Are School Libraries Still Relevant?

The mainstreaming of e-readers and the wide availability of digitized and interactive content has sparked fierce debate on the future of reading and, in particular, the printed book. A corollary of this uncertainty can be seen in the anxious discussions on the future role of libraries and media specialists. In particular, many worry about the appropriate role for the media specialist or the appropriate structure for the school library. In an age where an increasing amount of information is digital and students are routinely required to access and present information within multiple mediums, what is the most useful structure for traditional libraries? And what sort of spaces do we envision these institutions becoming?

While the debate has certainly revealed a range of opinions, most of those positions share more commonality than not. Despite the occasional rhetorical flourish, most participants find general consensus with one another and differ only on the particulars. There are not many that advocate for libraries completely devoid of printed books, and fewer still believe that libraries should cling to the past and banish all digital content. Between the bookless library and the musty anachronism there lies much common ground.

In the February 9th online edition of Education Week , Katie Ash provides a useful reminder in “School Libraries Seek Relevance Through Virtual Access “, (subscription required). School libraries across the United States are in the midst of an identity crisis and asking tough questions about their role and relevance. As Ash writes:

“…libraries are working to reassert their relevance to schools by shifting from a quiet place to study and browse for books to an interactive, media-rich space for students to learn about digital tools, collaborate, and share their work.”

Ash points to an increasingly sophisticated, technical world which has transformed the both the library and the role of the traditional librarian. Quoting Doug Johnson, the Director of Media and Technology for the Mankato school system, Ash writes: “We’ve gone from being a guide in an information desert to a guide in an information jungle.”

Doug Johnson is not the first to grasp the challenge of transformation occurring in libraries in school systems across the country. In fact, I’ve worked closely with media specialists and librarians who worry that the wide availability of resources and open access to material will render more traditional tools and methods obsolete. While it’s certainly true that some tools and methods may soon be obsolete (or at least less helpful), it’s also true that open access to online resources and multiple mediums further strengthen the tie between the classroom and the school library.

One particularly encouraging sign is that many media specialists and librarians are now working closer than ever with classroom teachers and administrators to align library content and resources with curriculum and classroom material. True, there’s nothing new in maintaining specific course materials in-house, but the wide availability of digital resources have allowed for an even greater degree of matching students to resources and course materials across a wide range of readability levels.

For example, many school libraries have turned to content aggregators and are placing greater emphasis on their subscriptive web resources – resources that allow a more precise level of differentiation by offering information on just about any topic across a wide range of Lexile measures – as a means of supplementing specific course standards. These materials often complement the efforts of a school’s classroom teachers. One of the challenges faced by today’s librarians is reminding their peers and colleagues that these under-utilized digital tools exist not just for occasional secondary research purposes, but that they may be used as part of an active, ongoing effort to complement curriculum standards with materials across interests and reading abilities.

While some of the changes underway in media centers across the country have fueled anxious speculation about the relevance of school libraries, there’s nothing especially frightening about these growing pains. In fact, librarians and media specialists now have a tremendous opportunity to reassert their role as “guides in an information jungle,” and to collaborate ever more closely with classroom teachers and students seeking quality digital resources.

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