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When libraries go wild

New technologies, tight budgets and the changing needs of learners are transforming our school libraries. Sarah Jones talks to one school who has reinvented their library and another who has shut theirs down.

Key points
Some school libraries are closing as budgets tighten.
But others are transforming into “learning commons”.
These new areas may reflect the future of learning and learning spaces.

When she was a student librarian, Vicki Signal's job was to "shush!" other students. Today, Vicki is manager of the purpose-built media centre at Rhode Street School, which she says is a far from quiet place.
Her day may involve welcoming the kindergarten and junior school for combined kapahaka practice, moving furniture to make room for lego construction, setting up the new book display, checking out a set of digital cameras, and consulting with a teacher on their lesson plan. 
"There's lots of things to do here. We've broken down the barriers that say only nerds go to the library. Students are here outside of class time, and some of my most avid borrowers are those hard-to-reach boys."
The goal of Vicki's media centre is the same as the library of old: to support literacy and learning across the school. But the implementation could not be more different.
"We see the library as the hub of learning, feeding out to the classrooms," she says. This librarian is no stern gatekeeper to a printed archive, but a passionate advocate for literacy across all media and a valued contributor to her colleagues' teaching programmes.
More than books
Lisa Oldham, Development Specialist at the National Library, says the perception of the library as a dusty warehouse for books was never good enough.
"Great libraries have never been about books but about information and story and literacy. Great school librarians encourage readers. The more children read, the more they love to read. The more children love to read, the more they read. And good readers experience more success at school."
But what does a library mean to a student who, without the help of either librarian or library, can search and find information online, email an expert directly and get book recommendations from their social network?
"One thing our learners get from going to the library is support," says Vicki. "Students still have to be taught skills to use the internet: which sources, channels and networks to use, how to search effectively, and then how to evaluate and narrate the information they find."
New roles for librarians
Jeannie Skinner, Programme Advisor at the National Library, agrees. "Great school libraries are integral to issues of equity, of access to information and the development of the skills to become efficient users of that information.
“The librarian's expertise is in handling information and knowing the literature - it's when teachers and librarians collaborate that you play to strengths on both sides".
The information-sharing aspect of the librarian's role presents opportunities for the whole school, says Lisa. "The librarian can take a birds-eye view of information and literacy across the entire school community. This is something that can be difficult for a classroom teacher, who is focused on managing their class and their learning outcomes. The librarian can forge the connections between teachers, between students and information, and between school leadership and global networks."
From library to learning commons
Some say the library doesn't have a future at all. New media writer Seth Godin argues that technology is removing the "middlemen" that stand between the producer and the consumer.
Musicians can circumvent record companies to make, sell and share their music online, just as learners can circumvent the library to get to information. No amount of wi-fi or comfy seating will save the library if its mission remains connecting individuals to information.
If there is a future for libraries, Godin believes it lies in connecting people with each other and providing a place for that connection to happen. This is reflected in what folks at the National Library are calling the "learning commons" - the library as a gathering place, a social space, a focal point for students and teachers and community to work, play, debate, solve problems and invent projects together. A kind of "information marae" where content, technology and services are integrated in an environment that changes shape every day to suit the needs of the groups and individuals that use it.
Doesn't this sound like what we want for our classrooms? A physical environment that is flexible in its design, encourages collaboration and provides seamless access to the tools and people necessary for learning? New schools, such as Stonefields School in Auckland, are experimenting with classroom spaces that look more like libraries. Will the library become the new classroom?
The library is dead ...
The dilemma faced by Principal Melinda Bennett and her community at Ahuroa School was how to support the prolific reading habits of her children on an annual book budget of $1000. The rural primary school of 54 students decided to close its library last year.
"We investigated getting the children to the local library. Parents signed up their children with a library card. We taught the children how to reserve books online, and we took the bus once a week to pick up and drop off books", says Melinda. The old school library books went into the classrooms for the students to take home, and the National Library and other library services are used to supplement them.
Since then, the school has invested in tablets for the students. The children are now ordering and downloading ebooks and audio books onto their iPads and iPods. Students use an e-reader that connects to Auckland City Libraries. They request an ebook and receive an email with a download when the ebook become available. The ebook stays on the iPad for the issued period and then deletes itself.
"Our senior students are doing 100 percent of their reading on their school-provided 24/7 iPads", says Melinda. Although the picture books are still getting heavy use - there is little yet available in e-book format - Melinda estimates that at least 40 percent of her students are doing all of their personal and guided reading electronically.
... Long live the library
"Libraries are necessary", emphasises Melinda. "But the boundaries between school and community have become blurred. If there's a great resource that ratepayers are already supporting, why duplicate it? The library facility that we have is outstanding. We've got more kids reading more."
As for the services of a librarian - these are necessary too. "One of our staff members was a librarian and researcher, so we have those capabilities on board. They are specialised, skilled people", she says.
Is there a future for libraries and librarians? I think there is, but not as we've known them. The future for libraries is intimately tied up with what we want for the future of learning and learning spaces - in other words, with the transformation of the whole school.
National Library's Services to Schools website:
New Zealand eReader and eBook Taskforce wiki: https://nzert.wikispaces.com/
Sources of free ebooks:
International Children's Digital Library http://www.childrenslibrary.org/
Project Gutenberg http://www.gutenberg.org/
Seth Godin's blog: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2011/05/the-future-of-the-library.html

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