What’s better than a book … ?

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A LinkedIn alert this morning caught my eye.  The heading reads Do you have a ‘Learning Commons’ at your school? You should! and it’s been posted by Maxine Driscoll.

“Meeting the needs of 21st Century learners.
I had an amazing experience last week. I was invited to visit the new Learning Commons at Kardinia International College a K-12 school in Australia and was blown away by what I saw! 21st Century thinking, creativity, courage and conviction! Here is…”

I like the learning commons concept. It’s exciting, it enables a refreshingly different approach to teaching and to learning. It makes learning more enjoyable, and reports promise great things. It may well be too early to say if the benefits are real, but there are aspects of learning commons that any library can use to advantage.

The post to which Maxine Driscoll’s LinkedIn alert refers is, as promised, titled Meeting the needs of 21st Century learners – and it was posted by Maxine herself.

A little bit of self-promotion…? Not to worry, much of LinkedIn is self-promotion, and the post is certainly worth reading, the project is exciting. “Amazing” might well be just the word.


Kardinia International School in Australia has taken the space occupied by its traditional library and by 7 classrooms and has transformed them into one very large learning commons. It sounds thrilling, the photos look thrilling.

But there is one paragraph gives me pause. Ms Driscoll is selling solutions, technological solutions, so perhaps she didn’t think twice as she wrote the paragraph. She was, perhaps, dazzled and unthinking.   I am slow buying into technological solution, so I thought twice, and then again.  Ms Driscoll declares:

“I could see no books. Only a small number remain after the culling of 60% of the previous traditional collection. The school has partnered with libraries around the world in the Google Books Library Project – where 30 million books have been scanned.”

Am I missing something? The school has replaced its print library by buying into the Google Books Library Project?  But the Google Books Library Project is not a library. The Google Books Library Project is a library catalogue. They say so themselves: “Google Books Library Project – An enhanced card catalog of the world’s books.”

Yes, Google Books provides direct online access to many books in the public domain, and to books (and other items) which are out-of-copyright or which are not subject to copyright.  It includes limited views of many books.  It provides links to online booksellers which carry the item you are looking for.  It provides links to libraries which stock a wanted title.

But if the permissions aren’t there, then it doesn’t carry the book itself. There are many many books which it does not hold in full. But Google Books is not the Google Books Library Project and in any case, Google Books is no replacement for a library.

Repeat: the Google Books Library Project is no more a library than Google is the Internet.  It seems very short-sighted to dispose of your library collection in the belief that everything in it is available elsewhere.

Every so often, I trot out the notion, “Books aren’t eggs. You can’t beat them.” I like the ambiguity, the play-on words. Not everyone gets it, though.

Technology is not the answer to everything. To think that it is, to use technology as a solution, to trust in the Google Books Library Project as a replacement for a library, is putting all one’s eggs – or books – in one basket. Not a good idea.

What’s better than a book?  For many people and for many purposes, nothing is better than a book.  But be careful how you say that, be careful who you say it to. They might just take you literally.

[After writing this, but before posting, I got to wondering if Ms Driscoll had reported only part of the story. Perhaps the school had replaced its book library with an e-book library and its catalogue by GBLP; perhaps Driscoll was dazzled by technology and the Google name?  Was the Google Books Library Project a red herring?  I wrote to both Ms Driscoll and to the school. Driscoll wrote back: this was what the Principal had boasted when he took her on a quick tour of this brand-new facility; now interested herself, she said she would contact the school and would find out, let me know. I haven’t heard back from her since, and I haven’t heard from the school at all. The story – and my take on it – stands.]

Addendum: 25 February 2015

I have now heard back from Maxine Driscoll. She reports that the school has replaced much of its print collection with e-books and databases and electronic book collections. They do not rely only on the Google Books Library Project.  The library has kept some 40% of the print collection.

There is a separate elementary school library, and although it has access to some digital resources, the print collection has been retained; once children have learned to read using print, they are better able to read to learn using print or digital resources.

My point remains valid.  The Google Books Library Project is a red herring; it does not enhance the school’s own collection – although it might ease aspects of advanced study. The school still has a collection, part print, part digital, and this is to be celebrated – as is development of the library into a library learning commons.



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