Making Libraries Relevant in the 21st Century

Upward: Our Head of School's Blog
For the record, I am a ferocious reader.  And as an educator, I know that the more a student reads, the better that student reads.  That is an inescapable fact.  What is debated, however, is the tablet versus the paperbound book.  On my bedside table is a stack of books and my IPad that houses even a larger stack, so to speak.  I’m what you might refer to as a “tweener,” keeping my feet in both the hardback world of publishing and the digital world.

For hundreds of years, schools have created enormous spaces for thousands of books.  Today, too many of those spaces have become museums of countless dusty, unused volumes. Make no mistake, there are great stories and valuable resources housed in these spaces, but much of the average library collection has probably not been off the shelf in five years. As an educational leader, I would be remiss to ignore this trend.  Rather, I should be asking how can we revitalize these spaces so that they are once again the heart of learning in a school, combining both old world and next-level technology?

When considering this question, I’ve found inspiration in the work of Doug Johnson, a Minnesota media/technology director whose work focuses on the future of the printed books and the school library.  His view is that we need to repurpose our libraries to serve three vital functions:
  1. Libraries must become social learning commons that are both flexible and inviting. The modern library should be a place for teams to work together, formally and informally. According to Johnson, a successful library adopts a liberal definition of what constitutes a constructive activity, allowing users to engage in educational gaming and research on topics of personal and group interests.  Comfort and appearance are increasingly important as well.  Flexible furniture arrangements and attention to aesthetics in lighting and colors help make the modern library a place where students and staff want to be.
  2. Our libraries should become production and presentation centers–less of a grocery store approach and more like a kitchen where people make stuff– with computers, 3-D printers, software for music, video production and photo editing, interactive white boards and audience response systems.  Libraries should become maker spaces, giving students access to work stations and a robust wireless infrastructure.
  3. Our libraries should have ample teaching space–small and large, providing students with room to effectively access and assimilate accurate information.  Seminar and small-group environments are necessary and can be created by sectioning off part of the main room with the creative use of furniture and dividers.
This year’s big initiative is to build a greenhouse and a garden to table curriculum, and we are well on our way to accomplish this goal in time for the start of school in Late August of 2014. Next year, we will design plans to reinvent our library as a flexible learning space that fosters collaboration and that is filled with cutting-edge technology. Imagine the lobby of Google, but with a solid collection of timeless, classic books. Our ultimate goal is simple: create a vital information center that will become a magnet for 21st century ideas and learning.

–Mike