Friday, January 20, 2012
School Libraries: Applying Innovative Ideas to a Threatened Species
While there are few who would argue that school libraries in Canada are in "good" health, there are even fewer who seem committed to supporting their desperately needed evolution. Those "few" are people who have the power to influence how school libraries are staffed and designed. One of the most powerful hang-ups that most people (parents and teachers, alike) have about school libraries is that they exist to support student reading. Walk into a local school library and you will see a collection of print materials that supports recreational reading for youth. You will see very few non fiction sources including encyclopedias and other reference tools. These are "online" and there seems a pervasive assumption that children can get their research material from the "Web". So, while reading is critically important to student acheivement, this CANNOT BE the ONLY thing school libraries should be focusing on.
It is time for drastic change.
And when I say, drastic...I am not kidding.
Ironically, as school libraries struggle to exist and be staffed, the Web becomes an increasingly tangled mess. For example, Google has recently come under attack because its results focus on paid or "optimized" placement and granular results that provide little meaningful context. The ability to peruse actual information sources has been greatly compromised to serve more lucrative, commercial ventures. Since most grown-ups struggle with finding context specific and ACCURATE information, it is a mystery how children are expected to do what many adults cannot.
This brings me to my suggestion.
I suggest that school libraries need to reinvent themselves as something much more sophisticated than what they currently are. They should not be a simple wharehouse of neatly (if you are lucky) catalogued materials to serve children. They should be "idea centres" where students, staff and faculty can put their ideas together for the purpose of innovation. This is NOT about repackaging a library and renaming it a "Learning Commons". This is about changing the PURPOSE of the library. What it is called is not important. It is what it DOES that is important.
The term "technology" is central to many discussions around the future of libraries and education. However, although learning to use technological tools may have value, the real value is in critical thinking. Critical thinking requires an environment that is conducive to creative thought and what could be more appropriate than a library in providing that environment? It could be an environment where librarians, teacher-librarians, library technicians, students and other staff are able to congrgate, discuss, and share.
A huge area of concern for most people is personal information management - managing the deluge of the information that shapes their decisions and activities. Students and teachers both need help with this. This goes far beyond the need for library to have neat shelves and catalogued books. Although private enterprise has moved into this area, this does not resolve the problem for the majority of people. Indeed, its absence in schools deprives our children the opportunity to become informed citizens. Creating productive, creative and informed adults should be central to the ambitions of our schools. However, by abandoning the school library - watching it waste away as its supply of resources is choked off by school districts - we ignore the future and what our children will need to be successful in it.
Since Canada will rely increasingly on its knowledge base to compete in the global marketplace, it seems bizzarre that school districts would forsake their libraries rather than invest in them. This investment, to clarify, goes well beyond funding collection development and a lonely teacher-librarian or library techncian. This investment should be in INNOVATION by creating spaces where all members of a school can congregate, research, share, problem solve and create. To believe that all of this can be achieved in a single, segregated classroom is misguided. To believe that this can happen without an "idea centre" is misguided. To believe that collaboration and equity among ALL school staff and teachers is critical to student acheivement is on the path to creating new centres of learning for our children. For our future.
I have had the pleasure of working with dozens of folks in school systems, and have learned a great deal about their constraints. Some of it resides in a lack of respect for non-teaching staff and an inability to think outside the proverbial "box". If no action is taken, school libraries and their potential for shaping the future educational outcomes of students will be eliminated. Entirely. If no effort is made then, perhaps, we deserve it.
What we have done in school libraries is simply not good enough and the proof lies in their pallid state. It is the responsibility of our ENTIRE COMMUNITY to fix this. It can start with you.
To solve the school library problem, we need people to think brilliantly and act courageously.