By MOTOKO RICH
Published: February 15, 2009
It was the “aha!” moment that Stephanie Rosalia was hoping for.
A group of fifth graders huddled around laptop computers in the school library overseen by Ms. Rosalia and scanned allaboutexplorers.com, a Web site that, unbeknownst to the children, was intentionally peppered with false facts.
Ms. Rosalia, the school librarian at Public School 225, a combined elementary and middle school in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, urged caution. “Don’t answer your questions with the first piece of information that you find,” she warned.
Most of the students ignored her, as she knew they would. But Nozimakon Omonullaeva, 11, noticed something odd on a page about Christopher Columbus.
“It says the Indians enjoyed the cellphones and computers brought by Columbus!” Nozimakon exclaimed, pointing at the screen. “That’s wrong.”
It was an essential discovery in a lesson about the reliability — or lack thereof — of information on the Internet, one of many Ms. Rosalia teaches in her role as a new kind of school librarian.
Ms. Rosalia, 54, is part of a growing cadre of 21st-century multimedia specialists who help guide students through the digital ocean of information that confronts them on a daily basis. These new librarians believe that literacy includes, but also exceeds, books.
“The days of just reshelving a book are over,” said Ms. Rosalia, who came to P.S. 225 nearly six years ago after graduating at the top of her class at the Queens College Graduate School of Library and Information Studies. “Now it is the information age, and that technology has brought out a whole new generation of practices.”
Some of these new librarians teach children how to develop PowerPoint presentations or create online videos. Others get students to use social networking sites to debate topics from history or comment on classmates’ creative writing. Yet as school librarians increasingly teach students crucial skills needed not only in school, but also on the job and in daily life, they are often the first casualties of school budget crunches.
Mesa, the largest school district in Arizona, began phasing out certified librarians from most of its schools last year. In Spokane, Wash., the school district cut back the hours of its librarians in 2007, prompting an outcry among local parents. More than 90 percent of American public schools have libraries, according to federal statistics, but less than two-thirds employ full-time certified librarians.
Lisa Layera Brunkan, a mother of three in Spokane, said she recognized the importance of the school librarian when her daughter, who was 7 at the time, started demonstrating a PowerPoint project. “She said, ‘The librarian taught me,’ ” Ms. Brunkan recalled. “I was just stunned.”
School librarians still fight the impression that they play a tangential role. Ms. Rosalia frequently has her lessons canceled at the last minute as classroom teachers scramble to fit in more standardized test preparation. Half a fifth-grade class left in the middle of a recent session on Web site evaluation because the children were performing in a talent show.
“You prepare things to proceed in a logical sequence and then here comes a monkey wrench,” Ms. Rosalia said. “We are teaching them how to think. But sometimes the Board of Ed seems to want them to learn how to fill in little bubbles.”
In New York City, Ms. Rosalia is a relative rarity. Only about one-third of the city’s public schools have certified librarians, and elementary schools are not required to have them at all.
Ms. Rosalia ran beauty salons with her husband and volunteered in her sons’ school libraries before pursuing her graduate degree. She was recruited to P.S. 225 by Joseph Montebello, the principal, a brother of a middle school librarian in Brooklyn.
In the school, just a block from a bustling stretch of Brighton Beach Avenue with its overflowing fruit stands and Russian bakeries, Ms. Rosalia faces special challenges. More than 40 percent of the students are recent immigrants. Language barriers force her to tailor her book collection to readers who may be in seventh grade but still read at a second-grade level.
Before Ms. Rosalia arrived, the library was staffed by a teacher with no training in library science. Some books in the collection still described Germany as two nations, and others referred to the Soviet Union as if it still existed.
Ms. Rosalia weeded out hundreds of titles. Working with just $6.25 per student per year — compared with a national median figure of $12.06 — she acquired volumes about hip-hop and magic and popular titles like “Oh Yuck! The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty.” With the help of grants from the City Council and corporations, she bought an interactive white board and 29 laptops.
Ms. Rosalia introduced herself to her new colleagues as the “information literacy teacher” and invited teachers to collaborate on lessons. The early sessions focused on finding books and databases and on fundamental research skills.
Soon Ms. Rosalia progressed to teaching students how to ask more sophisticated questions during research projects, how to decode Internet addresses and how to assess the authors and biases of a Web site’s content.
Even teachers find that they learn from Ms. Rosalia. “I was aware that not everything on the Internet is believable,” said Joanna Messina, who began taking her fifth-grade classes to the library this year. “But I wouldn’t go as far as to evaluate the whole site or look at the authors.”
Combining new literacy with the old, Ms. Rosalia invites students to write book reviews that she posts in the library’s online catalog. She helped a math teacher design a class blog. She urges students to use electronic databases linked from the library’s home page.
Not all of Ms. Rosalia’s efforts involve technology. The license plate on her black BMW says “READ,” and she retains a traditional librarian’s passion for books.
During a lunch period earlier this month, Gagik Sargsyan, 13, slunk into the library and opened a laptop to research a social studies paper on the 1930s and 1940s.
“Have you looked at any books?” Ms. Rosalia asked.
A look of horror came over Gagik’s face. “No,” he said.
Ms. Rosalia, who has a bubbly manner, went to a shelf and returned with a stack of volumes on the Empire State Building, fashion in the 1930s and life during the Great Depression. Gagik recognized the Empire State Building as the place he spent his 13th birthday and started paging through the book.
At the end of every week, Ms. Rosalia opens the library for classes to come in solely to check out books. One Friday, she wore a T-shirt imprinted with the words “Don’t make me use my librarian voice.” Whirling from child to child, she swiftly pulled volumes off the shelves as third graders requested books on sharks and scary topics. By the end of one period, more than 30 students stood in line at the circulation desk.
Still, Ms. Rosalia understands the allure of the Internet. Speaking last fall to a class of a dozen seventh graders who recently immigrated from Russia, Georgia, China and Yemen, Ms. Rosalia struggled to communicate. “We have newspapers in all of your languages,” she said. She turned to the digital white board.
When she clicked on the home page of Izvestia, the Moscow-based newspaper, the Russians in the group cheered.
“Does anybody like books?” Ms. Rosalia asked. Several students stared blankly. The Russians, who spoke some English, shook their heads.
So Ms. Rosalia pulled up the home site for Teen People magazine, and Katsiaryna Dziatlouskaya, 13, immediately recognized a photograph of Cameron Diaz. Ms. Rosalia knew she had made a connection.
“You can read magazines, newspapers, pictures, computer programs, Web sites,” Ms. Rosalia said. “You can read anything you like to, but you have to read. Is that a deal?”
A version of this article appeared in print on February 16, 2009, on page A1 of the New York edition.