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The Case for Hard-Bound Reference Books in a Digital Age

Even though hardback encyclopedias are out of date the moment they're printed, schools aren't ready to switch to digital versions.

About 10 years ago, I helped acquire a full set of encyclopedias for the Los Angeles school where I taught. It was the first complete set the school library had in years, and the principal and teachers were thrilled to have reference books for students. But those hardback texts are woefully out of date today—Osama bin Laden was still alive and President Obama wasn’t even on the national radar, to name just two examples.

In a fast-changing information age, even the 244-year-old Encyclopaedia Britannica has axed its print edition, and many believe schools should follow suit. After all, schools can provide digital access to Britannica for about $1 per student. But for budget-crunched districts, providing the computer hardware and internet access students need to use online encyclopedias is still a challenge. Schools simply aren't ready to make the digital switch.

Not all schools are equipped with reliable internet, and most students still don’t have access to a school-issued laptop or tablet device. There are middle schools in Los Angeles with nearly 2,000 students that have one computer lab equipped with a total of 30 desktop computers. Students are lucky if all those computers are in working condition. And of course, many low-income students don't have computers or internet access at home, so teachers can't assume they'll be able to do research after school.

Even if they have the hardware, schools also can't assume students know how to access information online or make sense of it. Researchers have even found that college students who rely on Google are unable to properly conduct research. Teaching those skills is obviously important too, but eliminating hard-bound reference books leaves students unprepared for the reality that not every source they need—particularly at the college level—will be available electronically.

Our unprecedented access to information has us caught in a kind of limbo—we’re leaping into a digital age, yet we’re not equipping our students with the research skills and technological access they need to truly take advantage of it. In the meantime, every student at the school where I taught can still access those decade-old encyclopedias.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Stewart

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