Thursday, December 26, 2013

My Response to Average is Over: Threats and Opportunities for School Librarians

After several months of number one on my To Read list, I finally finished Average is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of Great Stagnation by Tyler Cowan. It’s a fantastically thought-provoking and challenging read.  After speeding through many fiction books as part of my Lariat Committee duties, it was nice to ponder some well-written and lucid non-fiction. I found myself pausing and reflecting every few pages and had lots of thoughts worth sharing, about raising my own daughter and also regarding the library profession. Here I will concentrate on those related to the library profession.

The first fact worth mentioning is that Cowan doesn’t even mention libraries or librarians once in the entire book. However, he addresses many issues regarding the future of learning, education, and science that have deep implications for those of us that work in school or academic libraries.
Cowan describes himself as a libertarian and conservative and criticizes institutionalized education on grounds of ineffectiveness and inefficiency. At the same time he questions the value of formal education, he exalts individual learners that have discipline and passion for learning. These learners who capitalize on freely available education opportunities on the Internet and understand how to use powerful computing resources to amplify their power, will be the high earners of the future. 

High achievers will need to function in an environment that his fast evolving, where the speed of data gathering and analysis will outpace the rate at which findings can be published and disseminated. Conventional fields of knowledge will not have experts. Rather, there will be a need for those that understand how to interpret and explain findings of supercomputer data output.
Let’s dissect this from a library point of view from three angles: Resources/Access, Instruction and 

  • According to Cowan, Information and Knowledge will be mostly free. If he is correct, a traditional function of libraries, providing information resources would be not as important, certainly not important enough to provide justification for the existence of library. This means at least one of several things, namely:
  • ·         Libraries will need to add value and context to their electronic resources. This is not usually a function of school libraries. However, local communities desire information of value to the population and this is something a library provide. Subscription resources would not be important. Indeed the entire business model of subscription databases may become obsolete.
  • ·         Cowan’s vision of free and cheap entertainment for the 85 percent of the population suffering from lower incomes seems like an obvious opportunity for libraries. Viewing book as one of many entertainment options, and assuming that writers and publishers continue to hold to the pay per book model (as opposed to the free/donation model musicians are now experimenting with), providing books online and in print will continue to be a vital function for libraries. There is no guarantee that is the case however.
  • ·         Mobile internet access will be available to nearly the entire population via low cost devices and telecommunications. The library won’t be able to justify itself on grounds of equitable access to Internet resources.

So, with little to cling to on access to information issues, libraries will need to evolve and focus on an Instructional role.

  • ·       Cowan believes that some of the best quality education resources will soon be available for free on the Internet. The non-elite colleges and expensive for profit online universities are under threat from this trend toward free education.
  • ·       With the proliferation of free education options, the public will need help figuring out the best options for them. Young people will need plenty of guidance and coaching to take full advantage of online options and librarians can play a vital function in matching students to learning opportunities. This is a function librarians can play today. It’s a simple matter of participating in the free online education revolution, developing an expertise and sharing with others.
  • ·         Skills such as discipline, focus and discerning good information from bad will be even more critical now and in the future and it is obvious we must explicitly teach and promote these skills in novel ways including….
  • ·         Gamification. Cowan is a proponent of learning via games and libraries simply must get into the game by hosting and promoting games that develop vital skills


Since the future of school libraries is presently under threat, and many trends are not in our favor, advocacy is super-critical. Advocacy at State Legislatures is not as important as at the local level and national level.  Advocacy within our schools and Districts is most important, but becoming more involved in Education Reform efforts at the National level is also very important, but that’s a whole other discussion!

Local level advocacy must be connected to our instructional efforts or educational programs. Our advocacy must address the challenges of “Average is Over” by simply being part of the discussion. Even though we are not mentioned in the first Edition of Cowan’s book, librarians can be a part of the national discussion of this book and make it into the 2nd edition or sequel!

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