Changed but Still Critical: Brick and Mortar School Libraries in the Digital Age
For InterED, Association for the Advancement of International Education [AAIE]. Fall 2010
For nearly 100 years1, elementary and secondary schools have been building or remodeling their libraries, creating spacious rooms that contain thousands of physical materials to support reading programs, aid research projects, and expand the content area curricula. Studies2 indicate that schools with good library programs are more successful than those without, validating the wisdom of the leaders in those schools.
Today’s reality is that readers and information seekers are having increasingly less need to visit a physical library to meet their basic information needs. Digital information sources, readily accessed from classroom, home or mobile computing devices are the choice of many students and teachers. The “Net Generation” student increasingly prefers the visual and the virtual rather than the printed text. Why, many school leaders are asking, does a school need a physical library when seemingly all resources can be obtained using an inexpensive netbook and a wireless network connection? Might these large physical spaces in our schools be re-purposed for greater educational impact?
I would argue that the best school libraries are not just surviving, but thriving, in this new digital information environment – but not without seriously re-purposing their physical spaces. This article looks at three ways today’s school library can and should adapt to the digital age, new learning environments and 21st century skill expectations of today’s students.
1. Social learning spaces
Students still want to meet and learn in physical environments - check any shopping mall, coffee shop or teen center. Online bookstores did not kill the physical bookstore. But like bookstores, libraries are becoming “high touch” environments in a high tech world.
Comfort and aesthetics are increasingly important in today’s school library. High school libraries are following the example of bookstores, public and college libraries and adding coffee shops. Upholstered seating, flexible furniture arrangements and attention to aesthetics in lighting and colors help make libraries places where students and staff want to be. Many small, intimate spaces are being carved out of one grand space.
There is an increased body of evidence that supports the value of student collaboration. Studies demonstrate that the ability to form “learning groups” in which participants collaboratively construct personal meaning for content studied is the most important factor in college students being successful.3 As collaboration and social learning grows in importance, libraries are becoming places for teams to work together, both formally and informally.
For many students, school libraries also fit the description of a “third place”- an area for informal social gathering outside of home (the first place) and work (the second place).4 Oldenberg suggests such environments are necessary for a healthy society and healthy individuals. He writes:
The character of a third place is determined most of all by its regular clientele and is marked by a playful mood, which contrasts with people’s more serious involvement in other spheres. Though a radically different kind of setting for a home, the third place is remarkably similar to a good home in the psychological comfort and support that it extends…
For schools that have no other spaces such as a student commons or playground, the library can provide spaces for recreation and play, especially before and after school. Allowing gaming, research on topics of personal interest, and a more liberal definition of what constitutes “constructive activities,” the library space may be the only place some students feel “at home.”
The term “learning ‘commons” is growing in popularity in some educational institutions. Popularized by David Loertscher, the school library as “learning commons” can be defined as:
…the place, either physical or virtual, that is the hub of the school where exemplary teaching and learning are show cased; where all professional development, teaching and learning experimentation and action research happens; and where various specialists of the school have offices, physical or virtual.5The use of the library as a “learning commons” will mean different things to different organizations, but flexibility, a wider scope of use by more school personnel, and a less narrow definition of “library” will be the hallmarks of the library/learning commons. A space that has tutoring, vocational education, gifted and talented services, and a raft of educational support services including library services provides greater better service to students.
2. Multi-media production and presentation spaces
School librarian and writer Joyce Valenza reminds today’s educators that we need to stop thinking of the library as a grocery store - a place to “get stuff” - and start thinking of it as a kitchen - a place to “make stuff.”6 The kitchen metaphor is a good one when looking at how technology should be a part of the physical library.
Student access to technology has evolved over the past 20 years. Access to information and digital productivity tools is requiring less and less school real estate as schools move from computers in labs housed in separate classrooms, to labs in or adjoining the library, to classroom mini-labs, to carts of laptops, and increasingly to 1:1 laptop projects. Students are increasingly using personal mobile devices such as iPods, netbooks and even cell phones that decrease the need for school supplied computers even more.
As digital access moves from workstation to mobile devices, the physical library needs to provide a robust wireless network infrastructure. Electrical outlets throughout the library to power and recharge mobile devices are necessary. Indirect lighting that reduces screen glare is important throughout the area, not just in labs. Workspaces on which laptops can be placed a good ergonomic height are needed.
Some library terminals need to remain available for quick access to the library catalog and quick reference queries. Workstations with good processing speed, adequate memory and software for video and still photo editing, music production, voice recordings, computer programming and multimedia composition are still important. While portable devices are growing more powerful, desktop computing is still needed for many applications and by placing these machines in the library, everyone throughout the school has access to them.
Libraries have traditionally contained presentation areas for librarians to read stories, do storytelling and create puppet shows and skits. These spaces are still useful but need to be expanded for student and staff use as electronic presentation areas. Student demonstrations and presentations that take advantage of multimedia enhancements such as video, computerized slideshows and sound need good audio amplification, video projection systems, interactive whiteboards and student response systems. Such presentation areas can be universally used by all classes in a school when they are a part of the library.
While not glamorous, the library is often the best choice to serve as the technology hub of the school. Often located in a central location, the library’s controlled backroom spaces are well suited to be wiring closets containing servers, routers, patch panels and other networking equipment. Building technology integration specialists and technicans’ office and workspace should be a part of the library where students and staff have ready access to their expertise and collaboration between technology and library staff is increased.
3. Teaching spaces
The library’s tools (print to electronic information sources) have certainly changed, but not its mission: - teaching people to effectively find and use information to meet their needs. Skill emphasis has shifted from finding and organizing information to evaluating and using information. The teaching role as opposed to the “providing” role of librarians has grown. But students and teachers need guidance and instruction more than ever. Teaching spaces remain vital.
Large group instruction is still a useful means of imparting information, giving instructions, and holding discussions. This requires having a classroom-sized seating area or areas (depending on school size), in or attached to the library. An attached room to the main area in the library provides noise containment going in both directions, but tables in a corner of the main library works as well. In either case, a whiteboard or interactive white board, projector, a means to show video, sound amplification, and other large group teaching tools are needed.
Seminar and small group spaces are popular in all libraries. Spaces serving four to twelve learners can be created by sectioning-off part of the main room with furniture or dividers. Separate conference rooms (with windows for visual control) are appreciated by many groups throughout the school.
And the librarian’s desk needs to be on the floor of library for ready one-on-one assistance.
4. What about books?
Will all books be replaced by digital resources? Should we start ripping out bookcases now? Much of this may well depend not on technology, but on how well Google does in the courts with its “scan now, ask permission later” approach to copyright.
If U.S. intellectual property laws don’t change and ownership of the 70% of books that are not in print but not in the public domain remains in question, a lot of information will remain accessible only in print form. Libraries will definitely become digital information centers, but not as quickly as one might think since conversion speed is not a technical issue, but a legal, moral and social one. Books will be available in multiple formats for a very long time. Print, audio and digital will continue to co-exist quite nicely much as radio, television and the Internet does now.
Design for the technologies that are available now, not those just over the horizon. The horizon might be further away than you anticipate. And make flexibility one of your key goals as you reimagine your library space.
Look at places where kids DO want to be and see what might be learned from those spaces. The coffee shop should guide us tell us kids want a social learning space. Online preferences suggest we need to give kids a lot of access to digital resources. Gyms and theaters indicate that libraries should be performance spaces where kids can share information, not just absorb it. And finally, the popularity of social networking sites and media sharing sites like YouTube, demands that we make libraries knowledge production areas.
Be very broad-minded about the functions of the school’s library and get planners thinking less about designing an effective library, but an effective school with a library program that supports the school’s goals.
A good library is a physical indicator that a school embraces certain values regarding education - that multiple points of view have value; that teaching kids how to think, not just memorize, is critical; and that self-exploration should be encouraged. I would hope the school library will be considered almost a sacred space dedicated to honoring those who use its resources to meet whatever informational, educational, socialization and personal needs they might have.
1. The American Association of School Libraries began in 1914.
2. “School Libraries Work!” 3rd ed. Scholastic, 2008.
3. Brown, John S and Richard Adler, “Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail and Learning 2.0” Educause Review. Jan/Feb 2008.
4. Oldenburg, Ray, The Great Good Place. New York: Paragon Books, 1989
5. David V. Loertscher, Carol Koechlin, and Sandi Zwaan. The New Learning Commons Where Learners Win: Reinventing School Libraries and Computer Labs. Salt Lake: Hi Willow, 2008
6. Valenza, Joyce Kasman and Doug Johnson. “Things That Keep Us Up at Night.” School Library Journal, October, 2009.
For further reading
Johnson, Doug “Are Libraries (and Librarians) Heading Toward Extinction?” Teacher-Librarian, Dec 2003 <http://www.doug-johnson.com/dougwri/are-libraries-heading-toward-extinction.html>
Johnson, Doug “Dangers and Opportunities: Challenges for Libraries in the Digital Age” Minnesota Media, 2007. <http://www.doug-johnson.com/dougwri/dangers-and-opportunities-1.html>
Johnson, Doug “Do Schools Still Need Bricks and Mortar Libraries?” (Point/Counterpoint) Leading & Learning, November 2009. <http://www.iste.org/Content/NavigationMenu/Publications/LL/LLIssues/Volume3720092010/NovemberNo3/do_schools_still_need_brick_and_mortar_l.htm>
Johnson, Doug “Facility planning: a list of resources.” (webpage) <http://www.doug-johnson.com/dougwri/facility-planning.html>
Johnson, Doug “Libraries for a Post-Literate Society” Multimedia & Internet @ Schools, July/August 2009 <http://www.doug-johnson.com/dougwri/libraries-for-a-post-literate-society.html>
Johnson, Doug “Seven Most Critical Challenges That Face Our Profession” Teacher-Librarian, May/June 2002. <http://www.doug-johnson.com/dougwri/seven-most-critical-challenges-that-face-our-profession.html>
Johnson, Doug “Turning the Page” (E-books and their impact on libraries) School Library Journal, November 2004. <http://www.doug-johnson.com/dougwri/turning-the-page-e-books.html>