Virtual Libraries — The Human Touch

The Quandary

This first problem I had this week when I began researching this topic was determining the difference between a “virtual” library and a “digital” library. Wikipedia offers a definition of digital library as “a library in which collections are stored in digital formats (as opposed to print, microform, or other media) and accessible by computers.” It does not include a definition for virtual library (other than calling it an “older term”) The professional literature and popluar culture seem to be equally divided as I found references to both terms in the literature, as well as lots of results for both terms in Google searches.

After exchanging emails with Joanne, and doing some reflecting on the various sites I was seeing, I decided to go with this approach. I would ignore sites that are basically repositories of stored information, such as digitized material, (for example, the Lois Hole Campus Alberta Digital Library or Voice of the Shuttle), and concentrate on sites that offer a variety of resources and library services to their patrons.

The Traditional View

One of the first articles I read was virtual SCHOOL LIBRARIES–THE TIME IS NOW!, by Audrey Church. Written in 2005, the article identifies why school library web sites first became so important.Church says, “There is so much good information out there, and it is our job as library media specialists to point our students to it! There is so much bad information out there, and it is our job to teach students how to evaluate what they find. . . . If we are to help students become information-literate–critical assessors, evaluators, and users of information–we have to meet them on the Web and provide library service and instruction online, at the point of need.”

As I read this, I thought, “This is exactly why I built my first library web page 15 years ago. The problem is that I don’t know that my current site has progressed much beyond that view!”

What Am I Looking For?

At this point it was obvious to me that I need some specific characteristics to be looking for as I searched for high-quality sites, so I turned next to Joyce Valenza’s page, A WebQuest About  School Library Websites. Her Introduction, to me, is the perfect description of what a virtual school library web page should be. Of course Valenza’s own site at Springfield Township High School Virtual Library exemplifies her description.

“Your library Web page is your second front door. It meets your students where they live, play, and work! It creates signage for students and staff. The effective library Web page pulls together, in one unified interface, all of a library’s resources–print and electronic. It offers guidance while it fosters independent learning. It models careful selection. It offers valuable public service and can redefine “community.” It can even lead users back to print. A good library Web page, whether in traditional HTML, or blog, or wiki format, offers implicit instruction and projects an important image of the librarian as an information professional.”

Whew! Sounds easy, right?

Valenza acknowledges that creating such sites is not easy, and the librarians should look around the web, find what is there, and build on the work of others. The characteristics she suggests we should judge sites on include

  • content,
  • usability/design, and
  • special features, which are features that other sites don’t have. I decided to look for sites using Web 2.0 features for this last category.

Becoming Virtual

 In their 2008 article in Teacher Librarian, the virtual teacher-librarian: establishing and maintaining an effective web presence, Annette Lamb and Larry Johnson further refine the difference between a traditional library web site and a virtual one. “Much more than a static library web page, a web presence provides an ongoing, virtual connection with students, teachers, administrators, parents, and community members.” They point out that a good web site will help the teacher librarian provide high quality resources both in and outside of school hours.

 Lamb and Johnson provide a list of steps to follow to achieve this “web presence.” These steps provide another list of criteria for identifying quality sites. These include

  • digital versions of various activities such as library orientations, tutorials, and FAQ pages;
  • 24/7 access to the library’s catalogue and online databases;
  • differentiated materials for students at different ability/grade levels;
  • activities to encourage student involvement in the site, such as blogs;
  • tools that help collaboration, such as wikis;
  • modeling innovative techniques, such as including your own videos; and
  • promoting the physical library by advertising its services or polling students.

 Building Community

In her article, The Real and the Virtual: Intersecting Communities at the Library , Kelly Czarnecki emphasizes the importance of the library in building community. “Building community: What a powerful phrase and a tremendous responsibility for a library. It is an even more powerful feeling to step back and see the community grow as a result of what you’re doing with library services to create new groups of people and new ways to share and discover information.”

Since today’s teens love to create content online, we should be encouraging them to create content online in our libraries too. “The kinds of interaction that result from teens being able to participate (through allowing access) in virtual communities and create content while at the library is a rich topic for research.” Czarnecki suggests strategies such as

  • setting up a Flickr account for your library (showing photos of teens involved in library programs),
  • sponsoring after-hours gaming programs,
  • using blogs and wikis, and
  • appealing to music-loving teens by having iTunes available after hours.

 Now I was ready to look at web sites. I decided to focus on these areas:

  1. Content – catalogue, databases, tutorials, pathfinders, currency, Ask-a-librarian
  2. Usability/design – navigation, clarity, links work, clean interface
  3. Web 2.0 features – blogs, wikis, other
  4. Student or patron involvement in the site

Looking at Sites

Site 1: Harry Ainlay High School Library

I started close to home, with an Edmonton high school page, created by stellar t-l, Rob Poole. There is wide range of content, including links to all databases, an online catalogue, FAQ’s, and much more. The site is attractive and professional looking, with dropdown menus providing easy navigation. A password-protected blog for the student book club is available. Other than some student photos, no student content is evident.

Site 2: Learning Resources – J. Percy Page

Although there is no online catalogue, Janet Jorgensen’s site has excellent content, offering extensive links to databases, E-books, some assignments, and web sites for every subject area taught at the school. The site is almost all text-based, with a clear, clean interface with no broken links. There is no Web 2.0 content. Book reviews have been posted by the Book Review Club.

Site 3: Walker Middleton School Library

This site uses a number of Web 2.0 applications used (blogs, Animoto videos, polls, collaboration wiki). The catalogue is online, but there are no other links to library resources such as databases, E-books, etc. It showcases media but almost all of the content has been created by staff, although the videos show students involved in special projects in the library. Navigation is confusing, as the left hand links don’t seem to be in any logical order. Students are encouraged to contribute book suggestions as blog comments, and there are several polls.

Site 4: Birch Lane Virtual Library

This elementary school site is a bare bones school library web site that looks rather unappealing. It has an online catalogue, and links to various web sites. A number of the links do not work. There is no student content, and no web 2.0 content.

Site 5: St. Andrew’s Episcopal Upper School Library

With an online catalogue, databases, research tools, links to many research projects, and the Ask- A-Librarian feature, this site is a superb resource for its students. Students can use instant messaging to chat with the librarian. Some research projects are posted as wikis, and students are encouraged to create wikis and blogs, although I see no student content on the site itself other than some photos of students.

Site 6: Smith Elementary Library  

This page is a strong contrast to the other elementary library site I reviewed. Content includes the online catalogue, and databases. The navigation is clear but the Books and Reading page is not working at this time. Research Projects are arranged on a page called a wiki, but actually consists of links to various other pages arranged in a wide variety of formats, none of them wikis. The strongest feature of this site is the student content on the home page, which includes podcasts, wikis, and blogs created by the students. I label this one a MUST SEE for that reason.

Site 7: Creekview High School Media Center Home Page 2007-08

My response to this site is WOW! There is lots of content here, including superb pathfinders and all kinds of research help, library FAQ, and the online catalogue. I found navigating the page a bit confusing, as there is so much on one page. This would benefit from a set of clear links at the bottom of thepage (what’s there is incomplete). This is still my vote for #1, however, because there is all kinds of student content as well as nifty web 2.0 applications, such as a PageFlakes page, various blogs, videos, and more.

Site 8: Edmonton Public Library

I love my public library site! In addition to the catalogue, we have access to many quality databases. The site offers services to various groups, including children, teens, teachers, and people new to Canada. The library has the Ask-A-Librarian service, which you can access from 9:00-3:30 weekdays, or via email. Staff have created pathfinders on commonly-researched topics, and teachers can request that one be created for their classes. RSS feeds are available for various topics, one of which is book reviews by library patrons. Navigation of the site has recently been improved, and the interface is clean and logical. I see no web 2.0 features except for a slide show of upcoming events.

The Biggest Challenge – Being Human

What have I learned from doing this research? The best school library sites are those with the strongest human component. The wonderful web 2.0 features work because caring adults make them work, and involve students in their creation. But there is another factor that I think we need to examine.

In her article, they might be gurus, Joyce Valenza identifies what for me will be the next big challenge in developing a true virtual school library. She says, “How can we be there for learners’ just-in-time, just-for-me learning experiences? I know that my own online presence scales my guidance and instruction and makes both available to students on weekends and evenings and even when they are sitting 5 feet away. Can we offer independence while we offer as-needed intervention? Can we be available to students beyond our walls and beyond our hours? Our students live online; they need their libraries online. They need their teacher-librarians online.”

While I believe Joyce is right, given limited resources, staff, and time, I wonder how we can make that work.