Friday, June 18, 2010

Close the library?

This post first appeared as a guest post on Doug Johnson's Blue Skunk Blog. Thank you for the opportunity, Doug!


As we wind up the academic year, I've been thinking about our transition from a traditional school library to a learning commons. It became official this year, and judging by our traffic and circulation numbers, it’s been a big success.

The kind of work that students are now engaged in looks different than it did even just five years ago. Our instruction reflects this and has evolved, with lessons that now include topics such as source evaluation, advanced search skills, web-based information platforms, and fair use media. Our website has turned into a 24/7 support portal featuring tutorials and rich resources for students working out of school hours.

The things that are working:

    * rewarding collaborations with teachers for extended research activities and multi-media projects (instructional class use went up 74% over the past year!)
    * media production - through the roof
    * new informational web tools for :
          o location
          o evaluation
          o synthesis
          o presentation
    * new formats
          o eBooks
          o CD / MP3 audio books
          o web-based sources for free digital content
          o graphic novels of classics and for curriculum related topics

The things that are not working:

    * lines of students waiting to get in because we are often beyond seating capacity
    * requests for extended hours which we struggle to staff
    * learning commons staff stretched t-h-i-n by our increased student and class use

And one thing that surprised me:

    * a few teachers who prefer the traditional library model of silent, individual study

I was genuinely taken aback when someone expressed to me that there were a few faculty members who weren't pleased with the new learning commons model. Where I see engagement, creativity, differentiation, diversity, collaboration, and relevance, they see noisy students. Where I see new sources of information with text-to-speech, translation options, and ways to manipulate and understand digital content, they see students using computers instead of reading books. Where I see innovation, they see distraction.

Books are wonderful, but they aren't necessarily accessible by all learners. Common decency, and the US  Federal Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 Universal Design Law, demand accessible alternatives. While handing out a xeroxed reading packet may be a comfortable tradition, it does not allow access for all students nor does it allow them to learn the skills of navigating links to original sources, annotating for web-based collaboration, or seeking alternative perspectives. These are critical thinking skills, and it is our job is to advocate for students who are otherwise locked alone in an analog world.

During moments of self-doubt, when I wonder if perhaps we've gone too far, I look around at other programs in our state where a number of traditional libraries have been closed due to budget cuts. At the same time, many other districts, including some in highly cash-strapped towns, are protecting their learning commons. Why?

Perhaps it’s because the learning commons has taken the lead in educating not only students, but also faculties, in new informational technologies. Perhaps its because the learning commons has become a leader for incorporating special tools for students with learning disabilities. Perhaps it’s because the learning commons has become essential to the educational mission of the school.  

As I have been thinking about these things, an interesting blog post appeared in my RSS feed. In YALSA Blog: Save Libraries? Linda Braun posted her recent discussion with  YALSA Blog manager MK Eagle. They talked about the Save Libraries Campaign, advocacy, and the quandary of what to do about bad libraries. They gave voice to the unspeakable. Do all libraries deserve to be saved? What is our obligation to advocate for poor programs?

This to me highlights the perception gap between a "traditional" library and a modern learning commons. Here we have professionals in the field of librarianship talking about the difficulty of supporting library programs that fail to maintain their relevance to modern educational needs, and yet I know there are a few people in my own building who long for the days of books, hard-copy periodicals, and silent individual study.

For the next academic year, I will continue to try to improve communication with the remaining holdouts in our building. I will continue to build collaborative bridges with these colleagues who question technology and the new terrain of information literacy.

Nevertheless, I know that no matter how hard I try, I will not be able to convince everyone. I sometimes feel like a missionary who finds a few souls that do not wish to be saved. So they won’t be.

Nor will traditional school libraries. They will continue to close.


Photo credit:
R. Cicchetti
CCHS Learning Commons

3 comments:

  1. Powerful article. As one who recently hung out in the LC lately, I was amazed at all the powerful learning going on. Your stats say it all. Stay the course!

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  2. Thanks for this thought-provoking and extremely useful (and positive) post on the topic of saving libraries. You shed light on what mk and I were trying to get across and put a real-life angle on it. The last line in your post about traditional school libraries continuing to close reminds me of a phrase I once heard in a tech podcast in which the hosts ended up talking about libraries. One of the hosts said, "Nostalgia is not going to save libraries" and I think I would add to that tradition is not going to save libraries. (The ultimate line being "Nostaligia nor tradition is going to save libraries.") The field needs forward thinking and proactive librarians like you. That's what will save libraries.

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  3. I want to go back in time and ask every school librarian who recently lost their job the questions:
    *What is it that your library offers to your users in addition to accessing information?
    *Do your users know about all of your services and resources?
    *Do your financial stakeholders (admin, school board members, community members) know what it is that you do?

    I would love to see librarians publicizing their resources and services better. In this day of budget cuts and library eliminations- librarians need to be sales people and spread the word!

    Keep up the good work!
    (Linda: I love the quote: "Nostalgia/tradition is not going to save libraries")

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