Librarians Wrangle Tech, Students, Books In Schools

Aug 3, 2017

Leslie Tharp is the librarian technician at Red Bluff's Vista Preparatory Academy.
Credit Elizabeth Castillo

When Leslie Tharp agreed to work as the librarian for Red Bluff’s Vista Preparatory Academy, she didn’t realize she’d be the keeper of the school’s most popular technology.

“Imagine 30 kids coming in at lunchtime, all wanting to use the 3D printers,” she said. “It got a little bit crazy.”

Tharp’s library houses shelves stacked with books and posters promoting reading. But, it also has a communal space called a Makerspace. It combines manufacturing equipment, like the 3D printers, with education. While tech plays a role in a makerspace, Tharp said it’s about learning.

“It doesn’t mean that it has to be high tech, you’re doing hands-on extensions of your teaching already. Maybe you’re using pipe cleaners and batteries,” she said. 

The space allows people to design, engineer and manufacture creations that would be difficult to make alone, according to the makerspace website.

While not all North State schools have this much access to technology, the library at Vista is an example of the ever-evolving space both public and school libraries are becoming. And the changing skills a librarian must now possess.

Tharp’s space has two 3D printers and wireless Apple iMacs. For example, students dive into introductory coding. The equipment runs on an open-sourced software and the students use coding to operate the printers. The students love to use the printers to make popular gadgets. They also enjoy watching the printer work. A key part of the printer is the extruder, which feeds the plastic the printer uses to create an object.

“Students will sit here and watch this process, gather around like a campfire and watch the extruder go back and forth,” Tharp said. “It is so fascinating, we kind of have to say ‘please step away from the 3D printer, don’t touch it while it’s moving’.”

While libraries are typically viewed as a silent space, Vista’s library buzzes daily with technological sounds from the printers. The process can take anywhere from 20 minutes to seven hours for the printers to build something. Tharp admits she had to adjust to the noise.

“Yeah it can be a little maddening," she said. "You kind of try to use your mom skills to block out sound, ya know?”

The middle school has two 3D printers that the students enjoy using.
Credit Elizabeth Castillo

Still, she says she enjoys her role wrangling the eager kids, the technology and the books. Tharp wants her library to be a place where all students feel welcome and engaged. She says many students often face a difficult home life. The middle school is in a rural area and many of its students have a lower socioeconomic background. Tharp says the library gives the students access to technology that they may not have at home. 

Tharp has many roles as a librarian in today’s digital age. She helps students learn how to properly use resources at the school. She sees one of her key roles as helping students with media literacy. This includes understanding credible sources and distinguishing false information from accurate information.

Tharp is a librarian technician, but schools also hire teacher librarians that have a specialized credential in working at a school library. Several universities in California offer programs that help graduates earn a Teacher Librarian Services credential. Mary Ann Harlan is an assistant professor for San Jose State’s credential program, which is offered through its School of Information.

“The goal is to develop skills to collaborate with teachers in order to teach students how to find and evaluate and use and create knowledge,” Harlan said.

Nowadays, when seeking information, a student’s first impulse is to peruse the internet. But, a librarian can steer students toward traditional approaches like simply making a phone call. Harlan remembers an experience she had while working in a school library. A student was having trouble finding information on Japanese prison tattoos. 

“We googled and we looked at tattoos and we did all this stuff and we couldn’t find what we were looking for. We even dug into some of the databases that I had access to at the time and we still couldn’t really find anything so we started calling tattoo artists that could answer our questions,” she said.

Librarians continue to help students access information in all forms, not just the internet. As technology evolves, a school librarian guides a student to the unlimited knowledge that can be accessed by fusing traditional research and media literacy with the right tools. Harlan said in her opinion, working as a teacher librarian can be one of the best jobs on a campus, as students often aren’t the only ones expanding their knowledge.

“It’s something new every day. It’s never the same thing twice,” she said.