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School Librarians Adapt to Times

January 29, 2002

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) _ The cartoon in Elena Rodriguez’s office shows a librarian at her desk behind a nameplate that reads, ``Search Engine.″

Rodriguez, the librarian at Gunston Middle School, gets a kick out of the reference to Internet sites that retrieve information online.

``It fits so naturally into what librarians have always been doing,″ she said.

The demands of technology and higher academic standards are changing the roles of librarians, creating a new breed of educators who can shift gears from ``Hamlet″ to HTML, from Gogol to Google. Even their new title _ ``media specialist″ _ gives them a high-tech aura.

In addition to checking out books, students at Gunston can take part in an online book discussion group and learn how to build their own Web sites. Like many other librarians, Rodriguez teaches classes with more frequency as schools demand student proficiency in basic skills. Three days a week, she keeps the library open after school so students can do homework, browse for books or surf the Internet.

On a recent morning, a class of sixth-graders filed into the expansive, high-ceilinged library and got to work at a bank of computer monitors, clicking their way to a Web site Rodriguez created for their class project on alternative energy. Students chatted in low voices as another group across the room asked Rodriguez to help them translate English phrases into Spanish.

``There’s a lot going on,″ Rodriguez said. ``It’s not necessarily quiet all the time.″

Many of the same skills that make librarians indispensable in school are now making them more attractive to the private sector.

``They end up climbing a career ladder that takes them out of the classroom or out of the library,″ said Leigh Estabrook, a professor and former dean of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Even with the sagging economy, many new college graduates with librarian credentials can earn much more in an entry-level tech job than a school library. Even if they stay with a school district, many librarians are lured into better-paying jobs running or repairing computer systems.

As the average age of school librarians keeps increasing, there’s a growing gap between available jobs and the number of candidates willing to fill them. Several analyses suggest that as many as half of the nation’s librarians will retire in the next decade or so.

To help battle the shortfalls, Estabrook said, many universities now offer summer and online courses for teachers and school aides _ employees who often want to become librarians but don’t have time for coursework.

Now that computers and the Internet are ubiquitous in schools, librarians spend more time online. Several librarians said they are less search engines than gatekeepers, filtering out irrelevant, useless or even dangerous information.

In the past, librarians had to stretch tight budgets to buy new books, update encyclopedias and renew magazine subscriptions.

``Now the biggest problem kids face is too much information _ and how to sort through it and evaluate it,″ said Peggy Hallisey, the media specialist at Burlington, Mass., High School. She and others say they’re often helping students look critically at Web sites to learn if the information presented is accurate and unbiased.

``In the old days, you could trust a book, more or less,″ she said. ``You could look at the publisher. Now they have to figure this out for themselves.″

In general, librarians’ groups oppose movements to impose broad filtering on school computers, as required by federal regulations.

The demands of higher academic standards are also pushing librarians to teach more lessons than ever, aligning their programs to teachers’ requirements as they teach basic literacy and research skills.

``Everything I do in here supports somebody’s curriculum,″ said Julius Zuke, librarian at Baltimore’s Lake Clifton Eastern High School. ``Nothing in here happens unless the teacher and I sit down ahead of time and hash it out.″

Many librarians said the Internet has changed things for the better, but that the endless search for good books will always come first.

``Books are still a pretty big part of what I do,″ said Rodriguez, 44, a former early childhood teacher. She’s working her way through a foot-high stack of book reviews after trying to convince students that books usually give them better information than the Internet.

``That’s a constant revelation to these kids,″ she said.

___

On the Net:

American Association of School Librarians: http://www.ala.org/aasl/

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