Why School Libraries are More Important Than Ever

Kids today have it easy.

Aside from not having to walk 2 miles (uphill) each way to school through waist deep snow, they have the Internet to provide a rich source of knowledge and information, and don't have to rely on the school library to get this information.

Source: MS Office Imagebank
Back in the palaeolithic age when I went to high school, the school library served 2 useful functions... It was a place where you could hang out with your friends (as long as you had a book in front of you and didn't actually make any noise - an extremely difficult task for a goofy adolescent boy), and it held a collection of books (usually 2 per course) that you needed to actually do your assignments.  These were special books that could not leave the premises, so it was always a competition to get your hands on them during your study period, or you may have to actually come in after school -- a fate worse than death to a teenager.

You could always tell when a class received a new assignment when a small horde of students descended on the shelves, each hoping to be one of the two people that actually got a book.  The smart kids actually came in early and moved the books far away from where Mr. Dewey (of the infamous Decimal system) said it should be. While the other kids were frantically looking in the Canadian History section, they calmly walked over to the Biography section and retrieved the treasured tome.

But all of this is foreign to kids today. There is no need to fight over books since everything you need is on the Internet.

Are school libraries even needed today?

I often get the chance to talk to groups of teachers about the 1:1 computer program at Appleby College (now in its 13th year) and how homework is distributed, completed and submitted all on a computer. I can pretty much bank on at least a couple of people hanging around after the talk to ask questions, and more often than not these lovely people are librarians - mildly anxious about their future.

They talk about schools like High Tech High in San Diego, where there are no libraries. All material for their project driven curriculum is sourced from the Internet. (On a side note, I had a chance to visit this school and came away with many useful take-aways which I'll cover in future posts)

When they ask if libraries are important I am quick to assure them they are more important than ever, but like technology, the library in today's schools has to dramatically change to be relevant to today's learners.

In the model of the school library of my era (and I would say most of today's institutions), the librarian saw themselves as THE curator of information. They were trained to find the best resources -- books, periodicals, media (although back in my day that meant filmstrips and movies) available for the teachers to deliver the curriculum, and doing it on a pauper's budget.

Today life is different. The Internet can deliver an unlimited amount of quality information.

That's one of the problems.

The other one is that the Internet can also deliver a whole lot of drivel, trash, and errant information.

Who knows how to tell the difference?  Certainly not the students.

People trained in information taxonomy, that's who... the librarians have the skills, but cannot be expected to act as the filter for every student on the Internet.

So the librarians become the teachers of skills not normally taught in school.

They can teach kids how to navigate, discern and separate the good from the garbage.

Instead of being THE curator, they are teaching kids how to curate information -- in books, magazines, media, web, video and countless other media formats today.

They are teaching kids to discover.

Librarians can become a key differentiator in the success of a technology enabled school.

If you only hand a student a computer and declare yourself a 21st Century school, you really have done no more than introduce a phenomenal amount of distraction into your student's world.

Or worse.

The Internet has some sharp edges where kids can be hurt and exposed to things nobody should see.

It would be akin to sending a child unescorted into a woodworking shop where there are many things that could both cut off a finger, or produce beautiful pieces of furniture.  The difference is in the training.

So in my world, the librarian now looks more like the shop teacher than the librarian of my high school era.

It's about imparting skills, developing literacy with information, both digital and with more traditional things like books (which are not going away any time soon).

It's about getting the value out of your technology investment, because it focusses on a critical skill our students need to both survive and thrive in today's world.

Do your school (or your kid's school) offer a course in digital literacy?

Has your library been re-imagined to support today's learners?


  1. Kevin,
    Excellent post and perspective. You "nailed" it here: Librarians can become a key differentiator in the success of a technology enabled school.

    The digital divide is a digital literacy divide not a technology divide. Thank you for making the brilliant case that kids are tech comfy but not tech savvy. We are needed!

  2. Angela,
    Thanks for your great comment. Having technology without the literacy to use them well is a message that seems to get lost in the excitement about the next great gadget or product from Apple. (Note: I'm not anti-Apple, I just don't see any device manufacturer really understanding learning).

    On another note - I enjoy your postings on http://www.angelamaiers.com/ Highly recommended!


  3. Kevin, Thank you so much for this post! School librarians do indeed teach information literacy skills and other important 21st century skills - in collaboration with classroom teachers and as we work with students 1:1 as they pursue information needs. You are right about "old school" librarians role being the primary curator -- and perhaps it is people who have this old stereotype in mind that think a school can get along just fine without one. If a school community is serious about helping students acquire 21st century skills, then you will find a school community that understands the true value of a certified school librarian.

    1. Nancy, Thanks for your comment. The community of certified librarians are a tremendous ally for people in my role who seek to provide the underlying environment for a great teaching and learning experience.

      Our students are being launched into a world vastly different than the one I was thrust into, and I (and all my colleagues) are doing them a great disservice if we do not provide the literacies and competencies necessary to thrive - with the ability to self curate the vast sludge of the information on the Internet being one of them.