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School Libraries: Are They Relevant in the Age of Google?

School libraries, and their librarians, must retool to remain pertinent to their schools.

Learning Commons CDE 2016 03 07.JPG
By Thelmadatter - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Over the past 10 years, the number of schools that have trained teacher-librarians has declined dramatically. While many reasons for this drop exist, the primary culprit is school budget cuts.

But with the advance of the Internet and e-books, many district and school leaders are asking questions: Do school libraries, and librarians, really matter? Have Google and the abundance of digital devices made libraries and librarians unnecessary? In our move to more personalized learning, what role do libraries play? And especially in times of shrinking school budgets, have libraries and librarians become unaffordable luxuries that are no longer an important part of what defines a “good school”?

These are fair questions, and librarians — and their libraries — must make a valid case for their ongoing existence.

Dynamic public libraries are reinventing themselves to remain relevant to their communities. And to endure, school libraries must do the same. The new and thriving school libraries are no longer just bastions of books; they operate as their school’s hub of research and open-ended learning opportunities for students. And librarians who have the skills and tools — or the interest and ability to acquire these skills — will likely survive. Their old-school counterparts won’t, nor should they.

There are some great opportunities for the new school library. The idea of libraries as learning commons has gotten considerable national traction, and some successful models have been born. Characteristics of learning commons are:

  • Digital Research Resources. Using digital devices, students acquire skills in developing search strategies, selecting and evaluating appropriate online databases, and effectively using the Internet.
  • Social Learning Spaces. No longer a quiet place, learning commons provide students with defined areas for both individual and small-group, collaborative work.
  • Maker Spaces. In this part of the learning commons, a wide range of tools and resources, both digital and analog, are available for students to use to build out projects.
  • Presentation Spaces. And in another area, flat screen monitors or projection systems are available for students to present their work to small or large groups.
But if a school is considering the new learning commons model, it will require more than just a digitally astute, collaborative and hard-working librarian to create and staff it. And the school will also need more than just an attractive and dynamic space. For a school to have a successful learning commons, it requires classroom teachers who will partner with their librarians to use the commons in a way that meets their students' needs.

Unfortunately, some teachers aren’t dedicated collaborators or aren't aware of the possibilities of collaborating with their librarians, and some schools don't particularly value this type of collaboration. In elementary and middle schools, “student library time” often translates as “teacher break time,” meaning that teachers drop off their students at the library and go about their other business for the class period. Not much collaborative work happens between the librarian and the teacher.

And often in high schools, students’ classroom time is primarily structured around the traditional “whole class instruction model." In this model, the teacher lectures or students work on the same task at the same time, which means they have little time for divergent, individualized and small group work.

Schools will be off to a great start if they hire a rock star librarian and retool the library to a learning commons model, especially if they want to provide personalized and open-ended learning opportunities for students. But this effort will only be successful in schools where teachers are willing partners and librarians are strong advocates for collaboration. Likewise, it will be successful in environments where students aren’t tethered to their chairs in classrooms, but have opportunities for quality time individually and in small groups in this new learning space. 

Personalized learning should mean more than tailoring classroom instruction to a student’s needs and interests. It should also allow students to explore, create and demonstrate. And school libraries — especially when they embrace more of a learning commons model — are a great place for that to happen. Inside these new realms of student-centered learning, libraries and librarians can again justify their value in schools.