In a Land of Laptops, Do Kids Still Want Books?


In a 1:1 STEM charter school (where every student has a laptop and most have mobile devices), are print books even needed? The answer might surprise you. Find out how abundant technology resources impacted collection development at one of the nation’s best high schools.

Contributed by Ryan Taylor

For over four years, I’ve been the media specialist at a school that was not supposed to have a media specialist. Or a media center. Or books. The Gwinnett School of Math, Science, and Technology (GSMST) is a STEM charter high school, intended to be one of the crown jewels in Georgia’s largest school system. This new, state-of-the-art facility was conceived as a one-to-one technology environment, where every one of its students would be issued a high-performance laptop, and the universe of online resources, proprietary and free, would serve as a virtual library. Fortunately for the students, things didn’t work out that way.

Thanks to some timely and effective intervention by our district’s media leadership, the plans for the school were altered, and the new building opened in 2010 with a large, open and airy media center with around 5,000 volumes on the shelves. Each student had a school-issued laptop and access to the district’s substantial online research library, but we still had a small reference section targeted to the STEM curriculum.

Students in the GSMST Media Center

Beyond Opening Day

As we got to know the needs of our student body and faculty, we began to move beyond the opening day collection and tailor our resources to suit them. We quickly narrowed our collection development focus to three priorities:

  • Growing a current fiction collection that reflected the unique culture of our school—plenty of fantasy and supernatural series, nerd culture titles (William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, anyone?), and some “comfort reading” choices that reach back into the middle school catalog and offer some respite from the rigorous curriculum,
  • Adding quality narrative nonfiction titles, including bestsellers by investigative journalists and popular science reads (think Brian Greene and Oliver Sacks), and
  • In lieu of typical reference titles, acquiring college-level materials recommended by our highly qualified faculty, such as number theory textbooks, venerated chemistry manuals, collections of classic physics problems.

The one-to-one laptop deployment gave our students instant access to a wide range of online materials, so the print collection could go deep, focusing on the specifics of the STEM curriculum. But we’re broad-minded when it comes to STEM—there’s a lot of focus on putting mathematics in context in the wider world, and the 300 section is vast, with a lot of coverage given to the place where science and engineering meet economics and politics. There’s also a lot of shelf space given to how computers and the Internet are impacting the culture. After four years of growth, we now have a collection of over 7,000 print volumes for a student body of a little over 900.

Standards of Reference

The combination of high-quality online research tools provided by the district and take-home student laptops allowed us to accelerate what many media centers are doing: eliminating print reference titles. I’m still a book person, and I still found myself buying large format atlases, and out-of-print Spanish etymology texts, and those huge Webster’s 3rd Edition dictionaries. These are things I feel a library should have, and the students get a kick out of using them. However, the fact of the matter is that our students have online access to a far greater collection of reference materials than our media center could even hold in print form.

Dispelling Fiction

After the new school opened, we quickly discovered that our avid readers still loved to read fiction in print. The students in our book club serve as an ad hoc focus group, and we floated the idea to them of offering a collection of ebooks that students could access on their laptops. Much to our surprise, students had no interest in this idea. When it was time to read for pleasure, they wanted ink and paper. Since we weren’t investing heavily in reference, we had more money left to buy great fiction titles. And we always buy them in print, just like the students want. As surprising as it may seem for a STEM magnet school with universal student access to technology, we have no plans to invest in fiction ebooks.

This preference for print is not unique, and it is not small. A recent University of Washington pilot study found that a quarter of students, when given a free electronic version of a text, still bought a hard-copy version. We see that behavior with our own students—they have a Kindle copy of a given book, but they still want to know when our hardback is coming in. And It’s not just the students. We have teachers from all disciplines who require students to close the laptops and do all-print research exercises. They pore over books looking for glimpse of everyday life in the time of Shakespeare, or they comb through magazines looking for science articles that best explain a given biology topic.

Finding Focus

While print is still alive and well at our school, the students’ access to online materials saves us money and allows us to be more focused in our collection development. We have language arts teachers who leverage this access and use resources like Project Gutenberg, which means that we don’t always need to buy classic novels, Shakespeare plays, and other public domain titles—at least not to the extent that some schools might. Students can easily get The Scarlet Letter as a PDF or in any number of e-book formats. This, again, frees up funds to buy hot current fiction and keep my popular series titles up to date.

The next step for our district is the implementation of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) programs at all schools. Each school is provided with the necessary infrastructure, and then local administration decides how best to roll it out—who gets how much access, how to handle discipline for theft and misuse, and other downstream effects. When students across the county can put their tablets and e-readers on the wifi network, new opportunities will arise for teachers and media specialists, and we have to start thinking about access to content in new ways. Ultimately, I’m just glad I’m not an encyclopedia salesman.

How has technology impacted collection development in your library? Do your high-tech students still prefer to read print fiction? How have your reference selections changed? Let us know in the Comments section below!

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