imagining someone walking into a library (or, truthfully, a good bookstore, of which ever fewer exist), randomly walking into some section of the shelves, looking at the spines of the books there, finding something that grabs their interest, and walking out with that book. Then taking it home, engaging with it, and wanting to learn more – thus (in olden days) returning to the library.

        Viewed in that way, I do think the flaw is in the Web itself, because I do not see any way in which an equivalent experience to the one I just described can get started. I certainly agree that the Web is great once the person has decided that they want to know more about something. But the initial experience, that randomness that takes place within a curated environment, isn’t something the Web is designed to do. If such a thing exists, I’d love to learn about it.

        I do agree with you that we do need to help kids learn how to do research using the resources available on the Web better, and I know there are teachers doing that. Learning that skill is the 21st-century equivalent of my generation’s learning to use a card catalog. But that serendipity, that randomness within the order that is a library, we are rapidly losing, and I think that’s something worth fighting to keep.

        -Mike