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« Changed but Still Critical - Part Two of Two | Main | Who doesn't get it? »

Changed but Still Critical - Part One of Two

 I have been asked to write an article aimed at the administrators of international schools, answering the question: Do we really need physical libraries any more? So below is my draft that I am hoping you, my PLN, will read and help me improve.


Changed but Still Critical: Brick and Mortar School Libraries in the Digital Age (Part one of two)
For nearly 100 years1, elementary and secondary schools have been building or remodeling their libraries, creating spacious rooms that contain thousands of physical materials to support reading programs, aid research projects, and expand the content area curricula. Studies2 indicate that schools with good library programs are more successful than those without, validating the wisdom of the leaders in those schools.

Today’s reality is that readers and information seekers are having increasingly less need to visit a physical library to meet their basic information needs. Digital information sources, readily accessed from classroom, home or mobile computing devices are the choice of many students and teachers.  The “Net Generation” student increasingly prefers the visual and the virtual rather than the printed text. Why, many school leaders are asking, does a school need a physical library when seemingly all resources can be obtained using an inexpensive netbook and a wireless network connection? Might these large physical spaces in our schools be re-purposed for greater educational impact?

I would argue that the best school libraries are not just surviving, but thriving, in this new digital information environment – but not without seriously re-purposing their physical spaces. This article looks at three ways today’s school library can and should adapt to the digital age, new learning environments and 21st century skill expectations of today’s students.

1.  Social learning spaces
Students still want to meet and learn in physical environments - check any shopping mall, coffee shop or teen center. Online bookstores did not kill the physical bookstore. But like bookstores, libraries are becoming “high touch” environments in a high tech world.

Comfort and aesthetics are increasingly important in today’s school library. High school libraries are following the example of bookstores, public and college libraries and adding coffee shops. Upholstered seating, flexible furniture arrangements and attention to aesthetics in lighting and colors help make libraries places where students and staff want to be. Many small, intimate spaces are being carved out of one grand space.

There is an increased body of evidence that supports the value of student collaboration. Studies demonstrate that  the ability to form “learning groups” in which participants collaboratively construct personal meaning for content studied is the most important factor in college students being successful.3 As collaboration and social learning grows in importance, libraries are becoming places for teams to work together, both formally and informally.

For many students, school libraries also fit the description of a “third place”- an area for informal social gathering outside of home (the first place) and work (the second place).4 Oldenberg suggests such environments are necessary for a healthy society and healthy individuals. He writes:

The character of a third place is determined most of all by its regular clientele and is marked by a playful mood, which contrasts with people's more serious involvement in other spheres. Though a radically different kind of setting for a home, the third place is remarkably similar to a good home in the psychological comfort and support that it extends…

For schools that have no other spaces such as a student commons or playground, the library can provide spaces for recreation and play, especially before and after school. Allowing gaming, research on topics of personal interest, and a more liberal definition of what constitutes “constructive activities,” the library space may be the only place some students feel “at home.”

The term “learning ‘commons” is growing in popularity in some educational institutions. Popularized by David Loertscher, the school library as “learning commons” can be defined as:

...the place, either physical or virtual, that is the hub of the school where exemplary teaching and learning are show cased; where all professional development, teaching and learning experimentation and action research happens; and where various specialists of the school have offices, physical or virtual.5

The use of the library as a “learning commons” will mean different things to different organizations, but flexibility, a wider scope of use by more school personnel, and a less narrow definition of “library” will be the hallmarks of the library/learning commons. A space that has tutoring, vocational education, gifted and talented services, and a raft of educational support services including library services provides greater better service to students.


1. The American Association of School Libraries began in 1914.
2. “School Libraries Work!” 3rd ed. Scholastic, 2008.
3. Brown, John S and Richard Adler, “Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail and Learning 2.0” Educause Review. Jan/Feb 2008.
4. Oldenburg, Ray, The Great Good Place. New York: Paragon Books, 1989
5. David V. Loertscher, Carol Koechlin, and Sandi Zwaan. The New Learning Commons Where Learners Win: Reinventing School Libraries and Computer Labs. Salt Lake: Hi Willow, 2008


Part Two


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