Digital information, readily accessed from classrooms, homes, and mobile devices, is the choice of today's students and teachers—resulting in increasingly fewer in-person visits to libraries.
For 100 years, many schools have created spacious rooms that contain thousands of books and other physical materials to support reading programs, aid research projects, and expand the curriculum. Numerous studies1
show that schools with good library programs are more successful than those without, validating the wisdom of education leaders who have invested in school libraries.
Yet information seekers today have less need to visit a physical library to meet their needs. Many school leaders are asking, Why does a school need a physical library when students can readily access information using a laptop, a tablet computer, or a mobile phone? Can these large, expensive spaces in our schools be used for other purposes that will produce greater education benefits? When building a new school, should we ask whether it even needs a library?
Adapting to Current Needs
The reality is that today's best school libraries are not just surviving but thriving in this new information environment by repurposing their physical spaces to adapt to the digital age. Here are the major needs that these libraries are meeting.
Social Learning Spaces
Students still want to meet and learn in physical environments. (Check any shopping mall, coffee shop, or teen center.) Online bookstores have not killed the physical bookstore. But like bookstores, the school library needs to become a high-touch environment in a high-tech world.
Comfort and appearance are increasingly important. Upholstered seating, flexible furniture arrangements, and attention to aesthetics in lighting and colors help make the library a place where students and staff want to be.
The modern library is a place for teams to work together, formally and informally. For schools that have no other spaces for recreation and play, such as a student commons or a playground, the library can provide such spaces, especially before and after school. A successful library adopts a liberal definition of what constitutes a constructive activity, allowing users to engage in gaming and research on topics of personal interest. Such a library may be the only place at school where some students feel at home.
The school library can become a learning commons by encouraging a wider scope of use by more school personnel for tutoring, vocational education, gifted and talented services, and a raft of instructional support services. Technology integration specialists' offices and workspaces should be a part of the library so that users can readily collaborate with them and access their expertise.
Production and Presentation Spaces
School library expert 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."2
Libraries are becoming maker-spaces, giving all students access to workstations with fast processing speed, adequate memory, and software for video and photo editing, music production, voice recordings, computer programming, multimedia composition, and even 3-D printers.
As digital access moves from computer workstations to mobile devices, the physical library needs a robust wireless network infrastructure. Also essential are numerous electrical outlets to power and recharge mobile devices; indirect lighting that reduces screen glare throughout the library, not just in computer labs; and workspaces on which laptops can be placed at a good ergonomic height.
School libraries have traditionally contained presentation areas for librarians to read stories and to create puppet shows and skits. Today's libraries need to expand these spaces as electronic presentation areas for students and staff. 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 audience response systems.
The library's resources have changed, but not its mission: teaching people to effectively access information to meet their needs. The emphasis has shifted from teaching learners how to find and organize information to teaching them how to evaluate and use information. But students and teachers need guidance and instruction more than ever. Teaching space for use by the school's information expert—the librarian—remains vital. The librarian's desk needs to be prominently placed for one-on-one assistance.
Large-group instruction is still a useful means of imparting information, giving instructions, and hosting discussions. Such instruction requires a classroom-sized seating area in or attached to the library. Seminar and small-group spaces are popular in all libraries and can be created by sectioning off part of the main room with furniture or dividers. Separate conference rooms can be used by many groups throughout the school.
A Place Where Kids Want to Be
We can learn by looking at places where kids want to be. Coffee shops show that kids want social learning spaces. 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 demand that we make libraries knowledge-production areas.
A well-designed and widely used 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 crucial; and that self-exploration should be encouraged. These values remain, even as the library space evolves.
Making It Happen: What School Leaders Can Do
- Be broad-minded about the functions of the school's library. Think less about designing an effective library and more about how the library program will support the goals of your effective school.
- Insist that students and staff have access to professional librarians who embrace their role in technology implementation throughout the school.
- Recognize that students need a place in the school where they can learn independently; find expert help in locating and using high-quality information; practice group learning skills; and feel welcome, safe, and valued.
Scholastic Research Foundation. (2008). School libraries work! (3rd ed.). Danville, CT: Scholastic Library Publishing. Retrieved from www.scholastic.com/content/collateral_resources/pdf/s/slw3_2008.pdf
Valenza, J. K., & Johnson, D. (2009, October). Things that keep us up at night. School Library Journal, pp. 28–32.
Doug Johnson is director of media and technology at Mankato Area Public Schools, Mankato, Minnesota. He is the author of The Classroom Teacher's Technology Survival Guide (Jossey-Bass, 2012). He blogs at the Blue Skunk Blog.
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