As technology spawns a profusion of student options for researching and completing school projects, Palo Alto's two high school libraries have remade themselves into gathering spots not just for reading and researching but for watching, playing and creating.
"There's a trend in libraries as a place, or space, not just to read books but to do whatever you wish — from writing the great American novel to disguising yourself as a cancer cell," Gunn librarian Meg Omainsky said.
While still managing collections of more than 10,000 physical books each, Omainsky and her Paly counterpart, Rachel Kellerman, have become purveyors and curators of technology to students, who arrive with varying degrees of sophistication.
"In Silicon Valley there's this view that everybody's got tablets, everybody's got technology, and since kids are so facile they don't need any guidance," Kellerman said.
"But spending so much money on technology, which is just a tool, is like giving a kid a car without driving lessons. They need help to navigate.
"We want to find kids where they are, and a lot of them are online."
Both librarians offer lessons on how to access academic databases and publications the schools subscribe to, such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
Palo Alto schools were equipped for wireless coverage in 2010, but Kellerman said she sees fewer laptops on campus than she expected.
"Kids use their phones a lot, and I've seen more tablets. I sense when they bring computers to school there's a security issue and a heaviness issue," she said.
She also sees evidence that not all Palo Alto teens have the latest electronic gadget.
"We see tons of kids who don't have a device at home, don't have a robust computer at home," she said.
"We see them because they come in at 7:15 in the morning to get their work done, either because they don't have computers at home or they need a place where there are fewer distractions."
At Gunn, Omainsky has 48 laptops and 16 Flip video cameras available to students for two-hour checkout — and laptops are taken out about 200 times a day, she said.
She goes out of her way to make exceptions to the two-hour rule.
"My main priority is to meet the needs of the student, so if a kid needs Photoshop for a project but doesn't have it at home, they can take a laptop home for the weekend," she said.
As for iPads, she's experimented with checking them out but usually keeps them on a cart for teachers to use with individual classes, either in the library or in classrooms.
The schools recently launched the "PAUSD Download Library," which allows students access to a collection of 600 books that can be downloaded on nearly any device — laptops, tablets or mobile phones.
But the printed page remains in strong demand, the librarians said.
"Since the beginning of the school year, each of our libraries have checked out 10,000 books, and that doesn't include technology," Omainsky said.
At Paly, Kellerman believes younger students in particular "need a physical book," and she makes a point of supporting the freshman and sophomore history, English and science curricula with multiple copies of printed research material.
Omainsky, having visited Stanford University's Institute of Design (d.school), is enamored with the notion of the library as an "idea lab" — modeled after the d.school philosophy that "creativity follows context."
She recently condensed some stacks to clear a small open space in Gunn's library, furnishing it with round red tables of adjustable height, rolling stools and a floor-to-ceiling whiteboard, where kids can communally solve math puzzles or pen quotes from upcoming school plays.
For students who want or need absolute quiet, she equipped a side room with study carrels behind a closed door.
Paly's giant library chalkboard was installed last fall at the suggestion of a parent who works at Google, where whiteboards are ubiquitous.
During pre-finals dead week last month, Kellerman extended library hours until 8 p.m. and served food, attracting 80 to 100 students.
At Gunn every week, Omainsky convenes "TED Tuesdays" during lunch hour, drawing as many as 180 students to the library to watch reruns of old TED videos.
"Libraries are intellectual spaces, but they're also community spaces where kids can come together to get construction paper, a Post-it note, a textbook or enjoy a laugh together," Kellerman said.
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