The school library. For decades, it was the go-to source for students looking for books to research a topic or write a paper.

Not anymore. Today, the library comes to the students – on their smartphones, iPads, laptops or other tech devices.

At Napa Valley Unified School District high schools, libraries have transitioned from a room with four walls to a virtual collection of digital resources including e-books, databases and much more.

“We’re bringing libraries to the 21st century,” said Kate MacMillan, coordinator of library services at NVUSD.

Schools and teachers are now educating kids using technology such as smart boards, e-books and shared electronic documents such as Google Docs. That means libraries must follow suit.

“We have to be technologically nimble,” said MacMillan.

“Everything has changed,” said Jennifer Baker, NVUSD communications media specialist. “Students don’t need to be physically in the library” to use it, she said. “Our goal now is to get the instruction to bring the library directly to the classroom.”

“The need for library services or info is not going to go away,” said MacMillan. “We’re just providing it in a different manner.”

The numbers

Library circulation at NVUSD high schools confirms the trend. The number of printed books checked out has dropped significantly over the past years.

Over the past 12 months, a total of 593 printed books were checked out at the American Canyon High School library. At Napa High, the number was 1,062. At Vintage High: 1,764.

To compare, back in 2009, 7,124 printed books were checked out at Vintage High.

At the same time, the use of e-books and online databases at those libraries has risen greatly.

E-books provide instant access to class novels, advance placement and college-bound reading lists. All high school students are able to self-check, renew and take notes in e-books.

Over the past 12 months a total of 10,150 e-books were “checked out” by users at those same three high schools. That’s a 25 percent increase from the year before, said MacMillan.

In addition, “retrievals” from one virtual reference library that NVUSD uses — called Gale — topped 8,186 at Vintage over the past 12 months.

A retrieval is essentially the same thing as “checking out” information, but online instead of in print.

The Gale databases provide instant access to newspaper articles, magazine articles, academic journal articles and critical essays, along with videos and audio reports. These resources can be instantly translated into 13 different languages including Spanish, Chinese and Japanese.

Retrievals totaled 6,303 at American Canyon High and 21,579 at Napa High. MacMillan thinks the Napa High number is larger because they’ve had that particular online resource longer and their school has more students than say, American Canyon High. New Tech High School has always had a primarily digital library.

The NVUSD is the sixth largest user of Gale databases in California, according to the company.

All NVUSD students are also part of the One Card program, which allows middle and high school students to use their student ID as their public library card.

The change

Before digital libraries, “the problem was finding information,” said Baker.

Students looking for a certain book or printed resource would have to locate such an item, whether on campus or at the public library. If a copy was lost, checked out or out of date, that student was out of luck.

These days the problem isn’t finding the information, Baker said. It’s all online and accessible via their phones, iPads and other electronic devices.

Today, “We teach them how to evaluate” the information and analyze it for relevance, accuracy and credibility.

“We’re teaching kids to be responsible consumers of that information,” — a skill that they will hopefully use their entire lives, said Baker.

MacMillan knows digital library use can be news to those who haven’t been in a high school library in some time.

Some people might not understand the migration of libraries from print to online resources. For those comfortable with print libraries, “a digital concept is a little difficult to comprehend and accept,” said MacMillan.

The public might think NVUSD is “abandoning” libraries — therefore impacting literacy.

That is not the case, MacMillan said.

“We’re not shutting down libraries,” she said. “We’re morphing the library into a ‘learning commons’ – a place to gather, share information and collaborate, but primarily digitally,” she said.

No more ‘librarians’

These days, every Napa high school has a library media technician on staff, but credentialed teacher librarians are a thing of the past.

At one point there were as many as 4,000 teacher librarians in the state. Today, there are an estimated 875, said MacMillan.

Budgets have shrunk also.

The total annual budget for American Canyon, Napa and Vintage high school libraries is $17,537 or $3.38 per student. That does not include staff salaries.

In the late 90s and early 2000s, the NVUSD library budget was $28 per student. That was still back in the days of card catalogs, MacMillan noted.

Today, there is no budget for new printed books at the high school libraries, said MacMillan. Some books are donated by alumni groups or others. Instead, library funds are used to buy access to a wide variety of databases such as Gale, e-books and other digital resources.

“Providing these materials in print at each high school would be cost prohibitive,” said MacMillan.

As a library professional, MacMillan admitted that “it breaks our heart a little bit” to see use of printed books decline.

But, “There’s no stopping this,” she said.

At the library

Inside the school library at Napa High, it still looks like a traditional library. Walls of books are organized by category. An archive of Napa High yearbooks is stored for research. Banks of computers stand ready for use, along with tables and desks.

On Wednesday after school, about a dozen students visited the library. Some were doing school work while others were getting tutored by a teacher.

Mornings are busy in the library, said Collette Crowther, a long time library media technician at Napa High School. So is lunch time, especially on cold or rainy days.

But to Crowther it doesn’t matter why or when students come to the library.

“I’m just glad they’re in here,” she said.

Crowther said that the Napa High library has about 10,000 titles – probably about the same as in previous years.

The bigger change is that the library now stocks more nonfiction than fiction. Printed reference books are not as popular as they used to be.

While students have become digital library users for schoolwork, Crowther said she still encourages them to read books for fun.

“There are so many amazing books out there,” she said.

“It breaks my heart when kids say ‘I don’t read.’ I take it as my mission to find that book which will open up this world for kids,” she said. “It’s rare, but oh my gosh, it’s the best feeling in the world” when it does happen, she said.

Melissa Zoller, library media technician at Vintage High School, said that her library still has fiction and nonfiction books but the reference section has shrunk considerably.

“It definitely has changed since I started here,” she said.

Printed encyclopedias, long the standard reference item for students, “are kind like a thing of the past,” she said.

“It’s so easy to do most of your research online.”

Napa High School junior Lillie Leon said she doesn’t go to the library that often, “because if I need books, I have my computer.”

When asked about online resources she uses, Leon said, “I love Gale,” the database collection that NVUSD subscribes to.

Leon said she also likes using print books to do research, but “I’m glad I live in a day and age” where online resources are available to her.

For most students, “I don’t think they’d know how to survive” without access to online databases and e-books, said Leon.

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