Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A library or no library... that is the question

Our library is one of those spaces in school that continues to intrigue me in terms of its purpose and role in today’s 21st Century learning environments. At times I walk in and see it’s a hub of activity and learning - often at lunchtimes and when teachers are working in there with groups of children. But at other times when no one is in there I find myself reflecting on how else we might better use the space. Could it be a media centre, a recording studio complete with green screen, a performance space or perhaps something else entirely?

But would we want to loose the library entirely? And if we were going to replace it with something else, we would need to be very clear on the why, and to identify what we might be losing in the process.

There are, as I see it, three main roles that the library performs. One with the library as a service, where students go to help build knowledge and make meaning, a place where they can find new directions in inquiries, and a space where a skilled teacher/ librarian can help support and make those connections with them. Secondly a place to simply get absorbed in reading, in learning to love turning the pages of an inspiring book, and to help develop a deep love of books and literacy. And thirdly the idea of the library as a sanctuary (see previous post) – a place that’s sought out at breaktimes as a calm alternative to racing around outside or kicking a ball on the field.

Over the past few weeks we’ve spoken with a number of principals and visited a number of schools that have approached the library in slightly different ways. It’s interesting to see what they’ve done.

Consider one school for example that has taken the concept of the library and had divided it up. The space that previously had been a traditional library had been converted into a comfortable space with bean bags and soft furnishings, and was home to newly acquired books as well as graphic novels and picture books. At lunchtime it was a busy place with children absorbed in reading and sharing the new titles. These were not titles that could be borrowed yet – instead set aside for literary lunchtime  grazing. Material that could be borrowed was in the main collection. This however was split up amongst the different learning houses around school – shared spaces with 120 plus children in each. Here the books were set out in more traditional library shelves, accessioned and categorised and at times reallocated to a different space by the library technician. Students could borrow the books using the self-issuing system in each of the rooms. And if they were looking for something specific, and it wasn’t in their learning house, the catalogue would tell them where they could find it.

A second school, with open learning spaces, had positioned the library at the centre of the school; it was a room without walls and a space where children, by nature of its very position, circulated through on route to their learning areas. Being in close proximity to the learning spaces meant that it became an extension of the class space and it’s tables were full of children absorbed in their learning. There was still a librarian though, responsible for accessioning, displays and working alongside children.

In questioning the length of time involved in covering, cataloguing and barcoding books, one principal we spoke with recently has decided to forgo the administration of the library and accept the potential losses that may ensue. He had discovered that only 20% of the collection was borrowed regularly and had calculated the cost of employing someone to do all of the work necessary to get the new books on the shelves. Instead he took a group of students to a bookshop along with three thousand dollars, got them to purchase coffee table books that would interest and inspire them, and then put them through the learning centres. The books are all now where students can easily access and read them and is reliant on a high trust model of issuing and returning.

Another school, again with the cost of covering and administration in mind, is looking at purchasing books and putting them into learning spaces with no covering and no cataloguing. The theory being that if a percentage are lost, then it is still only a fraction of someone’s salary to replace them. And also if they are sitting at home and a student is reading them, is that too bad a thing?

What you give up by not cataloging books is the knowledge management side of being able to find something you’re looking for - the ‘library as a service’ function. It means that if a student is interested in for example, frogs, they are unable to go onto a catalogue and pull up all the resource that the school has. That said, you could argue there are so many web based materials offering more up to date content that it’s not necessary anymore anyway.

Library or no library will, I think, be a conundrum that schools, and perhaps new schools in particular, will take time to resolve. Schools will have their own philosophies on how they will be staffed, how they will be used and where the emphasis will be placed. I think it’s probably most important for schools to decide on the most important elements in their particular context, setting and school, whether it’s about the library being a service, a place to learn to love reading, or a sanctuary - and then to take those elements and do them really well.

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