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Tech Trends and Challenges for K-12 School Libraries

Computers in Libraries [September 2013]

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Copyright (c) 2013 Information Today

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Abstract: Though all libraries share some core objectives, each type of library has a distinct set of issues that shapes the nature of its collections and services, which, in turn, brings different requirements to its technology environment. In the most basic terms, academic libraries focus on the management and access to scholarly materials, public libraries foster engagement with their communities through vigorous circulation of collections of broad popular interest, and special libraries have gravitated into the realm of enterprise knowledge management. Likewise, school libraries have their own distinct concerns, which are closely tied to the support of learning and the provision of resources selected for the levels of students served. The distinctive role of school libraries has fostered the development of a variety of specialized technology products. At the same time, school libraries can benefit from close collaboration with other libraries in their communities. This month's Systems librarian column explores some of the trends underway in the school library arena, including a few interesting partnerships that have emerged to strengthen their capacity to serve their students.


Though all libraries share some core objectives, each type of library has a distinct set of issues that shapes the nature of its collections and services, which, in turn, brings different requirements to its technology environment. In the most basic terms, academic libraries focus on the management and access to scholarly materials, public libraries foster engagement with their communities through vigorous circulation of collections of broad popular interest, and special libraries have gravitated into the realm of enterprise knowledge management. Likewise, school libraries have their own distinct concerns, which are closely tied to the support of learning and the provision of resources selected for the levels of students served. The distinctive role of school libraries has fostered the development of a variety of specialized technology products. At the same time, school libraries can benefit from close collaboration with other libraries in their communities. This month's Systems librarian column explores some of the trends underway in the school library arena, including a few interesting partnerships that have emerged to strengthen their capacity to serve their students.

School Library Automation

School libraries naturally differ enormously, but they share some obvious characteristics. As with any library, the core mission of K-12 school libraries involves providing information resources to their users, primarily enrolled students. Some may also include materials in their collections specifically for teachers, or a district may operate a separate resource or professional library. Collections at school libraries naturally have a very specific focus on the grade levels of the students served. Any automation system for these libraries must include features to identify materials by grade level, in support of selection and management of materials and in its search or discovery features presented to students.

School libraries pay close attention to selecting materials suitable for their students. Public libraries aim to provide titles of the broadest possible range, which often presses into controversial areas. School libraries shape their collections under a much different set of assumptions, generally needing to provide enriching and educational materials for the students, but to also ensure that they will pass the scrutiny of parents and administrators. These concerns apply just as much to electronic resources selected and in the provision of access to the web. Content filtering is a common element of a school network infrastructure. The inclusive nature of public library collections versus the restrictive parameters for schools stands as one of the key complications in collaborations between these organizations.

Large in Numbers, Small in Budgets

School libraries tend to be quite small compared to a typical public library, but the number of facilities is vast. According to a 2013 American Library Association (ALA) fact sheet, there are 99,180 K-12 school libraries in the United States compared to 16,417 public libraries. Organizationally, most schools operate within districts. Each year when I produce the annual "Automation Marketplace" report, Fm struck by the very large number of school libraries using any given ILS product. Despite these high numbers, the K-12 school library arena represents a fairly modest portion of the overall library automation industry. The spending per facility for an automation system is significantly lower than that for public or academic libraries.

Dining the course of the last decade or so, there has been a shift toward implementing library automation systems centrally through the district rather than for each school library individually. This district-wide approach results in much more efficiency and flexibility compared to the early days of school library automation where a PC-based system was installed in each library. Centralized web-based systems obviate the need to install software in each school, provide better tools for managing the resources throughout the district, and expand the body of materials available to the students.

Specialized Functionality

School libraries need functionality out of a library automation system designed to accommodate their operational needs. As noted previously, the need to handle resources according to grade level is essential. These systems also need to have easy ways to load records that correspond to materials acquired, since very few school libraries have extensive cataloging personnel. They benefit from the ability to work well with student information systems, enabling student records to be easily populated for each school year. The SIF (schools interoperability framework), which provides ways for different applications within a school or district network to communicate with each other, applies uniquely to these library automation products and not those designed for other types of libraries. The main structure of associating student records with a grade, class, or homeroom distinguishes these systems from those designed for public libraries. Circulation policies and workflows need to accommodate the school calendar, such as setting due dates corresponding to the end of each semester or term. Consistent with other kinds of libraries, ebooks have become a growing component of school library collections, as well as other types of electronic resources. Support for tablet and mobile devices is also of interest, especially for middle and high school libraries.

In addition to the core automation system, K-12 school libraries may implement a variety of related applications. Management of media resources and equipment often falls within the role of the library. Schools also need automated tools to help manage textbooks. Tracking the overall inventory of textbooks, the assignment, and the return each term can be a major undertaking, especially in large school districts. Many of the developers of K-12 school library automation systems offer a specialized product for textbook management. Increasingly the companies involved in school library automation aim to provide products and services that find use beyond the library, supporting other administrative and educational activities.

School Library Automation Companies

One of the interesting characteristics of the library automation industry involves the specialization seen in the companies relative to developing products for a specific type of library. While we see some overlap between public and academic sectors, the school and special library arena have become rather specialized. A number of companies specialize in automation products specifically for K-12 schools.

Follett Corp., a large privately held company with more than $2.7 billion in annual revenue, operates a variety of businesses that provide products and services to K-12 schools as well as a group of businesses involved in higher education. Follett School Solutions, representing a recent consolidation of four related businesses within Follett, includes among its offerings the Destiny family of automation products. Destiny Library Manager, available for individual schools or districts, is by far the most widely used automation system in the K-12 arena. Destiny has been implemented by more than half of the K-12 schools in the U.S. Follett also owns many of the legacy systems from the previous generation of school library automation, including Winnebago Spectrum, Athena, and InfoCentre gained through its acquisition of Sagebrush Corp. in 2006 and its own Circulation Plus. These once-popular systems continue to wind down, with most moving to Destiny. Follett does not target its development specifically on the library, but on the broader needs of a school district. It also offers the Aspen school information system (SIS) and a version of Destiny for textbook management. The company recently formed a partnership with Absolute Software to create an asset management system to manage and secure high-dollar items such as computers, tablets, and smartphones. Another division, Follett Library Resources, specializes in selling books to schools and recently reported that it controls 67% of this market. Overall, Follett holds a stronger position in the school automation sector that is the case with any of the other companies in its respective markets. Follett is truly the powerhouse of the school library software sector.

COMPanion Corp.'s Alexandria has been implemented by more than 12,000 library facilities and is a distant second in installation counts, after Follett, among school libraries. Book Systems offers its newer web-based Atriuum automation system, which used in almost 3,000 school libraries, and Concourse used in around 10,000 libraries. Other companies serving the school library arena include Mandarin Library Automation and LibaryWorld. SoftLink's Oliver and legacy Alice systems are used in school libraries throughout the world, but they have a relatively small presence among school libraries in the United States.

OPALS, an open source library automation system for schools, was developed and supported by Media Flex. This web-based system has been implemented by many school districts, primarily in its home state of New York but also by schools in many other states. OPALS has found considerable interest among synagogue and church libraries. LibLime Koha has also been implemented by a variety of schools in the United States and worldwide. There are also a dozen or so smaller companies that offer automation products used by school libraries.

Crossing Boundaries of Specialization

Not all the systems used in school libraries were developed exclusively by these specialized companies. The Library Corp., although known mostly as an automation company for public libraries, has a large presence in the school arena through district-wide implementations of its Library-Solution for Schools. SirsiDynix Symphony powers the massive ENFOhio that automates 2,400 libraries among the 5,000 public K-12 schools in the state of Ohio.

It's also common to see some of the automation systems developed for school libraries used outside that niche, especially in small public libraries. Since the price points of these school library systems are set quite low per facility, they are often the only products within reach of public libraries with very limited budgets. Many of the PCbased school automation systems, such as Winnebago Spectrum, Athena, and Circulation Plus, were implemented by many small public libraries. While some have since moved to systems more oriented to public libraries, others have stayed loyal to Follett and implemented Destiny. These small public libraries have very modest automation needs. Despite the basic orientation for school libraries, they perform the basic features needed by these small public libraries. With time, I anticipate that the use of these automation systems designed for schools will taper off among public libraries as other low-cost options become more established. Apollo from Biblionix is an example of a lowcost automation system for public libraries that has displaced many schooloriented systems in the small public library sector.

Collaboration and Partnerships

School library automation can be implemented according to many different organizational arrangements. Large school districts tend to be self-sufficient, implementing a centralized district-wide system. Many schools continue to rely on stand-alone PC-based automation products, although the trend is toward joining a district-wide system or other shared automation environment.

Opportunities for shared school library automation vary by state. In New York, for example, service organizations called Boards of Cooperative Educational Services provide automation services across many different districts and schools within their region. Ohio has created the ENFOhio service available to schools throughout the state for library automation and access to multimedia educational resources and electronic content.

Many school libraries participate in multitype consortia, sharing an automation system along with other public libraries. Academic or special libraries are occasionally in the mix in these multitype consortia, though I observe that most involve school and public libraries. These multitype consortia often provide students in the schools streamlined access to materials in the public libraries to supplement what might be available in their school. These multitype consortia tend to rely on automation systems more typical of public libraries. Given the significant differences in functionality expected by school libraries, some compromises must be made to gain the other advantages of a shared-automation environment.

Another type of collaboration can be seen in the form of joint use facilities that serve as a community library and a library that serves a school. Such facilities come with an element of creative friction, given the opposing dynamics of inclusive versus restrictive flavors of collections and service provision. Independent of the organizational or operational tensions, the technology environment must also be flexible enough to satisfy both roles.

Some public libraries have entered into other types partnerships with the school systems to share collections or technology. In my own locale of Nashville, Tenn., one such partnership called Limitless Libraries (limitlesslibraries.org) unites the Metro Nashville Public Schools and the Nashville Public Library to strengthen the collections of the school libraries and to allow students to easily request materials available in the public library. This initiative has grown from a pilot project launched in 2009 with four schools to 128 schools this year. The project provided support from public library systems to acquire print, electronic, and multimedia materials and to weed out dated materials that resulted in revitalized and relevant library collections in the participating schools. Limitless Libraries also allows the IDs issued by the school to serve as borrowing cards for the public library system. More than 100,000 items from the public libraries have circulated to the schools through this program.

One a much larger scale, a major initiative launched as a pilot in 2011 called MyLibraryNYC (mylibrary nyc.org) among the public and school libraries of New York City enables students to easily discover and request materials from any of the three public library systems that serve the city. The technology infrastructure that supports this initiative includes four ILS implementations under a shared discovery interface. The five boroughs of New York City are served by three library systems that each operate their own automation environments. The New York Public Library (NYPL), serving the boroughs of Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx, relies on a Millennium ILS from Innovative Interfaces to support its operations, which include four research libraries and 87 neighborhood branch libraries. NYPL has implemented BiblioCommons as its discovery interface. Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) includes 58 facilities throughout the borough, using a Millennium ILS and BiblioCommons. Brooklyn recently announced it will upgrade its Millennium ILS to Sierra. Queens Library has developed an integrated automation environment it calls daVinci that includes VTLS Virtua as its ILS component and a Drupal-based online catalog. The New York City Department of Education operates a Follett Destiny system to automate many of its school libraries.

A BiblioCommons discovery interface functions as a union catalog representing the holdings of the public and school library system, populated from the holdings of the four ILS implementations. Students in the participating schools are then able to discover and request any item from the catalog to be delivered to their school. No fines are assessed on these loans if not returned on time. The project for the 4-year pilot program was made possible through a $5 million grant from CitiGroup. In 2013, more than 400 schools are participating in MyLibraryNYC, with plans to expand to full participation of all the 1.1 million students in the public schools by 2015.

Limitless Libraries and MyLibraryNYC provide interesting examples of how school and public library systems can work together for the benefit of the students within their areas of service. We have also examined some of the options common for automating the school libraries, noting the trend for consolidating into district-wide systems. Given the tighter resources available to schools, it's important that there are more efficient and flexible options for organizational cooperation and on technology support infrastructure that are able to maximize library resources available to students.

Publication Year:2013
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Computers in Libraries
Publication Info:Volume 33 Number 07
Issue:September 2013
Page(s):26-29
Publisher:Information Today
Place of Publication:Medford, NJ
Notes:Systems Librarian Column
ISBN:1041-7915
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Record Number:18476
Last Update:2014-04-30 07:14:43
Date Created:2013-10-18 12:00:44