Social Technology

Annette Lamb and Larry Johnson

I just downloaded the Newbery award winner from OverDrive.
My bookclub is reading the classics. They're all available online.
Why go to the library when I can just download the book?

Increasingly our youth are finding online and digitized versions of books are available and easy to access. Does this mean the end to print materials?

The Change

In 2009, the school library at Cushing Academy in Boston announced that it was going book-less. Later it was learned that although print books were largely gone, the school was not able to totally eliminate printed texts. The next year Benilde-St. Margaret’s School Library in Minneapolis eliminated most of its print collection.

In both cases, the moves were made to free up the physical library space for use as a learning and information commons. This approach required expanded investment in online databases and digital book collections. At Cushing, it was recognized that students required more help to use the online resources and an additional librarian was hired.

At Benilde-St. Margaret, success for the digital shift relied on a surrounding community with neighboring branch public libraries along with university libraries. The school’s principal noted that their intention wasn’t to eliminate all books, but to avoid duplication with other libraries (Barack, 2013).

In 2012, the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School (PA Cyber) opened its virtual library to students. They provide e-books, databases for magazines, newspapers, images and primary source materials. In addition, the cyber library mails out print materials including physical books (Barack, 2012).

This shift doesn’t signal the death of the paper book. However, it does indicate a change in thinking about the role of books in school libraries.

Books in Today's World

Although the shift from physical to digital collections is moving rapidly in some school libraries, change will be slow in other others. Liz Gray (2010), the library director at Dana Hall School in Wellesley, MA suggested that “libraries need to hold on to things that work well even as they keep up with new technologies.”

William Powers (2010) noted that “the idea that books are outdated is based on a common misconception: the belief that new technologies automatically render existing ones obsolete, as the automobile did with the buggy whip. However, this isn’t always the case. Old technologies often handily survive the introduction of new ones, and sometimes become useful in entirely new ways.”

In looking at the traditional publishing industry in terms of a market economy, we have goods and services (books and information) that require transport systems (publishing to booksellers) to deliver desired content/titles to users/buyers. In recent decades, the industry has been impacted by the shift to e-books, electronic databases, and other related digital forms. But the market is still controlled by materials, production, and delivery costs, and the profits earned in the delivery of desired goods. Customer preference for those goods are paramount, and today we have a growing number of people who are comfortable with or prefer reading information on their Kindle, Nook or other e-book reader. At the same time we still have significant numbers of people who prefer reading off the printed page. In many areas, printed books aren’t dead. They’re alive and healthy.

Though a few schools have pioneered the digital movement, there has not been a huge surge of other school libraries going totally book-less. However this may be due more to library budgets and the inability to take on the added costs of making such changes rather than a preference for more traditional school library resources. Schools across the country have cut back purchases of library materials for budgetary reasons and today many school collections have fewer books than in the past while trying to devote more monies toward electronic databases, e-books and other digital resources.

Over time, reading preferences are changing. In 2012 e-books in some disciplines and genre began outselling print books for the first time. E-book reader displays continue to improve and drop in price. The move toward e-books and digital information will continue, but currently not every book or article is available in digital form.

Books and Standards

Schools and most school librarians are involved with implementing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The standards expect students to read and understand increasingly complex texts not only in English and language arts but across the curriculum.

Working with teachers to revise the curriculum and select materials that address the standards, school librarians have shifted their attention from fiction to nonfiction works and informational reading. However the format for these new materials is a primary concern. Should school libraries invest in paper or digital materials? It’s likely that the answer will be: both!

The CCSS website provides lists of Text Exemplars (CCSS, 2012) to help educators begin the process of identifying works that meet instructional needs. Many state departments of education have developed their own booklists. In addition, many publishers have created book lists.

The suggested books include titles you probably already have in your print collection such as Little House in the Big Woods published in 1932. However, many of the recent works such as Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 have been published in both the e-book and hardcover formats.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis is available in a wide range of formats including hardcover, e-book, audiobook, Audible book, and Playaway.

When making new purchases, think about the needs of students and teachers. What book format works best in particular classroom situations? Do all students have access to e-book readers or other devices for electronic reading? What’s the most efficient, effective, and appealing resource for a particular situation? For instance, what’s the cost of a class set of books versus an electronic set? At what point does it become cost effective for a class set of e-book readers?

Enhancing Print Collections

Paper books are still being purchased for most school library collections. School librarians and teachers use a variety of online resources to assist in their search and selection of books. Traditionally jobbers such as Baker & Taylor, Ingram Library Services, and Follett’s Titlewave have been used to purchase the majority of library texts. However, these services work best for new works. Many of the books on the recommended booklists are older titles that may no longer be in print.

Vendor websites are a good place to start when seeking titles beyond your normal jobber. Amazon <> is probably the best known option and can be used to check the availability and current pricing of books. Customer reviews, samples of Audible audio editions, and the preview of a segment of a book are often provided.

Most “brick and mortar” bookstores such as Barnes and Noble <> and Books-a-Million <> have an online presence. These websites are a good place to locate new books. However, they’re also a place to seek recent, but not newly published books. In other words, they often have a warehouse of overstocked books from the past several years.

Sometimes the need for a specific out-of-print book leads to searching for used books online. Amazon lists used books for sale from other vendors through their online store. But a search can be made directly to online marketplaces for used, rare and out of print books like AbeBooks <>, the independent bookstore, Powell’s Books <>, Biblio <>, or Alibris <>

Rather than visiting the bookseller websites individually, librarians can search for books at BookFinder <>. The site serves as a “book price comparison for sale” search engine by searching dozens of bookseller sites and displaying the findings. This allows the user to find the best possible price and condition. Of course when buying used books, one must rely on the seller’s description. Unless there are only a few copies available, it’s usually best to look for a new, like new, or very good book classification.

Sometimes it’s not possible to locate a new copy of a book in a hardcover or library binding. Many online services will rebind paperbacks with a library binding.

Keep on the lookout for revised versions and reissues of older books. Many of the books on the popular booklists are being republished. For instance, Cathedral: The Story of its Construction by David Macaulay originally published in 1973 has recently been revised and republished in full color.

Finally, many school libraries are reaching out to borrow needed texts through interlibrary loan or directing students to local public library collections in order to supplement their own collections and meet student interests and needs. Online public access catalogs can be useful in locating these materials. Many regional groups and consortium are forming union catalogs to help in sharing print resources. This will become even more important as fewer print materials are purchased.

Enhancing Digital Collections

Begin by exploring what might already be available through your state or region. For instance, you may have access to scholarly works from Alexander Street Press, the eBook Collection from EBSCOhost, or Gale Virtual Reference Library.

Also, check with your local public library. They may already have an e-book subscription service. Overdrive <> is a popular example. Remember that the public library’s service may be geared to all ages. Consider choosing a service that complements rather than overlaps with this service.

Use the school library budget for a service specifically designed to meet the needs of youth. Common e-book providers include Tumblebooks <>, Follett e-books <>, and Axis 360 <> by Baker and Taylor. In addition, many schools are subscribing to digital services specifically geared to address standards such as Scholastic’s BookFlix, FreedomFlix, and Storia.

However, for individual titles you may need to go directly to a publisher’s website. For instance, Garden Helpers by National Geographic is a recommended book on many of the standards lists. However it’s no longer in print. Instead, National Geographic is providing an electronic version of Garden Helpers <> at their website as part of their Young Explorer! series. Wind Power by National Geographic <> is another example.

It may seem expensive to build a digital collection. However, it’s also possible to save money. Many works suggested for addressing the standards can be found online for free. These can be loaded on all the school’s e-book readers. In addition, links can be provided at the school website so students can download these books on their own devices at no cost. The following are recommended books that can be downloaded from <>

Many very early works such as The Odyssey by Homer, Metamorphoses by Ovid, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, and Elements by Euclid are available through Project Gutenberg <>. Open Library <> is another good place to seek out classic literature.

Google Books <> provides full text of many public domain books. However, this website is also useful for previews. For some learning activities, students just need to read the introduction or first chapter of a book. Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky is an example. Students can read the prologue of the book online at Google Books <>.

Rather than investing in poetry anthologies that may not have all of the recommended works, consider whether online resources can be used. Many works of poetry can be found online such as the poems by Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, and Phillis Wheatley. Even better, it’s possible to find digital versions of first editions such as Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley <> published in 1773. Reading poems in their original form adds an interesting dimension to the works.

The standards encourage teachers to incorporate essays and speeches into their classroom. The text of many public domain works can be found online. Wikisource <> is a great place to start. The text of Frederick Douglass’ July 2, 1852 speech What to the Slave is the Fourth of July <> is available.

Many essays published originally in newspapers and journals can be found online. For example, The New York Times <> can be searched back to 1851. The essay Solitude and Society by Ralph Waldo Emerson was published in the December 1857 edition of The Atlantic Monthly <>.

While many people are familiar with Google Books, most educators aren’t aware of the magazine option in Google Books <>. Articles in LIFE magazine <> can be located back to the 1930s.

The Future

At present, books are still alive and well in schools and school libraries. The marketplace will determine what forms materials are published in the future. Print books may continue to decline in use, but for the present some publications are only available in print. An increasing number of books are published in print, e-book, and audiobook editions. Some new books and journals are only being published in electronic form.

School libraries need to think about how to optimize learning experiences by providing the best reading experiences regardless of whether the resource is paper or electronic.


Abel, David (Sept. 4, 2009). Welcome to the Library. Say Goodbye to Books. The Boston Globe. Available:

Barack, Lauren (Oct. 18, 2012). Cyber Students Get Cyber Library. The Digital Shift. Available:

Barack, Lauren (Jan. 8, 2013). School Library Thrives After Ditching Print Collection. School Library Journal. Available:

CCSS (2012). Appendix B: Text Exemplars and Sample Performance Tasks from Common Core. Available:

Gary, Liz (Feb. 10, 2010) 21st century librarians. In, Do School Libraries Need Books? The New York Times. Available:

McKenzie, Betsy (Nov. 6, 2010). Update on Cushing Academy-The Private School Library that “Dumped Its Books. Out of the Jungle. Available:

Powers, William (Feb. 10, 2010) A place to learn. In, Do School Libraries Need Books? The New York Times. Available:

Developed by Annette Lamb, 1/2014.