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Close the library? Guest post by R. Cicchetti

I was just delighted to get this wonderful guest post from Robin Cicchetti from the Concord-Carlisle Regional High School Learning Commons in Concord, Massachusetts. With all the challenges library profession faces, with all the stereotypes we encounter, with all the job loses we hear about, reading about a hard won "win" like Robin's should cheer us all.

I think my new motto is: Libraries aren't going away; old school libraries are going away.

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. [Bold is mine - Doug]

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.

Robin Cicchetti
Concord-Carlisle Regional High School Learning Commons
Concord, MA 01742

Photo credit: R. Cicchetti, CCHS Learning Commons

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Reader Comments (12)

Beautiful...simply beautiful! The Wild West (or East) of Libraries comes to fruition! Thanks Robin for taking action and sharing it with us! I'm reading the Loertscher book on Learning Commons and this is a great follow-up on its implementation. "...maintain relevance to modern educational needs..." Spot on!

June 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKathy N

AMEN. I struggle with the idea of trying to save libraries when some of the libraries are not always worth saving. I just had the joy of working with an administrator who asked for some help in crafting a job description for a 21st century school librarian - and that lucky school will hopefully have a vibrant learning commons as a result of strong administrator support and a school library media specialist who understands how kids learn.

Individual, quiet study has its place, but there are loads of other places, many of them less expensive to maintain, in which to do it. Long live the NOISY learning commons!!!

June 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMary

I appreciate the honesty of this post. One of the things I dread the most as I move my library even more deeply into the learning commons are those teachers who want the library to remain a quiet space. There's already tension in the air and I need to figure out a diplomatic way to stave this off. In the short term, I suppose those who don't like this way of thinking simply won't bring their students to the library but I'm confident that in the long term, when they get wind of engaging learning happening in the library, they might venture forth.

June 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJo-Anne Gibson

Thanks for this great insight into your journey in transforming the library program into a creative commons. I am getting my Library Media endorsement now in these uncertain times, and for us just entering the field the creative commons model is a must. What do you think were your first steps in the transition? Those teachers who are stuck with that old image of the library need to wake up and realize that "a quiet place to study" is study hall or detention NOT the library, which is an ACTIVE place of discovery-based learning. For learning to be active there needs to be noise!

However, here is a suggestion for a compromise: Depending on the physical layout of the library a "quiet room(s)" could be designated. Kind of like the opposite of my old University library that had small rooms for group work that kept talkers isolated from the main library. The most space and emphasis should be put towards collaborative communication in the creative commons, but if possible, the library could have off-shoot rooms (maybe unused supply rooms) for quiet reading/study.

June 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJess

As a US-born librarian currently working in a secondary school in the UK, I found this post extremely interesting and helpful. I work in a school that once had a strong library programme, but lost momentum in recent years and was staffed by a library assistant until I took up the post in October. As a newly qualified librarian, I certainly have my work cut out for me, even more so now that budget cuts may result in a restructuring of the public and school libraries in our region.

We are limited by space in our school, but I am a strong advocate of the learning commons model, so I am always looking out for ideas that I could realistically apply in our school. Most teachers at my school seem to welcome the change and are pleased that I am actively seeking to discover innovative ways for them to use the library. Unfortunately, the school has a legacy of using the library for individual study, exams, or even as a "time out" place for pupils who have been excluded from class for behavioural reasons, so not everyone is used to viewing the library as a teaching and learning space.

Mary, I think your comment that the library/learning commons is simply too expensive to maintain to be used as a study hall is spot on! Although I obviously welcome pupils who legitimately need to use the library during their free periods, the only way school libraries can survive is if they are seen as an indispensable resource for teachers and their classes. I have been trying to explain this to management without alienating them. Perhaps when I point out that the library is worth more than £100,000 in print books, AV, ICT equipment, and databases, they will understand why I want to prioritise the space for classes that will actually utilise these materials!

June 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterErin

This is fantastic that have educated masses and I am really glad to see the same thing has been attempted, thank you.

June 18, 2010 | Unregistered Commentero.v.kriss

This is a great post! I have been working in school libraries in the UK for a very long time - even when I started out, I had a gut feeling that a school library wasn't somehow meant to be a totally quiet place. How could it be quiet if you had a class who were getting excited about their learning? In my present school, which is very traditional in it's teaching methods, the school library is a subversive place! Our new library is too small to truly become a learning commons - we cannot zone different activities - and we sometimes get a clash of cultures with older students who want to revise or study in silence or talk about the night before very loudly! But we are starting to use the space more creatively - it will take a lot of time as the school has never had a "proper" library or a professional librarian before. I like the idea of a library that is not just a place for locating and gathering information, but also a place for being imaginative and creating. So our library communications have this written all over them:

Think...Ask...Read...Imagine...Create...@ Your Library!

June 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Robinson

I am so excited to hear about your learning commons. I'd love to hear back from anyone who is using this type of model at the elementary level. I too am a student in the process of becoming an endorsed teacher-librarian. I love the idea of a "learning commons" but haven't seen it enacted at the elementary level and would love any feedback on how folks are making that a reality.

June 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJulia S.

Thank you for posting this excellent description of how the idea of a learning commons is refreshing the stodgy library (& librarian) image.
Have any colleagues applied this concept at special education facilities?

Would you be willing to share how space and budget 'issues' are resolved? We're being cut in budget and staff. A quest for a grant didn't pan out. This has been the worst year for the program since 1985.

June 20, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterroselle

Thanks to all who responded with such affirmations about Robin's post and work. I'm this will eventually become an article with even broader reach.

My only complaint is that my guest blogger's post are far more popular than my own ;-)


June 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

Haha – thanks, Doug.

Reading the comments has been both fun and instructive. I am deeply appreciative of the feedback and the ideas that have been shared. Thank you all for taking the time to respond. Have a wonderful summer!

June 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRobin Cicchetti

Although I am entering into this discussion several months after the original posts, I find the conversation very relevant to this school year. It is reassuring and motivating to see such powerful dialogue in support of school libraries shifting into Learning Commons!

Like Julia, I am interested in how to apply the Learning Commons model in an elementary school. Many of us teacher librarians have seen our time cut back, especially in smaller schools, so that we are only in the library the equivalent of two days a week. Being creative with our time is critical, as we want to support every class from Kindergarten to Grade 7. Our traditional model of seeing each class rotate through a fixed block is no longer valid. Teacher Librarians need to continue to support literacy and curriculum, but we also need to support the needs of 21st Century Learners. This includes providing support in technology, digital literacy, inquiry projects, research skills, just-in-time access, and a host of other skills to render our learners confident, articulate, and tech 'savvy'. The structure of our toolkits has changed, and we need to adapt to this change.

Does anyone have any examples of a Learning Commons timetable that works in an elementary school? Do your timetables support the 'read aloud and book exchange' block of time for Primary classes? Do you have any creative suggestions (ie. Flex blocks) for connecting with students within a shortened work week?

I appreciate the advice offered here, thank you!

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterD Gratton

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