There are some obvious reasons, such as the availability of books to be read even by students who don't have broadband at home. It's easy to think everyone can be online all the time, but in 2013, only 42% of UK households had broadband, and 17% had no internet at all.
But there are better reasons to make books available to young people in school libraries, and to encourage their use.
You need to know what you want to know
It's easy to find out something (a specific fact, such as the dates of the Civil War or how to make risotto), but quite hard to find out about something. Suppose a young person wanted to find out about dinosaurs. Search for 'dinosaur' on Google and you get 78.8 million hits. Hardly anyone will look beyond the first page.
The web is not written for young people
The first hit is wikipedia (of course), 17,000 words starting, "Dinosaurs are a diverse group of animals of the clade Dinosauria. They first appeared during the Triassic period, 231.4 million years ago, and were the dominant terrestrial vertebrates for 135 million years, from the beginning of the Jurassic (about 201 million years ago) until the end of the Cretaceous (66 million years ago), when the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event led to the extinction of most dinosaur groups at the close of the Mesozoic Era. Not child-friendly.
How about the Natural History Museum? It has good info but is not organised in a way that makes it easy for a young student to find what they want. Behind the first, child-friendly, page it goes to a database of dinosaurs that can be sorted in different ways. The information is presented in a dry and relatively unengaging way and if you don't know what you are looking for, it's hard to find what you need.
We could go on.
But let's try something different. Search Amazon (just to look, not to buy anything!) for children's books about dinosaurs and the first hit is National Geographic's First Book of Dinosaurs. Here's the contents page. Which would you rather look at if you were, say, 9? This or the NHM database?
The web has no gatekeepers or guidance
The information in a book is generally accurate and unbiased. If a book is about an issue of fact, the facts are on the whole correct. If it is about an issue of opinion, all sides of an argument are presented, equipping the reader to make up his or her mind in an informed way.
My book on evolution came out last year, so I looked to see what a young reader might find online about evolution.This was the fifth hit - looks quite accessble. But all is not as it seems:
“Dinosaurs could not have gone extinct millions of years ago because Earth isn’t that old!”
“Dinosaurs, reptiles that are very different from birds, did not change into birds. God specially created birds on Day Five and dinosaurs on Day Six!”
A child growing up in a Creationist environment (family/school/USA) might encounter this view, but a child in a school library should be safe from minority views being peddled as undisputed fact. That's what homes are for.
Not all facts are true (see above)
Some websites look authoritative but have an agenda (not just the Creationist agenda). If you were researching sugar, you might think sugar.org looks like a good start. It is, of course, a sort of sugar-marketing board and would give a vulnerable young reader a completely distorted view of the value of sugar in the diet. And some 'facts' are just wrong, such as this one, widely cited: “According to Eric Schmidt of Google, every two days now the human race creates as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation until 2003.” It's true that Eric Schmidt said it, but that's all. Go back to the sources, and the real fact is that as much information was published, recorded or shared every two days in 2010 as in all of 2002. (And most of it was probably videos of kittens and pictures of people doing something stupid - not useful information.)
The web is a false form of laziness
It might look as though it's easier for a child to look online than find a book in the library. But it's laziness that backfires.
The web is full of accurate, fascinating information. It's also full of inaccurate, dull garbage. The web is not bad - but using it properly takes time and skill. A book written specifically for children could be based entirely on online research - but the author will have done the hard things:
- finding the right information
- checking the information
- selecting the relevant and interesting information
- presenting the information in an accessible, appropriate way for young readers.
I ended my talk with this chart. I could just have given you the chart and shut up, I suppose. This is why kids learn more from a well-chosen book than a Google search:
Using the web, the pupil has to do all the work - find the information, select it, find a route through it, work out what the words (usually intended for adults) mean, and decide whether the facts are correct. In a book, the author has done all that. The pupil can get on with learning about the subject. They can develop those other vital skills while researching less important content.
Evolution, TickTock (Hachette), September 2014: 9781783251346