Tuesday, 1 February 2011

School Libraries RIP? The debate begins . . . . .

For many, books are to be equated with learning: afterall to be "well-read" is to be educated. Thus I am conscious that, for some, it is heresy for a headteacher to even consider the question. No true educationalist could consider a school without a library. However, at risk of blowing all my educational credentials in one go, I feel that someone has to be brave enough to ask the question.

The more I think about it, the more I find myself questioning why we are still spending money on books and on the School library. Let me explain why:

Amazon announced last week that they sold more e-Books than paperbacks in the US [BBC News story 28/01/11]. The writing is on the wall for the codex - books are going electronic. Printed editions will be survive, but, like LPs [that's vinyl for those under 30] they will be for collectors - there will always be people who want fine editions of books [after all people pay a premium for Folio Society editions and Hardbacks]. However, the direction of travel is clear: mass publication from newspapers to novels will be electronic. It is no surprise that I am asking myself whether or not we need a School Library and, if we do, what will it look like.

Last week, I asked my Lower Sixth Oxbridge group when they last borrowed a book from the School Library. No one had done so since Year 7 when they had been made to do so by their English teacher. Don't get me wrong - they are all readers, most said that they would much rather own the text rather than borrow one. One girl commented that she used the Art books in the library, but only because she was able to get higher quality scans of the art work than she could download from the Internet. They don't use the reference books, because it is quicker, easier and probably as accurate to use Wikipedia. Most saw the Library as a quiet place to work or a place to get online.

I'm not sure that this is really a million miles away from where we were 25 years ago. When a student, I enjoyed working in the Cambridge University Library, or in the faculty libraries rather than working in my room. Why? Not because of access to the books - I often took them with me - but because it was a good working environment, it was a change of scenery, it didn't have the distractions of my College corridor, the UL had a great coffee shop and yet it was very all very sociable. Later in life I spent a summer working in the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford - and what an inspiring place that was to study.

So, I like the idea of libraries as places where young people can work, but I wonder [and I know that there is somewhat an etymological paradox about what I am going to say] if we actually need books in our library? I'm not even sure that we need to have an e-Library? If they want to download a book, young people will do it their way - I'm not sure that it makes any sense to commit resources to trying to get them to do it my way. No, I think that schools need to create inspiring spaces where young people can hang out, get connected and get on with their work - if we call those places "Libraries", so be it.

Herewith some very interesting reflections on the future of Libraries:


  1. What you need to do is target what kind of books or other materials you need to have in a physical library and work out what the students are missing when they aren't using a library ever. Can they afford to buy all their print books and e-books? How do they get through their English reading requirements without borrowing a book? Are they supplied by the English department? Are they downloading a lot via the internet? Do they all have notebooks/laptops? Are all their class materials supplied online or in digital form? How do they browse for interesting knowledge or are they all just linking to things through facebook? How do they learn to research? What are their information literacy skills like? Don't they realize the pitfalls of Wikipedia authorship - mind you it seems to be getting better and becoming more authoritative.

  2. http://blog.schoollibraryjournal.com/neverendingsearch/2010/11/27/what-librarians-make-a-response-to-dr-bernstein-and-an-homage-to-taylor-mali/

    Please read this blogpost, it may interest you!

  3. I see no mention in your article of the students that come to Secondary school with a reading age far below their chronological age - if you have no books in your school library then how will they learn to read and love books? I am a techno geek myself and love to read on all my electronic devices as well as still borrowing books from my local library but I think you would struggle to find enough lower ability electronic texts for these struggling readers.
    It's not a case of encouraging kids to read 'our way' - but there is a real need to encourage them to read whole books full stop. Yes many of our students are reading all the time online and I happen to agree with you about there being a much lesser need for reference books, but I don't think many year 7 students would spend their pocket money on digital texts - computer games yes. Of course games have their place but having run a thriving, vibrant school library myself with books flying off the shelves I cannot imagine that taking the joy of finding a requested book in the school library away from young people is ever going to be a good thing.

  4. 1. You are lucky that your students are able to "own" their texts - what about the many that can't afford to do so? This whole attitude that you don't need libraries because you can buy the books on Amazon or download them (assuming that they are available to download and that you can afford the appropriate technology to do so - but then, of course, if you can afford to buy any text you need, buying computers and ereaders isn't a problem) or, even worse, get something from the charity shop, just reeks of such a selfish attitude: a sort of "I'm ok, Jack, so I'm not bothered about the rest of society."

    2. You say that your students are "all readers" but what i suspect you mean is that, rather than reading books for pleasure, they are actually all capable of higher reading skills and are able to read. there's a big difference between that and being a "reader" because the latter knows what pleasure you can get from curling up with a physical book and losing yourself in its pages. Sure, they will read anything, magazines, newspapers, ebooks, internet pages, even the cornflake box if nothing else is around - THAT'S a true reader ... and I know several people like that who are happy to read ebooks for convenience but who also know that there is nothing quite like reading a "real" book.

    3. I really hope you have educated your students to research and quote from a range of resources rather than just use Wikipedia or the internet. Because at university they won't be able to get away with that (and let's face it, that's rather a lazy way to research and doesn't use a variety of skills, just the ones needed to search online which, as any librarian or educator knows, are very different from the skills needed to search in books or journals). Yes, there is a lot of information available online but even the VP of Google himself admits that not all of it is on there (only about 10% btw) and if they submit an assignment with just internet references in the bibliography, then they will lose marks on it. They need to show a range of resources have been researched and used.

    Barbara B ... Librarian

  5. Hi Mark I've sent you an open reply on my blog http://nicolamcnee.edublogs.org/ It's good to debate.

  6. Jan Radford, Teacher librarian3 February 2011 at 20:52

    School libraries are not inhouse duplications of public libraries. School libraries are information centres to support teaching and learning, and students are readers. If your library is not adding value to your core business, then rethink the services but do not ditch the library.

  7. 'probably as accurate to use Wikipedia.'
    Seriously, Wikipedia can be one of the most unreliable sources on the net. The school library isn't just about books, though they are massively important and far from being obsolete, it's a place where they can learn to find information. That can be books and from the net. And for the vast majority of schools, where students aren't privileged enough to have been introduced to books from an early age, encouraging a love of reading. It doesn't matter if the book read then are downloaded or bought, the Library and it's staff have still done it's job.

  8. please come and visit me in one of the world's top schools and i can educate you in what a school library actually is in the 21st century

  9. OK now I am also going to raise my head above the parapit! I was put off reading by being forced to read fiction at specified times in the classroom, books I had no interest in and in defiance I deliberately failed my O Level Eng Lit to prove a teenage point. I did my A levels in a school (where you were previously headmaster) and did make use of the old deserted fusty library but not for any academic purpose! I survived for 2 and a half years of my Biochemistry degree without recourse to a Library and then undertook a steep learning curve for my dissertation. My masters degree is in information science.

    I totally agree that for traditional A level courses there is little need for a library in the traditional sensebecause of the demands of that exam system. Wider reading can in fact lose you marks because you go beyond what is in the mark scheme and for that there is no reward. Indeed I had a meaningful conversation in my previous school suggesting the library should consist of textbooks, revision guides and DVDs only to be told that that was not what parents would want to see.

    I am now working in a school that does the IB Diploma. This school had not had a library for 6 years when I was appointed - abandoned in favour of IT. But the IBO demands a school library. Our library is small and a high proportion of resources are in e-format. I spend large amounts of time in the classroom team teaching with colleagues with an emphasis on the information literacy skills the students will need. I am involved in assessment.

    As a school librarian I see myself as a teacher of skills relating to the handling of information. I am not there to support students with poor reading levels - our learning support department does that. Reading for pleasure is a personal experience and as you have pointed out students will download reading books onto their own preferred technological devices. I am there to support teaching colleagues in facilitating learning and teaching using my expertise as an information specialist.

    Students now "read" from a much earlier age. It might not be text as we recall it but maybe presented visually or orally. Even peer reviewed journals are under threat as research groups set up their own closed wikis to discuss their work. The information world is changing.The academic research world is changing.

    So do we need a library ? I personally like the concept of the "unlibrary" as a space to swap and discuss ideas or to sit quietly reading on what ever device or print takes our fancy. However at my school all forms of media are used together - it is not an uncommon sight to see students in the ICT suite with books propped up on the keyboard and maybe a mobile phone linking by App to yet another resource.

    What I would be more concerned about is you advocating the loss of the Librarian. These days it is almost impossible, and certainly so for the average secondary school student, to research a subject comprehensively. Therefore students need to be taught how to research and write up effectively in preparation for university and that to my mind is the challenge facing the 21st century information specialist aka the school librarian.

    The ICT manager too however must support these changes in the information world as an educator rather than as a security guru. Excessive blocking rather than teaching students responsible use of technology they use freely outside the confines of the school causes frustration and misunderstanding when it comes to independent study. If we are to help students embrace the information society this has to be a consideration too.

    So in summary, a long ramble, but please utilise the skills of the information guru even if you slim the physical space.

  10. Many of my colleagues have made excellent points which I don't want to duplicate. A few more then.
    Firstly, your pupils are in the fortunate position of being able to buy their own books, whether in print or electronically. Thousands or even tens of thousands of children are not able to do this. Others, like some of my borrowers who read 4 or 5 books a week, do not necessarily need to own every book they read. I stock many times the number of titles than our local branch of Waterstones has, allowing pupils access to a far wider variety and range of reading material. You cannot find books on Amazon if you don't know they exist.
    Secondly, e-books are great for reading chunks of text but they are not yet at the stage when they can replace good quality non-fiction texts. Take a look in a modern non-fiction book or textbook - it uses colour, diagrams, illustrations, page layout and text boxes in a way which electronic publications cannot. Websites, with their hyperlinks and added functionality, can actually distract from the learning experience as the brain does not focus or concentrate enough for deep processing to happen. The reader is constantly skipping over the surface of the information rather than interrogating it. Less will be understood and retained after the experience.
    Thirdly, those Oxbridge candidates of yours will struggle at university if their experience of research is limited to Wikipedia. They may do spectacularly well at A-level but they will not have the ability to select, analyse and synthesise information from a variety of information sources which is vital for higher level study.
    Finally, the school library of the future may well have fewer books in it. I am myself directing more of my spending to subscription databases, e-journals and the like. But we are a long way off books becoming redundant. It seems to me that you have fundamentally misunderstood the point of a library; it is not a storage place for books and the Librarian is not the custodian of the books. Modern school libraries are the place where teaching and learning come together and a well supported librarian can help to make that happen.

  11. Please look at this website to see all the fantastic work that school librarians do around the UK, so you can get a better picture of all the ways that school libraries impact on pupils. http://heartoftheschool.edublogs.org

  12. I think you are rather missing the point of a library. A library is more than just books.

    A school library, run by a qualifed librarian, is about helping young people find information that is accurate and relevant, pointing them towards useful resources, ensuring that when they proceed to further and higher education they have the information handling skills they need to succeed and not struggle.

    The librarian will help depeartments and teachers with CPD resources, sourcing materials for lesson (web links, books, artefacts, etc.), provide extra support with lessons but more, much more than this they inspire.

    They encourge pupils to read - read anything and everything. They can suggest, guide and foster a love of reading and language (regardless of format). I've yet to meet a young person who knows about all the books available - no matter what they've read there is always something I can recommend that they haven't heard of yet but discover they love.

    As for not being in the library for years - why not? I have around 2000+ pupils through the door every week. I work with every department in the school and I teach S1,2 and S5 in study skills, library skills and the delight of strories and reading.

    If your library doesn't do this then perhaps rather than getting rid of it you should be making it work better for you, your staff and your pupils.

  13. PS !
    Just to prove my point - your pictures and presentations had no reference attached to them. In the presentations the referencing structure was poor and followed no acceptable style. How would a student or an examiner be able to verify that your sources were authentic and the information accurate ? How would they be able to understand how you came by your ideas and thoughts ? This is why we need librarians!

  14. Have you read the rebuttal from your school librarian?


    I hope you take a moment to apologies to her as this post reads like she doesn't exist or does a poor job and clearly thsi isn't the case!

  15. A quiet word about Reader Development written in haste because it’s rather important. Like your pupils, ours are capable readers. But with the pressure of clubs, games, curriculum and facebook, time for reading fiction is difficult to find. They arrive from primary school with good habits and then, we know from the statistics we keep, they tail off; if we let them. That is the point we step in. As Librarians we create a dialogue around reading. We follow new publishing closely, create excitement at the arrival of the latest in the series, keep abreast of fashions and fads and then use them as springboards. When we find a reader going back over the same old books, reading below age, we suggest new ones that other boys have loved. We talk to their peer group all the time. Other boys just like them. We replace yellowing or tattered books – everybody likes a clean book. Our generous library budget allows it. Slowly, year on year, our issues figures increase. Enthusiasm increases. The good readers pull the reluctant readers along behind. Despite the hype, boys do read.
    An informed and enthusiastic librarian with an adequate budget will have a broader range of books targeted to their age than Waterstones, certainly than W.H.Smiths will.
    Why buy expensive technology to risk leaving it on the bus?
    Reader Development is real and works. But it’s a complex alchemy that requires trained Librarians and requires investment . We’ll not catch everyone. But we’ll catch no one if we’re not there at all.
    Don’t get me started on Information Literacy.

  16. The relevance and effectiveness of any academic library is determined to a huge extent by the vision of the principal (and governing body) of the institution. The library staff, however talented and dedicated, can often achieve little if there is no encouragement from the executive for the whole school community to benefit from its library. It is astonishing that your Oxbridge students have not borrowed books since Yr7, given that ebooks have really only taken off (such as they have) in the last year or so. In my school there is a significant and conclusive correlation between 6th form library borrowing and Oxbridge success; but then, reading and library use is promoted from day 1 Yr 7, vociferously and enthusiastically by the Headmistress and throughout the teaching staff.

  17. The Internet vs library argument has been brewing since the early age of the Internet. My opinion is that the real question is 'how are we going to evolve education in the digital age'. I see that this question pertains to all professions, especially to librarians. I am a librarian myself. The biggest metamorphosis, in my opinion, need to be seriously allowed by us, in order to educate and guide Gen Y for the 'Information/Knowledge Society'. There are various comments (in this blog) which cannot be ignored, such as, the reading factor, the unfinished books, the literacy stage. I would like to add to this too. I find it very hard to find resources in my own language, i.e. Maltese (I come from Malta, Europe). It is not hard for me to explain to my kids - and others - that the Internet has not got all that you ask it for. Yet, what I find 'difficult' is the fact that our kids 'think' that they are able to navigate or to put it straight - to do research on their own accord, without any guidance. I think that here is the real crux with our kids. I believe that it is here where they need to find evolved libraries...maybe not necessarily with books but with the professional person who will guide them to become 'information literate'. This is what I believe that libraries in our time should be there priority without neglecting other things, such as storytelling, for example. Therefore, whilst I am ready to see a 'book-less' library (even if this is utopia), I cannot imagine our kids/students growing up without the guidance of professional librarians guiding them to become information literate citizens.

  18. I could take issue with so much of what is being said by Mr Steed but others have done that already so the point I would like to raise is this. We have been hearing a great deal from Amazon about how they have sold more ebooks than paperbacks in the US, but suprisingly little about the UK sales figures. Amazon have a vested interest in promoting ebooks because you need an ereader to access them. I would like to see UK sales figures and a comparative analysis of the profit margins of each medium before I started taking the press release of a multinational corporation as a sure indicator of the demise of the printed book. Lazy thinking on which to hinge a very important debate.

  19. Yes this is absolutely an essential discussion. But let's not rush in and dump books and libraries just yet. The death of the book was predicted to me 22 years ago in my first post-grad library school lecture.

    Interestingly I have recently searched Dartmouth College (USA)Library catalogue. I searched genetics and genomes, but also out of interest Obama and Dickens. Apart from offering online journals, the huge majority of what is on offer are old fashioned texts. Let's not burn our books just yet!

  20. Sorry Mr Steed,you are making the mistake of deliberating the future of school libraries based on how some of your students perceive the libray in your school, thus presenting a rather narrow view of the functions of a school library. In addition to all that has been said about teaching information literacy and facilitating reading for pleasure, the school library plays an increasingly important pastoral role in a school. And this is not just because it's a nice room with a adult there, it's because the sense of being surrounded by culture, by order and by history is beneficial for your minds and there aren't many places like that in schools.
    Talk to your librarian and think what the school library COULD do, rather than what kdis think it currently does. Like yours, my students prefer to buy their own books, so I run a small bookshop in my library. Like yours, my A level students will pass their exams without the need for books. Well, I lend them a DVD to unwind. I give my GCSE students chocolate when they feel overwhelmed and I let them sit and stare into thin air when they need to. I play chess with the Year 7s who don't know anybody until they do and mediate between year 9 girls who fall out with each other. I may give a book to the Year 11 boy whose mother has cancer to let him know he's not alone or provide a Year 8 boy on crutches with the complete set of Harry Potter on audiobooks. I work with all teachers, school counsellors and curriculum developers, parents and children. By offering truly holistic and non-judgmental support, students here develop meaningful relationships that benefit their learning immesurably. Of course, they could do all of this elsewhere but the school library CAN be a place where you learn, grow up and feel welcome and supported - it can accompany you throughout your school career, helping you to build relationships, develop good study habits and learn an awful lot about yourself and the world you live in.

  21. There's a lot to be shocked and horrified about this blog post Mr Steed. Before looking at the substance of the post I'd like you to step back for a moment and see exactly what you've done. You've basically slapped your school librarian in the face publically. This is disgraceful and one of the worse examples of staff 'management' that I've ever seen. Just how much do you think you've just demotivated this individual? Do you think we're not capable of identifying them. I would suggest the very first thing that you do is go to the library and apologise to them.

    Libraries are not about books. Libraries are about reading, learning, education, assessing information and then using it. Your children need to be capable of doing this in paper and digital formats. They cannot do this by themselves - the need the help and assistance of a professional librarian. All information is NOT on the internet, and it's certainly not all on Google. If you can't grasp this concept, ask your librarian for more information.

    Your comment regarding Wikipedia is nonsensical, and all that it demonstrates is the paucity of understanding that you have. You - or your librarian - needs to be in a position to teach children, to help them assess, to choose appropriate texts. To imagine that it call all be downloaded is ridiculous in the extreme.

    Your librarian deserves better than this nonsense. Your children deserve better than this gibberish. Your school deserves a better head teacher.

    You sir, are a disgrace.

  22. There has long been a false dichotomy set up between books and ICT which librarians themselves do not recognise - in my experience we are often at the forefront of using ICT to enhance learning and communication in schools (rather than it being just about the technology) but it is interesting to read an IT perspective of libraries here:

  23. May I suggest you read The Shallows: How the Internet is changing the way we think, read and remember by Nicholas Carr, and have a discussion with your librarian about how she can (and very probably does) contribute to teaching and learning in your school. Your students deserve a much more well-informed stance from yourself than this nonsense. In the 21st Century the demands of transliteracy will absolutely necessitate well-resourced and professionally-staffed libraries. Thinking otherwise condemns your students to a shallow future in which their active participation in society will be severely restricted.

  24. As someone as already pointed out, how can children know what books they might want to read without first browsing? Have you not understood serendipity? The joy of discovery, both accidental and by design are what school libraries are about.Neither our pupils nor I suspect yours can afford to buy all the books, digital or otherwise, that they might want to read.

  25. I have indeed read Nicholas Carr's work - indeed I wrote a blogpost on the importance of reading in response to it [http://independenthead.blogspot.com/2010/08/e-learning-and-reading-books-way.html]

    The Shallows argument is by far the most persuasive in terms of retaining a physical library of printed books. I whole-heartedly accept that it is vital that we foster deep-reading and analytical skills. I know that my library team do this.

  26. I know this your comments are based from the UK perspective but good luck any student studying for their HSC in NSW, Australia getting a mark that belies their potential without utilising their school library, their state library and their national library and the staff that work in all 3! The breadth and depth of information available through these libraries far surpasses that which they think they can find with a quick Google search. Every day I amaze students with what I help them find when i help teach them know how to search online effectively and efficiently and when they use the hard copy resources available to them through their library network. These are the students who go on to University or into the workforce knowing that Google or wikipedia or eBooks are not the be all and end all. And yes I too am a technical geek..I'm off to sync my mobile me!