Library Science

Library used to be a science (at least if the librarians at the Rare Books Room were to be believed). Now it’s a technology.

Whatever the term, libraries are a tool that few schools within CPS have the resources to run. A library isn’t simply a room full of books; it is an organized, orderly room full of books with a dedicated person who can help students locate (and assess the quality of that) information. According to Raise Your Hand survey data, elementary schools cut 51 library positions in 2013-2014.

But CPS Central Office is making lemonade of this sour situation. At today’s PTA Advisory Committee meeting, our speaker was Colleen Lambe Herman, of the (tiny) CPS Department of Literacy. Ms. Herman is Library Technology Coordinator for the District, working to support elementary school librarians as well as having responsibility for the District’s virtual library of books and databases.

As both a fan and early adopter of computer technology, I welcome this program. Now when The Girl tells me at 7 o’clock on a Sunday night that she needs a primary source for her unit on land mass, no longer must we panic. Instead, we can use a simple CPS-provided username/password combination to access virtual books via Follett, Brittanica, MackinVIA, Gale, and one other publishing source/vendor library (there are 5 in all). We can also access 9 databases using the same credential combination. From these areas, we can complete a screen shot of the content, or she can take old-fashioned paper-and-pencil notes.

If, in the course of her research, The Girl finds a novel she wants to read while searching the vendor catalogs, she can check out a copy for two weeks via Overdrive download, using her CPS login credentials ( email and password). The copy returns to the virtual shelf automatically when the borrowing period is complete. If she uses the simple CPS-provided username/password combination, the virtual book returns to the virtual shelf when the session ends, leaving it free for another student within the 400,000-student system to look through.

While I like going to the library and enjoy the tactile sensation of reading a paper book, I’ve spent enough time digging through microfiche and even online databases (with their paywalls, limited use, and non-transferrable licensing, among other problems) to know that having access to these resources is huge for the tech-enabled, tech-empowered student of today. As a parent of three, who have varying levels of interest in and need for library research, this is a win for effective use of parental time in homework assistance. I’m super excited about this.

There are a few problems with the system as Ms. Herman presented it to us. Putting aside the issue of technology infrastructure for a moment, the biggest problem in this program is that people don’t really know about it yet. Ms. Herman acknowledged this; her department is tiny and they don’t have the resources to cultivate relationships with and conduct training for liaisons at individual schools across the District. I almost don’t want to tell you about it, because most of the books in the system are single copies that cannot be read or used by multiple students simultaneously. (She did tell us that there are a few multiple-user titles in the system, usually provided by a grant from the publisher to showcase system functionality.)

To access both the virtual library and individual school catalogs, parents and students should visit The virtual catalog is divided into elementary and high school sections, and can be accessed via the left nav menu. On the main page, the search goes to schools’ individual catalogs of hard books in their physical libraries. (So my friend’s BooksFirst! initiative is not wasted; children can still enjoy the feeling of holding a book on one’s lap.)

And of course, CPS is tracking usage analytics of virtual library usage. Ms. Herman noted that it’s in the aggregate; not individual borrowing or browsing patterns tied to a specific student, for the privacy-concerned folks.

I was asked not to post the combination for databases on the web, so I’ll direct you to Ms. Herman’s department itself if you are a librarian or CPS parent: library at cps dot edu.


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