Keeping Public School Libraries Relevant
Public school libraries have always served an admirable purpose in education. In an indirect way, K-12 libraries have given students support in learning endeavors and been a go-to spot for information. With that being said, as the first Internet-generation rises through the public school ranks, libraries need big changes to remain relevant. It is not enough to simply "be there;" 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 to always 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.
For public school libraries to keep up with student need, and grab the ever-divided attention of these youth, a blend of traditional and contemporary philosophy needs to take place. The most vital include:
• 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.
• Catalyst for social change. In their own quiet ways, school libraries have provided 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.
• 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.
• Community space. 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.
• 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.
• Remote access. Students should have the ability to tap into school library resources off campus. The most basic necessity is an online card catalogue 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 in favor of a more convenient route.
• Life skills development. Libraries should not simply hand out books, but should take a vested interest in what the information contained means for long-term student success. School libraries should not just act as a support system to other life skills initiatives, but should create their own opportunities to guide students.
• 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. School library staff should not be intimidated by geography; technology has made it possible to host these live events via Skype or other video software.
Experts agree that a blend of foundational values and access through technology are paramount to school library success. 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.
For school library relevancy to remain strong, librarians and media faculty need not view tradition and technology as isolated ideas. There is really 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.
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