Friday, May 20, 2011

How to make school libraries relevant again

Transforming school libraries for the digital age is no small task for financially strapped boards, and so a school board in southwestern Ontario should be encouraged, not condemned, for making the attempt.

At two high schools overseen by the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board, a grand total of three books was checked out last month. That depressing fact is cited by Paul Picard, the board’s director of education, as one reason for a radical change now under way, changing libraries from book-centred and quiet places to noisy digital hubs. In the elementary schools, the books are being taken from the libraries and divvied up among the classrooms (they will still be catalogued and can be shared).

The main reason, though, is that the board faces a loss of 800 to 1,000 students in September, and a budget shortfall of about $10-million. Cutting most of its “learning commons specialists” (technologists, not teacher-librarians) will save $2½-million a year. In their stead, visiting literacy specialists will provide much more useful advice, Mr. Picard says.

Libraries have survived for roughly 5,000 years of human history, but it is fair to insist they adapt to an age in which information is so often floating free – or die. Libraries should not be content to live in the 20th century, as it were. The mantra, as in any service, should be to keep up with what the public wants. Good libraries provide Wi-fi access (an Internet connection for wireless devices), e-books and audio books, electronic databases and, of course, computers. More expertise, not less, is needed to help students navigate.

Actually, most children love books. If they’ve lost that love by high school, let’s not just accept that that’s the way of things now. Let’s ask if they still have a love of the written word, if they can find their way to the information (whether digital or in books or other sources) that they need, if they can tell credible information from the conspiracy theories and other idiotic flotsam available on the Internet.
And let’s please call them libraries – not “learning commons areas,” as the Windsor-Essex Catholic board has been doing for the past several years. (Let’s hope some lucky students find their way to George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” which explains how euphemisms damage truth.)

A great library – say, the New York City main branch, with the two stone lions out front – is a cathedral to the written word. Literacy needs celebrating and nurturing, and schools should experiment to make sure their libraries do not become obsolete.

from: Globe and Mail

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