Librarians – a Dying Breed?

I wandered into the State Library of Western Australia a few days ago, and it set my grey cell into thinking about how libraries and librarians function in today’s world.

This is against the backdrop being told “Hush!” in a loud whisper in libraries as a child, and even today the Reading Room at the British Library may still be a “silent zone”.

Libraries in the Information Age

Libraries have always been about information, be it fact or fiction. The Dewey Decimal Classification is a wonderful way of organising the books containing that information. Today we have search engines, and we can access information in less than one second, which is less time than it takes to pull down a book from a shelf and open it. From that, we might conclude that libraries and librarians have no further place in today’s world. However, I would argue the opposite.

An Historical Perspective

Changes in technology lead to changes in the way that society operates. Examples of the stage coach and 35mm film come to mind: the stage coach companies fought for their lives when the railways arrived, and 35mm film has given way to digital cameras. Yes there are still stage coaches and 35mm film, but these are now specialised markets. But not all changes in technology necessary lead to the abandonment of an earlier technology. Those of us with memories long enough will remember the days when cinemas were all complaining about the arrival of television being their death knell.

For a more balanced view, I would argue when a new technology comes along, society takes advantage of the best of both technologies, and that the older technology can also adapt. The old “flea pit” has evolved into today’s IMAX cinema while we also have video-on-demand via the Internet.

The Library of Today

Libraries have evolved. Even my local library, serving a population of only a few thousand, has computers that visitors can use to access the Internet. I also make book requests via e-mail; this a norm with my local library, even though my child within finds this rather peculiar.

Librarians, as a breed, are still concerned about locating resources for people – it is part of their vocation. I see this every time I walk into a library. They know all the ins and outs of things like inter-library loan – my local library is now used to me asking for titles that are not available even at the State Library.

There is also the questions of the quality of the information that is available. The Internet is a wonderful resource for finding information, but it is not always accurate. Until very recently, it could be difficult to track down peer-reviewed academic papers. While misinformation on the Internet can be merely annoying, it has the potential to be dangerous or even life-threatening if you are looking for answers to medical questions, for example.

In cases like that, ask your librarian for sources of background information, and then use that information to better understand what your doctor tells you.

In Conclusion

Are librarians a thing of the past? No. Society still needs them, and we should value them more.

Teaching to the Test

My Thanks To …

My thanks go to Tom Whitby (web site: for his initial tweet, and to Cathy Brophy (twitter: and Dawnelai (web site: for their contributions to the ensuing discussion.

Tom’s Tweet

Tom’s original tweet was “Lightbulb Moment: If every tchr saw the exact test their kids will get at the end of the year and spent that year teaching to that test-Win”, and it made me wonder: “Win? Who’s winning?”. The answer of course is “nobody”.

This set me off on my high horse.

Of Tests

I believe that every serious educator would accept that tests are essential. In its most simple form, it is the moment-by-moment assessment that every teacher does (or at least should do) on their learners so as to guide his/her next step in the teaching/learning process. In a more formal context, tests (or examinations) allow prospective employers to choose people that are appropriate for their workplaces. And therein lies the issue. It appears from my little rabbit hole that there is a conspiracy of assumption, that assumption being that tests are (a) a good measure of the assessees capabilities, and (b) what the tests measure are well matched to employers’ needs. If you listen to the “music behind the words” of a lot of educational discussion (or “edubabble” if you prefer) this message comes across loud and clear to me at least. But tests can be worse than useless.

By way of providing an example, the Australian Qualification and Training Framework attempts to match assessments against employers’ needs. Then why, in 2008, was there a specific requirement to teach an outdated version of a word processing package, and even more disastrously the requirement that students be able to format a floppy disc? When was the last time you even saw a floppy disc? We are wasting everybody’s time by teaching these things.

The Pace of Change

Some subjects change slowly. The English grammar that I see being taught in schools today closely matches what I remember from over four decades ago. While new words have appeared, and spellings have changed (no, a “gaol” is not something you find in a game of football), such things as sentence construction and single/plural word forms have stayed the same.

The same cannot be said of information and communications technology (ICT). 40 years ago the phrase “blu-ray disc” did not exist. Some technologies can come from nowhere to mainstream in a matter of months: twitter is a case in point. As educators, we need to empower learners to work with these new technologies in the most effective way that we can.

Da Capo

Back to Teaching to the Test. Cathy tweeted “yep I know I have a teacher who is trying to do just that-he has been given the message it is THAT important-he fears for his job”. Think on that for a moment: any teacher that is REQUIRED to teach to an out-dated test is being put in a truly appalling position, and is a cog a very dysfunctional education system.

Cathy went on “I am struggling w it bcause I feel we (as admin or those who influence admin) need to do a better job bridging that gap”. Exactly.

A Suggestion

As an educator, I raised my concerns about outdated assessment requirements here in Australia. I was informed by the top body for that subject that it takes three years to get such changes through “the system”. In a discipline that changes as fast as ICT, this means that we are teaching today’s children about yesterday’s topics. To put it into a historical perspective, it is like assessing people on how well they hitch up a pony to a trap as part of the driving test.

We have two issues here: (1) How to make the details of the assessment more relevant to “real life”, and (2) How to bring the assessment criteria up to date.

In my own specialist area (ICT) I have seen countless examples of learning requirements that were hopelessly wide of the mark (no pun intended) even when they where first written. Much more care and consideration needs to be given to more closely match the learning outcomes with employers’ needs. While acknowledging that those outcomes can never be perfectly matched (every employer has slightly different needs), and working as I do in both inside education and outside, I know it can be improved a lot.

We also need to shorten the “cycle time” between developments in ICT and changes in the learning outcomes. Basically, if a new technology has become widespread six months prior to the start of an academic year, then it should be being delivered in that academic year. Not to do so is to do a dis-service to our learners, and thereby hamper the country’s economy.

And how might those people who define the learning outcomes (or write the curriculum documents, phrase it however you like) feel about the prospect of all this extra work? Probably with a “Yes, but”, meaning that they lack the resources to do it. Then it is time to work at the political level to argue the case for allocating the necessary resources to those people. Get them to read bad-tempered articles like this.

How might teachers feel? I hear no end of grumbling from fellow lecturers whenever a new curriculum document comes out, typically once every three years in this part of the world, compaining that they are going to have re-write all their delivery and assessment resources. I have very little time for that attitude: if you have prepared your resources at a suitably fundamental level in the first place, then any changes that you need to make should be minor. And if you want to ask me if I am being pie-in-the-sky, I will answer “No, been there, done that”. And if you are delivering learning in the fast-moving world of ICT and you do not expect to produce (or at least somehow obtain) at least one chapter’s worth of new delivery and assessment resources every year, then I have just two words for you: “Get out!”. If you are not fully committed to the process of continuous improvement, then we might as well give up altogether, and go running around in loin cloths and living in caves.