The Future of Libraries Is Now

By Lawrence Hardy

Katie Zimmerman’s seventh-grade science class nearly fills the darkened computer room at the Williamsburg Middle School library. A low buzz passes through the air as the students sit at terminals and search among three online encyclopedias and dozens of databases offered at this school on a quiet, wooded hilltop in Arlington, Va.

“They’re working on their science fair projects, so we have a multitude of topics going on,” Zimmerman explains.

“Eclectic” might be another word to describe the topics students have chosen. They range from the sports-related (How high will a basketball bounce on difference surfaces?), to the cerebral, two-variable take on plant growth (What combinations of water and water-absorbing minerals will produce the tallest plant?), to the truly inspired (Which mashed potato recipe will produce the thickest dish?).

“I’m a big mashed potato fan,” says the young researcher, who came up with the idea after she was home sick and restricted to a diet of spuds. She’s looking up all kinds of unusual mashed potato recipes on the databases and “free” Web. “The white chocolate sounds good,” she says. “But I’m not sure about the raspberry.”

In one corner, a self-described avid reader who consumes books for two hours most weekdays (and longer on weekends), is on the website of the Lexile Reading Framework, an algorithm for assessing student literacy. Like any seventh-grader, he wants to compare Lexile reading levels with the average length of words for those levels to see what patterns he can find.

All right, maybe not like any seventh-grader. But he has a compatriot in librarian Adela Eannarino, who’s found a Publishers Weekly article about Lexile ratings on the Gale Group list of databases. Does he want her to send it to him? No, thanks, he says politely. He’s deep into Lexile’s own site, but could use it for background.

“Do you want me to e-mail it to your home?” Eannarino asks. Yes, thanks.
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