Saving School Libraries: How Technology and Innovation Help Them Stay Relevant

School libraries today have to be different from libraries of the past—or they will just lose their value completely. Stay tuned to figure out some of the changes libraries are making to become more worthwhile than ever before.

Public school libraries have always served an admirable purpose in education. In their indirect way, they’ve given students support in learning endeavors and been a go-to spot for information.

That said, the first Internet generation now is now rising through the public school ranks. Students now rely on the Internet for more of their information than ever before. Libraries need big changes to remain relevant.  It is not enough to simply “be there” anymore.  School libraries need to reach out to students and pull them in with helpful resources that combine traditional and contemporary theories in literacy.

Many school libraries are already making strides to capture and maintain the interest of students, while others seem always to be trailing just a few steps behind. Programs like the YOUmedia initiative housed at Chicago’s Harold Washington Library incorporate student-led publishing, music as a form of literacy and encouragement in academic pursuits to keep K-12 kids interested in what the library can do for them. Though YOUmedia does not take place in a public school, the open access to urban students and push towards literacy through technology are applicable to school settings.

Keeping up with student need requires a harmonious blend of traditional and contemporary philosophy.

Here are a few necessities to consider from the traditional point of view.

Libraries need to provide an unbiased, and unlimited, access to information. This is at the core of every K-12 library’s purpose. All students have a level playing field when it comes to obtaining information and learning.

They also need to serve as a catalyst for social change. School libraries have quietly promoted progressive thought through the materials they have provided over the years. Long before Internet search engines reigned supreme, students were able to research what they wanted in private, without fear of retaliation. Providing access to a wide variety of information has made school libraries an important piece in forward thinking.

One major benefit school libraries have tended to offer a safe oasis. School libraries have always afforded students a quiet, safe place for extracurricular meetings and studies. They have also given teachers a place to escape or quietly prepare for classes without unnecessary distractions. Students and teachers do not have to answer for themselves in a library setting but can take some quiet time to get ready for what comes next.

And finally, school libraries also serve as great community spaces. Most school libraries have several areas that can serve numerous purposes. Extracurricular clubs, planning committees or just friends who want to study together can meet in school libraries and have the space needed to accomplish tasks.

Considering what we need from a contemporary point of view may seem intimidating, as we must integrate what has not existed in previous generations. Nonetheless, they are very important.

I am referring to concepts such as improved digital access. Instead of blocking websites or banning mobile devices from within library walls, schools should be finding ways to take part in the digital side of students’ lives. This goes beyond e-book offerings and extends to things like mobile apps and permission-based email reminders of upcoming school library events.

Something that would also be highly beneficial to students is remote access. Students should have the ability to tap into school library resources off campus. The most basic necessity is an online card catalog that is browser-based so students can look for what they need any time of day and from any location. Remote access may also mean digitizing archival photos and documents so students can access them from home and use the information in reports and other assignments. There is certainly something to be said of visiting the physical library for learning purposes, but without instant, remote options, students will bypass any help the school library provides a more convenient route.

There is also life skills development. Libraries should be more active. They shouldn’t just hand out books, but should take a vested interest in what the information contained means for long-term student success. To provide the most value to students, school libraries should not just act as a support system to other life skills initiatives, but should create their opportunities to guide students.

Finally, let’s consider live events. A great way to earn the attention of contemporary students is to engage them in literacy in a live, personal way. This might mean inviting an author for a book reading or bringing in a local celebrity to discuss a book or media trend. Geography should not be an excuse, either. Technology has made it possible to host these live events via Skype or other video software.

For school library relevancy to remain strong, librarians and media faculty need not view tradition and technology as isolated ideas. There is no reason why school libraries should fear competing sources of information. With the right adjustments, K-12 libraries can work alongside the rest of the data students access on a daily basis. Remaining relevant is simply a matter of carrying foundational ideals forward and adapting to an ever-changing information culture.

What Will the Libraries of the Future Look Like?

Most experts are ambitious in their visions of public school libraries.

Library expert Doug Johnson says that all libraries have three primary responsibilities in the coming decade: providing “high touch environments in a high-tech world;” offering virtual services, and standing ground as uber information hubs. Rolf Erikson is the author of Designing a School Library Media Center for the Future and he says that he is very “wary” of tradition because he feels it has kept administrators and library faculty from embracing innovation in the past. He believes that especially at the elementary school level, future libraries need to look beyond mere text materials to provide a learning space, not simply a “warehouse space.”

The Associate University Librarian for Research and Instruction at Temple University, Steven J. Bell, has written extensively on the topic of libraries of the future in higher education and K-12 institutions. He predicts that libraries of the future will have highly automated and mobile reference sections, on-demand collections and entrepreneurial librarians unafraid to learn new technology and implement cutting-edge ideas. Like Johnson and Erikson, Bell is optimistic for the role school libraries will play in K-12 education if decision-makers are willing to break out of the traditional rut.

Now, how do we get this kind of libraries, exactly?

Truthfully, the process is not that certain yet. However, the principal trends are pointing toward making modern K-12 public libraries offer intensely engaging learning environments to all students.

The first thing to note is that students are going to have, at their disposal, a greater range of resources than ever before…and that is saying something. One major goal of school libraries is ultimate to engage students and to provide them with skills necessary to function effectively in academic life. With the help of qualified libraries, students learn to research independently and expand their reading and writing via library resources.

Modern library resources include a whole range of elements. It includes ebooks, academic databases, and innovative programs that allow students to explore their creative inclinations, learn new skills, and apply their learning in innovative ways.

A key component of future libraries will be increased effectiveness as well as greater access to these types of elements. More K-12 public school libraries will learn to automate their resource management strategies and develop rewarding collaborative partnerships.

Teachers will likely see an increase in direct library supports for the classroom too. Research consistently shows evidence for the general finding that students with access to full-time, qualified librarians and to large library collections perform better on standardized tests for reading and writing.

Administrators will likely see more return on their investment in library resources. Inevitably, the cost-efficiency of libraries is very likely to increase. This is a general trend in technology, anyway, with new technologies and features such as remote access to resources helping to reduce the general costs associated with library management. Librarians can readily expand their library resources without having to take up additional space.

Parents and students may very well enjoy better access to their public school libraries from home, too, since remote access is set to be a definite future trend. Perhaps most interesting, though, is the expansion of partnerships. For instance, some public schools have taken to partnering with their local libraries and with online organizations such as Limitless Libraries and MyLibrary NYC. The latter is a major innovation launched in 2011 to essentially combine public library and school library resources for students in New York City, allowing students to request materials from any of the three public library systems that serve the area.

Anyone particularly following library trends and looking to remain up to date must also allow that there will be some further changes and shifts to come. Technology is an inevitably dynamic thing, and it is having an impact on most things, education perhaps higher on the list than most.

The test for public school libraries will be the maintaining of a balance between access to resources – innovative access where possible – and managing associated costs. The good news, long-term, is that the future trends look set to help this balance, not hinder it. In the end, though, only time will tell which trends stick among those that we are already noticing, and what new technologies will do for school libraries in the long term.

Which Libraries Are Doing It Right?

The truth is that many K-12 libraries finding themselves on the chopping block in the budget cuts of recent years.

However, I believe that the type of learning that goes on in libraries is essential for academic and real-world success. Librarians, information associates, media center specialists – call them what you want, but these professionals are just as important to student success as homeroom teachers and administrators.

But not every school library is meeting its demise. Let’s look at three specific library initiatives that are reaching students in the right way, and why their approaches work.

Ogden School District, Utah

At the end of the 2013-2014 school year, the Ogden School District laid off ALL teacher librarians as a drastic budget cut. This was a misguided idea. An uproar from the parents, students, and community at large ensued and resulted in seven of the original 20 returning to full-time spots.

With something to prove, the returning librarians spent the summer developing a plan to help students become top-notch researchers in the digital age. This includes information technology training that puts the responsibility of learning into the hands of the students – and teaches them to dig a little deeper than a simple Google search for information.

The takeaway from all this? Successful K-12 libraries will not simply house information. Their staffs will teach students how to access that information for lifelong learning.

The Meadowbrook School of Weston, Massachusetts

In November 2014, this elementary school library was honored by the American Library Association for its interdisciplinary learning track for third graders. The “Transforming Tales” program starts in the physical library, where third graders read fairy tales from across the globe. The students compare cultures through the fairy tales read and then take those comparisons back to social studies, music, art, math and P.E. classes. In the end, the third graders develop their fairy tales in groups and incorporate building blocks, song, dance and drawing into their depiction. The end product is the result of cross-curricular learning, but it all starts within the school library walls.

The takeaway? School libraries should be the common thread that ties all disciplines together for most effective K-12 student experiences.

New Augusta South Elementary School, Indianapolis

This elementary school library was honored by the American Library Association as the National School Library Program of the Year. Headed by librarian Lauren Kniola, this open-access library facilitates student learning all day (not just during scheduled library visits) and also takes the lead on technology training for teachers. To help with student research, the school library has a link that maintains bookmarks of previous student’s research to help others find information more quickly. By welcoming students and teachers through the library doors, New Augusta South makes the library the hub of the school and encourages collaborative learning.

The takeaway? The resources of a K-12 library should be accessible to all students and teachers, all the time. This can be accomplished through open-access policies during school hours and virtual access to materials and research around the clock.

What all three of these library systems are doing right is avoiding isolation. By collaborating with other teachers and staff, these libraries are using their resources most effectively and giving students the skills to succeed in research, technology, and literacy well beyond their K-12 years. Instead of making information a commodity, these and other successful school libraries are viewing that information as a common right amongst students and educators – to the benefit of every individual at the school.

Revolutionizing school libraries, as you can see, is a necessity. Get ready to see a lot of new and improved K-12 library systems over the next several years. I’m excited.



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