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This is a brief excerpt from
The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease
(Penguin, 2013, 7th edition)

Now available as both a paperback and e-book.

See also Handbook FAQs.

Handbook cover 2013 edition




Chapter 6: The Print Climate — continued

The role of the future librarian (and library)

In the digital age, the change in libraries and librarians may be slow to begin with, but think of it in these terms: In 1920, a police patrolman named William Potts, frustrated by the burgeoning automobile traffic in downtown Detroit, invented and installed the first automatic traffic signal in America. The first piece of roadway technology cost $37. By the end of the year, Detroit had fifteen of them. The rest is history.

ipad with book pages flying into itThis new digital world will bring new challenges to librarians.

The future library will shrink in size but, judging from present needs and behavior, there will remain a critical need for skilled librarians. When the library at Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, discarded nearly all of its books in favor of an all-digital library, its library director, Tom Corbett, told his faculty, “You had it a lot easier than today’s students. If you were researching King Charles, all the information was organized and focused right in front of you on a shelf.” (The paper and e-book editions of The Read-Aloud Handbook contain an extensive profile of Cushing's library decision.)

Today’s student is confronted with a mess of unorganized and sometimes unauthenticated information on the Internet. Studying, learning, and researching were a lot simpler yesterday.

The librarian’s role today? Think “Officer Potts” from a few paragraphs  ago—supervising the e-traffic. When young people approach the Internet today, too often they suspend disbelief and assume if it’s online it must be true. And that brings us to the Olympic National Forest and the “tree octopus” study.

Attempting to raise awareness about the low level of student Web skills, researchers at the University of Connecticut selected forty-eight seventh-grade Web users, all of them carefully tested to be proficient Web users and readers, drawn from diverse but economically challenged schools in Connecticut and South Carolina. They were introduced to what they didn’t know was a spoof page about a fictitious endangered species— the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus21 —and asked to evaluate its authenticity.

image of "tree octopus" It may be fictious but digitally it
poses real dangers.

Only six of the forty-eight students rated the site doubtful, and those because they had been tipped off about the site by a previous lesson in another class. When those six were asked to prove their doubts, none could do so. The remaining forty-two students rated it “reliable.” When told it was a hoax site and asked for evidence of such, they were unable to find traces of deceit, despite the site listing Sasquatch as the octopus’s main predator and links to conservation groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Pumpkins. All of this from students reputed to be their schools’ most proficient online users.

Dr. Donald Leu, the lead researcher on the tree octopus project, commented, “These results are cause for serious concern because anyone can publish anything on the Internet and today’s students are not prepared to critically evaluate the information they find there.” He cited the present classroom instruction as “woefully lacking” when it comes to online literacy.22

Echoing those concerns, a two- year study at five university libraries found student online research efforts to be, in a word, clueless, if not horrid. Not one student consulted a university librarian for help. In other words, most already knew what they were doing? Nope.

Only seven out of thirty conducted “well-executed” research. The rest usually relied on Google and floundered there, wasting long hours and ending up in dead-end searches, while ignoring options like Google Scholar or Google Book Search. Making matters worse, little or no guidance was offered by their professors, and most students were inclined to do only enough to get by. The report indicated a greater need for students to access librarians for help, for greater cooperation between faculty and library, and a need for better online research education.23

All right, you say, the college kids are immature about their online research, but not so with adult professionals. Five years after it appeared, I went in search of the original source material for the tree octopus study, but all I could find was a university press release and blog commentaries. Stymied, I e-mailed Dr. Leu at UConn, who sent me a link to the original paper, along with this e-mail:

Good of you to ask. Despite extensive coverage on the blogosphere, in the newspapers and on CNN, you are only the 4th person to ask for the source. That was the point of the octopus study. Apparently adults are not much better than adolescents about evaluating sources online.

The “enough to get by” syndrome appears to have a wider infection radius than we thought. All of this demonstrates there’s as much of a need for good librarians today as there was thirty years ago— before Google and the Internet were born. Considering how complicated things are today, we might need them even more. Or think of it from a more pragmatic, though slightly vulgar, point of view: The Internet’s information crop has multiplied, but so has its “crap.” The closest thing we have to a “crap detector” is a qualified librarian.24

In order to keep their books from becoming too heavy and thus too expensive, most authors are forced to trim their manuscript. This can be an experience not unlike being forced to trim one of your fingers. Granted, you still nine others but doggone! you do miss that tenth one. For a sample of what got trimmed for this seventh edition of The Read-Aloud Handbook, click LIBRARY MYSTERY.

Questions and issues covered in Chapter 6 of the print and e-book editions
        of The Read-Aloud Handbook:

Chapter Six — p.1   p.2   p.3    Footnotes

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