Sunday, October 19, 2008

Wandering through Virtual School Libraries

When I imagined Virtual School Libraries, I instantly thought of something out of a Magic School Bus computer game. I envisioned a virtual tour of a libraries physical space. There, in front of you, would be a cartoonish image of the check-out desk, the computers, the story corner, the bookshelves, and of course the book trucks. If you clicked on the book truck, it could tell you what books your friends had just returned to the library. If you clicked on a computer, you would be taken to a list of teacher-librarian reviewed websites. While this all seemed fun, I was pretty sure there would be more to it than that. I needed help, or sleep, or both. What I did was spend hours viewing virtual school library sites and then backpedaled to see what a virtual school library site is supposed to look like.

According to the Winter 2008 edition of BCTLA Bookmark ( "school library websites (virtual school libraries) provide access to licensed databases specifically designed for K-12 students and to curricular learning resources." Access to databases and resources seemed a little vague to me - is it really that simple, or is there more going on here? I did a little more digging, and I'm glad I did, because what I stumbled upon was the LAT Report on Joyce Valenza's Virtual School Libraries and 21st-Century Service ( I immediately recognized the homepage of the Springfield Township High School Virtual Library. The LAT Report highlights Joyce Valenza's views about why we should be creating virtual libraries, and what content should be contained within these virtual spaces. Besides creating a 24/7 virtual space that points our students towards "relevant, quality resources," the virtual library "maximizes student use of time to higher-level tasks" and "provides both independence and intervention." According to Valenzas, learning within the virtual library is promoted through: pathfinders, style sheets, websites, webQuests, guides to research, assignments, open source resources, search tools, blogs, wikis, and threaded discussions, and streaming video."

In the BCTLA Bookmark, there was a list of virtual school libraries in British Columbia that were considered exemplary. Unfortunately, I had trouble accessing some of them. I did have luck, however with the first one I wandered into - the one that was touted as having a "nationally award-winning subject guide of websites which is popular world-wide." How could I walk away? The Prince of Wales Secondary School Library ( was huge! There were so many links it was almost overwhelming, I had to remind myself that I had just wandered into a high school library, I'm definitely used to an elementary setting . For a secondary school, though, I don't think there was too much content. The site was well organized and easy to navigate through. I particularly liked the Reference Desk (,) and believe a lot of students and parents would find this section useful. Another area of particular interest to me was the Research Help Documents such as Notetaking" ( in the Library Information area. I would feel confident directing teachers, parents, and students to these pages as they are well organized, and professional. No wonder this virtual school library has a global appeal! But, as I started to revisit Valenza's thoughts on what should be contained within the virtual library, I realized that there was a lot missing. I did not come across blogs, wikis, streamed video, etc. There seemed to be very little student input, and I wondered if this would be a drawback in any way. I had to keep searching. . . .

My next step was to revisit the Springfield Township High School Virtual Library to see if it actually contains everything that Ms Valenza's said it should. According to the elements she listed, I expected it to be more than a "subject guide to websites" (as the Prince of Wales site seemed to be). The Springfield site looked like an elementary school site (somewhat like the Magic School Bus image I initially envisioned), but the content is obviously for high schools. Everything that Valenza's said should be on a virtual school library site, was on it. I found streaming video of book trailers from TeacherTube (see,, and this was embedded in a wiki that promoted the Prerequisite Reading List. The Web 2.0 tools were so well integrated in this virtual library that they blend in. I think this site has great appeal for students, it's fun (cartoonish), interactive, easily navigated, professional, and highly relevant to student's curricular needs. Of the two high school virtual school libraries I investigated, this is the one that I think would capture student's attention the most, leading them to higher-levels of thought and independence.

Going Elementary (my dear Watson)

After my high school walkabout, I was eager to see what elementary school libraries looked like. First, I did a search of my son's school library, only to find they don't have a virtual library yet.
Interestingly, there was another school on Vancouver Island with the same name, so I stumbled upon their virtual library. Eagle View Elementary School ( had a visually appealing virtual library that I think elementary students would be drawn to. There were several photos of students at work in the library. (I don't think photographs on virtual library sites should be underestimated. They help to show just what goes on in the library - something a lot of parents don't know). The photos on this site present the library as a classroom space, not just a holding place for books. I was very impressed by the "social feel", this virtual school library site was not just a list of links with a few graphics. Check out the section on Student Reflections: This space had book recommendations, but I think there are even more possibilities for students to post information about their learning. The site did not appear to be interactive - no presence of blogs, wikis, or podcasts, but still, it was better than nothing, and it did have some very good personal qualities.

The next virtual library I came across in my travels was the Parkcrest School Media Centre ( While there seemed to be a lot of good information on the site, I found the design difficult to navigate through. The links were in the bubbles on the far left hand side of the screen, and you needed to click a lot to get to where you want to go. I wondered if students were drawn to this virtual library, or if they prefer the physical school library. The staff looks fun, inviting and creative, but I think this site needs some tweaking to become truly effective.

One noteworthy site was the McLurg Elementary School Virtual Library
I found the layout of this page easy to navigate. I was interested in the “Wonder What to Read” section, and was pleased to find a Wiki with student suggested “Great Reads”. There are 2 grade groups on this site (4-6) and (6-8). It would be interesting to have a picture book wiki as well, because I think younger students would quickly become engaged with the site if they had a space just for them. I noticed that only one book was recommended in the non-fiction section which was presented as a Dewey list of numbers. I wonder why that is? Perhaps if the subject headings were put along with the Dewey numbers it would get more use (for instance “fairy tales”, or “poetry”, or “biography” – you get the picture, you’re all librarians!) I think getting the students involved in revamping that section would be a great lesson for them to work through – it would be a project with an authentic purpose! The more I poked around this virtual Library, the more impressed I became! It is very apparent that this teacher librarian has been well versed in Web 2.0 technology and has an inviting manner towards her students. Besides a wiki, there is a McLurg Book Blog ( and McLurg Booktalk podcasts ( I think that by posting student work/thoughts/contributions in this way, students are more likely to turn to the Virtual School Library and share it with friends and family members. Student collaboration works wonders in making sites like the McLurg Elementary School Virtual Library a meaningful and relevant place to visit.

Finishing the Tour

After wandering through several virtual school libraries, I've come to realize that creating sites that will lead our students to relevant curricular information, engage them in Valenza's vision of higher-level thinking and foster student independence is no easy task. There was a real craftsmanship at work behind the sites I visited, and it was extremely exciting to consider the possibilities that virtual school libraries hold for our students.

In closing, I felt a little guilty about critiquing virtual school libraries. Why? Because I felt that many of the sites I wandered through were 'works in progress'. We all know that a teacher-librarian's job is never done (remember the zen of the book drop)! Despite that some virtual libraries seemed a little rougher around the edges than others, I can't help but feel great hope that these virtual spaces will evolve and grow into something lovely in the same way that we move out shelves around, or buy a new area rug, or create engaging book displays, and change our bulletin boards in our physical library spaces to make them more functional for our students and ourselves.


Jo-Anne Gibson said...

I loved your Magic School Bus idea for a virtual library. Wouldn't that be perfect! I agree that photos really add to the sites and let others know what's going on in the physical library.

I know how you feel about not wanting to be too critical of the vls you visited this week. I felt the same way so I purposively kept my screencasts "private" even though I know they're still on my blog. Teacher-librarians are so busy that it's a wonder that they have time to create a vl at all.


Joanne de Groot said...

I think websites for school libraries are constantly evolving and changing--so it is a really valid and important point to make that even those sites that seem a little 'rough around the edges' still have much to think about and a lot going for them.

I liked your initial vision for what a school library website/virtual library should be like...I wonder if such a thing exists??