Why school libraries are killing school libraries

I’m actually going to start this potentially controversial post by expanding on the title and adding in that it is also school librarians that are part of the reason why school libraries are a dying breed.

There have been so many discussions recently about the fact that school libraries should be statutory, that Ofsted should and must visit a school library as part of their inspection and that the reason why school libraries are dying is because there is not enough support from senior leaders in education and schools.

(Before I begin the entirety of this post I want to mention that I feel this kind of outcome isn’t necessarily what we should be aiming for. What we should require in schools is for there to be some part of it that is dedicated to all the things that a library can/should achieve but not necessarily  dictate to schools what that is. Let’s be honest a school that has a great librarian and a library doesn’t always equate to one that has an impact. But let’s not dictate to a school, ala M.Gove exactly what that should look like especially when we’re not so clear ourselves what this looks like… )

Well, I’m going to take a slightly different tact on this and suggest that maybe the reason why there seems to be so little support for school libraries outside of school libraries is that there is a mass of uncertainty as to what a school library actually is. This apparent opaqueness, in my opinion, is perpetuated by those that run libraries. For instance how many schools actually have a space that is called a school library? Ok, they might have a space that runs as a school library but is it actually known as that or has it been given some other name in an attempt to redefine it as something else such as an LRC or the many other, numerous, ‘rebrands’ that go on in schools?

For me, and remember this is my opinion, the reason people rebrand their school libraries is to change people’s perception about what a school library is. The belief is that the term library has so many connotations and so, by renaming the space, we can change the perception. In actual fact this is probably the worst thing that you can do. What you should be doing, to change the perception, is change the ethos and behaviour of what goes on in the library. You can change the name but if the behaviours persist then you’ve just destroyed people’s perception of that name as well as that of library. What you should be doing is changing those behaviours to make sure that the perception itself changes. The change of behaviour results in the change of perception not the other way around.

A case in point is that of the ‘learning commons’ a name that is starting to become ‘on-trend’ and synonymous with supposed forward thinking academies. Unfortunately their interpretation of the model (which in itself is full of contradictions) is basic in the slightest. In fact by even calling something a learning commons you are defeating the purpose of what it really is. Having spend many hours researching and attending conferences etc that have covered the premise of a learning commons I feel confidently able to point out that a learning commons comes about when a library adapts itself to the 21st Century and most importantly to it’s users. Stemming from the 1990’s and the digital commons, where spaces were available for customers to use this new technology (that wasn’t readily available in the home) a learning commons is more about an ethos behind how you run your service and what you offer your users, depending on their needs. It most certainly isn’t about giving something the name of a learning commons and expecting everyone to accept your space as the learning commons model. Remember you need to change the behaviours first.

When ‘drilling’ down to what a learning commons is and how it can be used in schools you see that a school isn’t necessarily the best place. Larger universities and colleges are more suited to the more formal model of a learning commons as they (the learners) are going to more likely be undertaking self organised learning where they require the space to be adaptable to them. In a school however the majority of the time students are undertaking  directed learning in a dedicated space, i.e. the classroom. They are only ever going to need a ‘learning commons’ space for self organised learning during break/lunch and after school. However, if you were to take the learning commons ethos, which it appears differs from the formal model, then it isn’t just about one space in a education environment. All students need this ethos perpetuated throughout their learning lives and embedded and interwoven in their classrooms.

It appears, in the numerous articles available on learning commons, that to achieve a learning commons a library needs to be responsive and adapted to it’s user needs. To be reflective on how they might need to use the space and to allow this to happen. A common in these terms is similar to that of the local village green, a place to congregate. Really what they are saying is that a learning commons is achieved when a library evolves and stops being a static model that just holds and organises books and information. This is a really jarring point for me. It relies on the belief that a school library doesn’t do this already. That it doesn’t respond to it’s users needs, that it doesn’t adapt, evolve and change as technology and needs do. This, for me, then begs the question who is giving people this impression, for someone must be otherwise there wouldn’t need to be a ‘model’ renamed as something else telling us how to evolve our school libraries. The only people that this can be are the librarians themselves, surely?

So, not only do I have an issue with the learning commons in itself I also have an issue as to why anyone felt that they needed to point this out. A learning commons is what you get when you have the foresight to adapt your school library to it’s users. It is not a separate entity to a library and so in calling something a learning commons you continue to perpetuate the myth and belief that a library cannot do this on its own. It is the same when you rename your library an LRC or research centre, or discovery base. All you are doing is saying that a school library can’t be this, instead of changing the perception of a school library so people can see that this is exactly what it can be, and so much more.

If we want school libraries to be in all schools, if we want them to be valued then we need to start with our own perceptions as to what a school library is. We need to be clear in our own profession about this before we can begin to expect anyone outside of the profession to understand what we do and what we can achieve. It is down to us to define what a school library should be and look like and I don’t mean a tick list I mean a fundamental vision of adaptability to needs and requirements and behaviours. We need to stop trying to rebrand ourselves by giving ourselves different titles and stick to one name for us and one name for our space and be clear on what that means. If we can’t do this then we can never expect anyone else to get it.

So my question is; who are you, what do you do? What is your space called and are you adding to the destruction of school libraries or are you helping to build a positive perception about them and what they do by challenging the behaviours associated with school libraries and making sure your ethos is one of adaptability and credibility?

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2 Comments

  1. Thought provoking but I must quibble with your point “We need to stop trying to rebrand ourselves by giving ourselves different titles…” – it often isn’t the Librarian that has decided to rebrand the library or give themselves a new title, it is a top down decision – because, as you say, a lot of people outside the profession don’t understand a library’s purpose. At my old school I asked to change my job title to Librarian and the Head was astonished that I wouldn’t want something more interesting!

  2. I think it’s worth making a distinction between a label and a operational model. Just as fast food, a la carte, cafe etc. are different models for a restaurant, an LRC, idea shop, media centre, learning commons, makerspace etc. are different models for a library service. All are at heart libraries but it oughtn’t be the case that it’s ever said that “we’re not a library we’re a learning commons” but that our library takes the aspects of the learning commons model that fit meet the needs of our school community. What a model does is give those in leadership positions a vision of what a service could potentially look like; it brings together a view of spacial planning, teaching and learning, service development, digital presence and staffing model into shorthand descriptor. What you ultimately adopt from any is a strategic decision to meet the needs of your school.
    I agree that what’s important is not what we ‘are’ but what we do that matters; my own space uses a learning commons approach because that’s what the governing body and SLT wanted, there’s a good deal of evidence to show that it’s successful but within the school it’s called the library, the LRC and most commonly by it’s branding as “The Bridge” – myself I don’t care who calls us what.
    What I think is likely is that, in time, some of the distinctive attributes of the newer models will become more common and simply the expected norm. That has largely happened with LRC’s – originally an LRC was shorthand for a library that made use of multiple media and was equiped with IT (largely a combination IT lab and library) – we’d now regard that as fairly standard.

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