School libraries embrace digital age | February 10, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - February 10, 2012

School libraries embrace digital age

Even with iPads and videos, the demand for printed page remains strong

by Chris Kenrick

Students at Gunn High School recently used the "green screen" in the school library to make a video of themselves disguised as cells moving through a human body.

In the Palo Alto High School library, teens scrawled their remembrances of Steve Jobs on a chalkboard wall when the tech icon died four months ago.

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 (, is enamored with the notion of the library as an "idea lab" — modeled after the 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.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at


Posted by Library Fan, a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 10, 2012 at 9:27 am

Our HS Librarians rock! Not to mention the Elementary School ones as well... We are so fortunate to have all of them in our district.

Posted by PA Parent, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 10, 2012 at 3:11 pm

Library Fan - I agree. Palo Alto is lucky to still have teacher librarians. They're all awesome!

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Feb 10, 2012 at 8:42 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Who better to teach computer use than librarians?

Posted by A Gunn parent, a resident of Gunn High School
on Feb 11, 2012 at 7:30 pm

We've got too much digital/internet things,including in the library. Some students spend much time at the Gunn lib, simply playing games. This is definitely not good. I hope that games are not allowed in the library, and our librarians would help to enforce the rules.

Posted by Sol, a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 16, 2012 at 8:04 am

The librarians are signing their own exit cards with this one. Digital libraries dont exist buddies. It can be done from home. Next step will be they just become computer lending libraries and the stuff is all downloaded. As for having a spot for kids to play games and ignore one another. My daughter says that is all they do.

Posted by paly parent, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 16, 2012 at 10:52 am

Having been in the Paly library frequently, I can tell you that kids do everything there from working on homework and group projects to (horrors) checking Facebook. The librarians help the kids with research, actually teach whole classes of kids brought to the library by their english or history teachers, provide quiet places to work, copies of textbooks, noisy places to work, printers and computers for kids who don't have them or just want to work at school, they give advice on books to read, topics for essays, research source, etc.

Mrs. Kellerman has turned the Paly library into a welcoming place for learning and just for hanging out. We want our students to feel comfortable and welcomed at their school.

Posted by susie, a resident of Meadow Park
on Feb 17, 2012 at 2:20 pm

My son tells me they mainly play games and check facebook pages, or buy games online.

I think this was an bad idea to try to employ the librarians who will be lucky to survive the shift to online books. The libraries will not be around in 5 years. So instead they wanted to find a reason to keep the space "happening." But instead by opening up the whole school to online learning they may keep the librarians but make the teachers obsolete! These kids are too easily tempted to do the wrong thing.

How about kindles not Ipads. That is a substitue for books not comics and tv and DS's.

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