Chancellor: “You are obsolete, Mr.Wordsworth!”
Mr. Wordsworth: “A lie. No man is obsolete!”
Chancellor: “You have no function, Mr.Wordsworth. You’re an anachronism, like a ghost from another time….”
–From “The Obsolete Man” episode of the Twilight Zone, written by Rod Serling
The above dialogue excerpt is from an episode of the Twilight Zone (TZ) that aired on June 21, 1961 called The Obsolete Man. It is a conversation between Mr. Romney Wordsworth and the Chancellor discussing the reasons for his “liquidation”—Mr. Wordsworth is a librarian, and therefore obsolete. This episode of TZ interested me well before I even had the foggiest notion that Library Science existed. I have been watching TZ for as long as I can remember and even as a kid I could not understand what a librarian could possibly do that might even be considered obsolete. Fast forward to the recent past and and our present, rife with library closures, alternative facts, funding cuts and the MakerSpace craze, and people (including librarians) are left wondering what happens next. Where do we go from here? What is the future of libraries?
Reading is the foundation of libraries. Without reading, there is no need for them to exist.
Once upon a time…
In my mind, I can still follow the exact path I took in my elementary school library to find my favorite book. Through the door, a right after the first set of tables, through the alcove, bottom shelf on the left. There were the Dare Wright Lonely Doll books. My favorite was Edith & Big Bad Bill, a story about Edith and Little Bear encountering a rather violent, bad guy, Bill. I chose this same book time after time.
Although it is out of print, I picked up a copy of Edith and Big Bad Bill on eBay and looking at it as an adult, I can see exactly why this was the book I sought out. I was a ‘lonely doll,’ of sorts, and I had a ‘bad guy’ in my life as well. Only he was my father. At the end of this book, everything is sorted out for Edith and things go back to normal. I did not know this at the time, but things would not go back to normal for me for many years. This book gave me hope that they could. Sitting on the floor of the library at P.S. 30, a reader was born.
When children are given the chance to freely come to books of their own volition, amazing things will happen.
Mrs. LiBassi introduced me to E.B White in 2nd grade by reading aloud Charlotte’s Web. My mother bought me my own copy so I could follow along with her and when we finished as a class, I reread it independently. Then I read and reread Trumpet of the Swan. Stuart Little was next. Then books about mice, and pigs, and spiders and goslings and anything else I connected with the characters and themes in his books. By third grade I was hooked on words. I read every single Roald Dahl book available to me at the library and then read them again. Having three older sisters, I read all of Carolyn Haywood and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. I then read my mother’s books; The Life and Times of Heidi Abramowitz by Joan Rivers being my favorite; and my father’s magazines and newspapers. I relished reading for the sake of reading.
The library, for many, is the first exposure to this magic. It was magic yesterday. It is today and it will be tomorrow as well. In that, I am securely sure. For kids, this magic can serve as the jumping off point to boundless learning.
The Pleasure Hypothesis & FVR
No conversation about reading for pleasure would be complete without discussing the seminal work of Dr. Stephen Krashen in Free Voluntary Reading (FVR). According to Krashen, “There is massive evidence that self-selected reading, or reading what you want to read, is responsible for most of our literacy development…In fact, it is impossible to develop high levels of literacy without being a dedicated reader, and dedicated readers rarely have serious problems in reading and writing.”
The research on literacy and language development in Krashen’s eyes, points in the direction of the Pleasure Hypothesis: What is good for language and literacy development is perceived to be pleasant. Several studies and case histories have been done and the results of these studies are consistent with the view that reading results in language and literacy development.
There is a fantastic TED Ed lesson created by Gordon Powell that features a video of Dr. Krashen speaking on the Power of Reading. Krashen is a wonderful speaker and in the video he discusses the one word that will bring lower level readers to higher level readers. The one word that could develop academic literacy. The one word that could bring people to the highest levels of literacy. And that one word is reading.
Krashen argues that FVR is the foundation for developing passion for reading, for making connections for deeper engagement with curriculum and for developing vocabulary and the knowledge of the disciplinary/technical language of each subject’s curriculum. FVR involves reading for reading’s sake without book reports, quizzes or responses.
Practical Response on the Future of Libraries
While the rate of people that read for pleasure has been increasing, demands to be literate are swelling at a faster rate. Up until recent times, we have been living with overwhelming information scarcity. I read a quote by Google’s Eric Schmidt on TechCrunch that said every two days the human race creates as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization to the year 2003. Think about that for a second! Relatively 2,000 years worth of data compiled every TWO days. It is no wonder why there is such a 21st century misunderstanding about the the purpose of libraries!
Because we are living in a period of such staggering information glut cluttered with fake news, alternative facts, and active measures campaigns, perhaps the answer to combat this sad reality is going back to basics and acquiring critical thinking rather than just learning about it. I believe the central way to accomplish this is through reading fiction. Because of the future, words are more important than ever and our familiarity with those words and ability to comprehend and use them is critical.
Reading fiction improves brain connectivity and function, as well as increases Theory of Mind (ToM). ToM is the ability to attribute mental states (like beliefs or intentions) to oneself and others, as well as understanding that others have beliefs and intentions that are different from one’s own. In this way, fiction allows the reader to flex their imagination in a way that is similar to the visualization of a muscle memory in sports. Cognitive Psychologist Keith Oatley likens the brain to a supercomputer running a simulation game when we read fiction. We are allowed to enter the mind of the protagonist and see the world through his eyes and think his thoughts. We are him. The details we know about him, learned through his words and the words of other characters and the narrator, we readers analyze and piece together another world through words that changes us mentally after the simulation is over. The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.
Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information gathered from observation, experience, reflection, reasoning or communication. In this way, critical thinking is synonymous with fiction reading. Reading fiction widely can build ‘algorithms’ through critical thinking better than Facebook ever could write, and can allay the efforts of nefarious campaigns or clickbait come-ons. If we have learned nothing from the 2016 Elections, we are now all too aware of how fake-news is made to mislead us in order to gain financially or politically, often with sensationalist, exaggerated, or patently false headlines that grab attention.
The real educational challenge for school librarians in the future is teaching students the skills that make them careful and thorough researchers. For clarification, ‘research’ is not only done in schools and universities by students and researchers. Google defines research as “the systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions.” Research is a human skill. I could very easily change out the terms “fiction reading” and “critical thinking” for the term “research,” and the definition would still ring true. So why are we attempting to reinvent the wheel of our future role here, people?
The Magic of Books
I’d like to shift focus onto Neil Gaiman and his view that our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming. I feel that his knowledge and belief system as an author perfectly dovetails with Krashen’s research findings. I was forever changed when I read an article in the Guardian that featured a lecture Gaiman gave in 2013 to The Reading Agency, a London Based charity whose mission is to inspire people to read more, encourage them to share their enjoyment of reading and celebrate the difference that reading makes to all our lives. I have not been so affected by someone’s words as they pertain to my profession as I was having read Gaiman’s lecture.
I like that this piece deals specifically with the future. Fiction, according to Gaiman has two uses. First, fiction is a “gateway drug to reading.” What a wonderfully enlightening analogy, and so very true. The drive and motivation to know what happens next, to visualize, to question, to infer themes and motivations are all very real. These are the skills necessary in critical thinking. Says Gaiman, the simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. That means, at its simplest, finding books they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.
Second, reading for pleasure builds empathy and social skills. I love how Gaiman describes the difference between seeing a movie vs. reading a book. With prose fiction, the reader uses 26 letters and a few punctuation marks, and using one’s own imagination, a new world is created filled with people, places and things. Reading fiction helps the reader to see the world through others’ eyes and allows us to be someone else, if only for a moment, and when it is all over, we readers are changed. Gaiman describes empathy as a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals. It lets people know that the world does not have to be like this. Things can be different.
Libraries, and school libraries in particular are about freedom and equity. Libraries level the playing field between the haves and the have-nots. It is widely known that there is a correlation between children from poverty and reading scores. In a study of factors that best predicted reading scores from The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), the factors of poverty, a Free Voluntary Reading (FVR) program, and the presence of a school librarian were isolated. Poverty has a strong factor with a negative effect. The presence of a school librarian was a very strong, positive factor in predicting reading scores and its effect was nearly as strong as the effect of poverty.
According to Krashen this suggests that supplying books in a school library can mitigate the effects of poverty on reading comprehension scores. The majority of public school students in the United States are in poverty. I work in a school whose population is 100% free and reduced lunch. My students are ‘my kids’ and their reading life is very important to me. But for the school library, my kids’ access to books would be zero. In my school of 570, I circulated 15,000 books this year. No Accelerated Reader, either. That is an average of 26 books per child. Allow me to mention that reading scores in my school have been rising steadily over these past few years. I am not taking full credit for these gains but I know that what the library offers accounts for a solid part of them.
The “Future-Readyifying” of Libraries
Reading has become buried under Makerspaces, 3D printers, gadgets, and people’s visions of the ‘future of libraries’ so much so that I believe we have lost sight of our purpose as librarians and the field of school librarianship as a whole. I say that the best way to become more digitally literate is by becoming more literate. The Future Ready Initiative was launched in November 2014 by the White House Office of Educational Technology. “Future Ready” is a ubiquitous term these days it seems. I think it is important to think about the future but also to examine those who are defining the future for educational purposes.
Enter nonprofit Alliance for Excellent Education (AEE). The mission of AEE is “to promote high school transformation to make it possible for every child to graduate prepared for postsecondary learning and success in life.” AEE is funded through grants from The Bill and Melinda Gates and Macarthur Foundations as well as other corporate and private donations. Future Ready Schools is a registered trademark of the Alliance for Excellent Education.
In 2015, the Alliance created a separate project under its umbrella called Future Ready Schools (FRS) to help school districts develop comprehensive plans to achieve successful student learning outcomes. Also in 2015, the American Association of School Librarians announced their decision to join the coalition for Future Ready Schools. Future Ready Librarians is an expansion of the Future Ready initiative aimed at raising awareness among district and school leaders about the valuable role librarians can play in supporting the Future Ready goals of their school and district.
Although outside the scope of this article, I think this story from the L.A. Times about the failure of philanthropists in setting the public school agenda is timely and worth a read.
Some of my knowledge of Future Ready Libraries has come from their Facebook group, Future Ready Librarians (FRL). I will not speak to the content on this page since posts are third-party and may not necessarily reflect the views and mission of Future Ready Schools. I will however speak to the public group photo that is used for this page. Being owner and admin of many groups on Facebook, I understand the importance of those 801 x 250 pixels. This image must convey your group’s intention, purpose, validity, and value in one glance. The FRL picture depicts a group of 8 children and, perhaps their teacher. They are lounging on the floor and each is totally engrossed in a device, not interacting with one another at all. Directly behind them are bookcases packed with books shelved museum-neat. Behind them. Backs to the books. A picture is worth 1,000 words.
I feel strongly that some fundamental research about reading was ignored in a rush to conform to the Future Ready agenda. The FRL framework is lacking a major component. If we assume that the libraries of the future actively value reading and literacy development and their continuous improvement over time, we school librarians have to actively engage with the body of research and scholarship around reading and literacy development. I also feel strongly in the professionalism and ability to discern and adjust to current trends in education and librarianship that I and my school librarian colleagues posses. We are a very swift bunch and we take to change rather well. I can speak for myself and many colleagues nationwide that are Future Ready Librarians today in 2017.
The FRL framework on its own is admirable. I do appreciate the developers’ interpretation of the future and I do see value in forecasting the future. But the future is tomorrow. Not some nebulous point down the track. We librarians should be on the frontlines of the digital transformation of learning but no matter what transformation happens, reading will be as important 100 years from now as it is today. There will be no “future ready librarians” of any kind if we continue to ignore the foundational assumption about libraries in favor of the newest gimmick and fad. If READING is not part of the Future Ready equation, there is no “future” in “Future Ready Libraries,” that is the bottom line.
I am NOT anti-MakerSpace. I am NOT anti-technology. I am pro-literacy. I do not feel that we cannot have all three. Quite the opposite. I know we can be all-inclusive because I have a MakerSpace and use technology on a daily basis to facilitate understanding. I am a proponent of gaming in the library and have regular Roblox tournaments and Minecraft building sessions. But everything I do has its roots in the pure definition of the library: to provide access to books (whatever their format) and advocate for free voluntary reading. Everything is secondary to that.
As formats change in the future so will my job description but my convictions and what is in my professional psyche will not. I do not foresee ever being obsolete because I am confident in myself and the collective body of school librarians and library scholars to ensure that the school library of the future is one based on solid research in reading. Let us move forward into the future, but not with our backs to the books. Let’s instead get back to books and we will reap the fruits of our labor in a very verdant future.
Future Ready Librarians embrace change. For change to take place there has to be a beginning, and change does not necessarily minimize the beginning. For future ready librarians, that beginning is reading and literacy development. In maintaining that beginning, we are able to meaningfully respond to change and what the future brings.