Looking Forward: Does a 21st-Century School Need a Library?

Looking Forward: Does a 21st Century School Need a Library? - Certainly a high-tech modern school doesn't need the kind of library that has been the norm for the past 50 years because the world we live in now has much different needs for educating our students. But a School Library with a certified School Librarian is critical for meeting the needs of today's youth. Ten years ago the controversy about high-tech schools not needing a library became the hot education issue. If recent LM_NET posts are any indication, the debate continues, along with assorted arguments about size, configurations, furniture, and print vs. digital collections. To my mind, the key issue has not changed—What do the students in this school need? That should be the primary consideration, whether elementary, middle school, or high school. Reflecting on my years as the surrogate librarian (while teaching in an at-risk alternative high school) through my years as a certified Middle School Librarian, brings to mind conflicts about what would be best for students and their School Library.

School as Library

My first battle was in the alternative school: I wanted to disperse the several-hundred books housed in the very small, never-used “library” to the classrooms where students could finally use them. Concerns about how to keep track of where the books were and how to check them out were met with my response that students would only use books in the classroom, and the computerized library circulation system had a field for location of small collections. I followed through on my plan; the teachers and students were thrilled, and the books were used constantly. We called it “School As Library.” Alas, two years after I left to become a middle school librarian, the library director had all the books put back in the “library”—to the chagrin of faculty and kids—and they once again faded into obscurity.

Wisdom is about asking the right questions.Interestingly, it seems School as Library may become the next “hot” topic. In a recent LM_NET discussion, an elementary School Librarian, on a committee to plan for new and renovated libraries, wrote ” We are being told that the future of libraries is to reduce the space of the actual library and have books in mini satellite stations around the school. We are also being told that book cases should all be on wheels so the collection is more portable.” She asked for input, and among the responses were:

  • Satellite stations of books cuts off access to students. The library of the future is the Learning Commons which doesn’t involve reducing library space or moving books outside of the library.
  • Mobile book shelves create spaces within the library for different reasons. Mobile tables and chairs serve the same purpose. Have satellite/collaboration stations within certain areas of the campus, but not have shelving for check outs.

The post prompted contributions about problems with new library design:

  • A brand new building was not given enough book shelves, so they’ve been forced to use portable round wire racks.
  • In a new high school building the shelves are too short. There are huge display cabinets with glass shelves, but shelves for books would have been much more useful.
  • Architects ignored the need for a certain amount of linear feet of shelving and that library shelving comes in three-foot-wide sections. They drew less furniture “so it looks open and spacious” ignoring the need to accommodate certain class sizes in different seating areas.
  • The architect couldn’t grasp that a section of the checkout area needed to be lower for patrons in wheelchairs.
  • Electrical outlets were mounted at floor level instead of high enough to be useful for charging stations.

Barbara Braxton, a retired School Librarian in Australia (and one of my gurus) had this to say:

School Library Design: If we are not invited to contribute, we have to speak up anyway. If we want the best for our students, being silent is not an option.Certainly the concept of libraries as having more flexible spaces is a driving force in design and the tale of architects not consulting those who use them is common. Don’t assume that administrators, let alone architects, have any idea about best practice in 21st century libraries—we are the experts and we need to tell them. (edited for brevity)

The consensus was to campaign for an architect/designer who has experience designing libraries; identify the essentials and why, particularly for work safety, work flow, and user access; measure and do a floor plan; and keep standing your ground – it pays off in the end.

I am bewildered by elementary libraries with 7-foot high shelving and high school libraries with 3-foot high shelving. I’ve suggested to elementary librarians complaining about lack of shelf space, to put teacher materials on the top shelves above the associated Dewey numbers of student books (to have all topical materials together) and thus open up more lower shelves for the itty-bitties to access. And while some high school librarians like their shorter mobile shelves (which are extremely heavy when loaded with books), for those who don’t I suggest they remove wheels from some of the bookcases and stack one atop another in a permanent location, attaching flat brackets to secure them together.

I had plenty of 5-foot high bookcases in my middle school and it was the perfect height for my students. I didn’t load the bottom shelves with books, but rather added extra slanted shelves to display new arrivals or thematic reads. This drew students attention down so they would also notice books on the shelf below waist height.Slanted shelves added to bottom shelf of bookcases to display new arrivals or thematic books.

Print vs. Digital, Physical vs. Online

My first squabble as a middle school librarian was about purchasing online subscription reference databases. At the time, the 2-yr-old middle school was a prototype high-tech school with a 1-to-3 computer-to-student ratio. With a small beginning-print collection, it was hard to meet student research needs so the advantage for online access should have been a consideration, but because I hadn’t reached the state-recommended books-per-student ratio, I was told I could purchase only print books with district library funds. Fortunately my principal had been involved in the design of the school as a model of technology, and he saw the absurdity of using old-school standards for a modern, high-tech school, so he provided extra funds for online services that would support our curriculum.

I remember the “What will they do when they get to college?” argument to justify print resources, but even then most colleges and universities were online-resource rich—I did nearly all of my graduate work online. Online resources are simply faster and cheaper to update. (Back in 2007 a major encyclopedia publisher ceased its print version in favor of online-only.) Of course we still try to convince students that ‘not everything is on the Internet’, but as the number and variety of online subscription database services has multiplied, the argument of “It’s faster to find information in a good reference book than on the Internet.” has vanished and students now need to be more proficient at choosing & using online services than print resources.

As an avid Star Trekkie, I don’t remember seeing a print reference resource on any TV shows or movies. There were incidents where books were read and appreciated, but for reference they always used “Computer.” In the original’s “Court Martial” episode, the law books Cogley piled up in Kirk’s quarters seemed to glorify books over computers, but it was the dilution & homogenization of information put on the computer that was criticized—much as we lament the poor quality of information on the Internet/WWW. And at the end of that episode, it’s still the skillful use of the computer as a reference resource—not Cogley’s books—that finds the real culprit. (I wonder: if Lexis-Nexis had been digitized back then, would Spock have convinced Cogley that it was far easier to search L-N for information than to wade through his hundreds of books?)

Most School Librarians have drastically reduced their print reference materials in favor of online subscription resources. The struggle now is training teachers to accept and assign our online subscription services and topical e-books instead of print. A corporate boss isn’t likely to say, “Joe, we need you to compile some information for the annual report, and we want you to use an encyclopedia, a book, and a newspaper, but only one website,” yet teachers persist in giving these kinds of directions for assignments, or in the supreme case of laxity, just let students search for and submit information from any site on the Internet.

As students go from elementary to middle school to high school, leisure reading declines due to increased academic demands, so the Fiction section of a high-tech secondary School Library might be smaller. Purchasing lower-cost paperbacks can keep it current and inviting. Using e-readers, tablets, or smartphones for reading is now a popular strategy for many secondary schools, although some students say they prefer ‘a real book.’ That tired old refrain about the difficulty of “curling up with a good computer” persists.

To Have or Not to Have … a School Library

In a podcast many years ago, David Warlick said students need a place to go in order to find, synthesize, and produce information, and the School Library is the logical place for an Information Production Center. He admonishes that students must have the opportunity to develop as effective communicators in print, video, audio, and digital formats, or their “voices” will simply not be heard. Now THAT is a powerful argument for having a School Library—to have no such place in a school would be irresponsible.

I continue to believe that curriculum needs and student demographics ought to determine a School Library’s resources. We need to make strong assertions about providing students with information from a variety of high-quality resources, about needing to teach Information Literacy Skills for any kind of assignment, and about the one person in the school who can bring curriculum, technology, and communication together: a certified Teacher-Librarian.

Does a 21st-century high-tech school need a library? Certainly a modern school doesn’t need the kind of library that has been the norm for the past 50 years because the world we live in now has much different needs for educating our students. But a School Library with a certified School Librarian is critical for meeting the needs of today’s youth. 

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3 thoughts on “Looking Forward: Does a 21st-Century School Need a Library?

  1. Haha, I am short sighted and I dread becoming long sighted too because I hear it is almost inevitable!

    I’ve never tried a Kindle. I’ve read before on my iPad but that can get kind of heavy.

    Good point about jotting things down in education books. As long as they’re not library books 😉

  2. Wow, what a comprehensive resource once again!

    This quote really rings true to me,
    “A corporate boss isn’t likely to say, “Joe, we need you to compile some information for the annual report, and we want you to use an encyclopedia, a book, and a newspaper, but only one website,” yet teachers persist in giving these kinds of directions for assignments, or in the supreme case of laxity, just let students search for and submit information from any site on the Internet.”

    Isn’t it funny how so much of what is being done in ‘the real world’ is different to what is happening in schools?

    I love the idea of housing teacher resources higher above the relevant student subjects.

    The arguments about the online V print topic is interesting too. How do you like to read personally? Many of my friends can’t believe my choice is usually to read a book on my phone. The main advantage to me is I have access to it anywhere. So if I find myself in a waiting room (without kids!) for ten minutes or something, I can read. There’s no thought required to bring the book along.

    That being said, I often just read print editions of books because there is more availability from the library.

    Kathleen

    • Kathleen, I sure appreciate how you always have such nice comments. To answer your reading question, I do nearly all my leisure reading on my Kindle, mostly mysteries. For my educational reading, I have a few digital items that I read on my desktop computer, but for most of that I prefer the hard copies so I can flip around and jot comments on the pages. I’ve never actually tried to read on my phone–at my age the print size would barely fit a paragraph!

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