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A library without books?

Mal Lee
Mal Lee is an educational consultant and author specialising in the development of digital schools.

A concerted analysis will find that there is a dramatic difference between a 'school library' and an information services unit, a difference that has to do with both perception and the actual situation. One is disappearing and the other continuing to play a significant role in the education of the young.

In 1996, I wrote a piece for The Practising Administrator – at the time Australia's pre-eminent educational administration journal – entitled 'Close the school library: open the information services unit'. In it I observed, based on the contemporary trend lines:

The time has come to close the school library and open the information services unit … It is strongly recommended that schools, and indeed teacher librarians themselves, work towards a ceremonious closing of the library and ushering in a new era with a name change.

The schools and the teacher librarians that took heed of that warning are today generally very well positioned to continue to play a significant role in schooling, but those that did not have little or possibly next to no time to do so.

Soon after writing the afore-mentioned article, I followed it up with another arguing for a name change and suggesting the creation of the position of director of information services. Fifteen years on, most of the flourishing information services units are led by a person with that type of title – leading an information services and management unit.

It soon became apparent in researching the history of the school library for The Use of Instructional Technology in Schools (Lee & Winzenried, 2009) that the standing of the teacher librarian position, rightly or wrongly, has always been closely correlated to the facility to astutely integrate the latest information technologies into the school's educational program. The failure to do so would have long resulted in the demise of that library. It was also apparent that the life of the teacher librarian is relatively short – 40, maybe 50 years at best – and that their traditional habitat is fast disappearing – that segmented school organisation where the teacher librarian has, largely, sole responsibility for teaching the 'library' and, more recently, information literacy.

As schooling across the developed world evolves in form, as it has since the early 2000s, and the path-finding schools move from the traditional paper-based mode to a digital operational paradigm (Lee & Gaffney, 2008) where the use of the digital is normalised in every classroom, each classroom becomes a digital teaching hub and, in turn, 'state of the art library' where the digital integration daily dismantles the traditional segmented school operations so the role of the specialist 'teacher librarian' will become ever more questionable.

When, as we are now starting to see globally, schools begin moving from the digital mode where the operations are still conducted within the traditional school walls to the networked mode where the schools are dismantling the traditional school walls – and in turn library walls – and are opting to use the wider networked world as their new teaching space, the old book-dominated school library becomes an anathema.

What we are seeing globally within the more pro-active, path-finding schools and education authorities is that the libraries have morphed into information services and management units or, daftly, in some instances have disappeared.

It is – in very general terms – only in the slower moving, more reactive, still paper-based (Lee & Winzenried, 2009) schools and education authorities where the pen, paper and the teaching board remain the most commonly used teaching tools that the 'school library' survives. However as many on this list have noted, even those operations are under ever greater scrutiny. The teacher librarian is a very easy person for school leaders to grab to help solve the growing teacher shortage.

One of the great problems is a perceptual one – the names 'school library' and 'teacher librarian' act as clear targets for the educational administrators. Bear in mind the perception is the reality. The old labels serve to inform the educational administrator that that group/entity has not moved with the times.

This was brought home to me vividly recently in discussions with one of Australia's national award-winning school principals. Her school had normalised the use of digital technology throughout the school. She wanted to create a unit to handle the burgeoning information support and management needs of her school. She was about to be given a new library, but she had a teacher librarian who refused to change her role. She turned to me for advice. Having control of her staff funding she decided to terminate the position of teacher librarian, and create a new executive position that was, in essence, a director of learning technology – both to oversee the operation of the new 'library' plus all the other digital technology within the school.

Moving from the perception to the actual change in the nature of the position she wanted a person in her primary school able to provide the professional acumen to oversee the total use of all manner of digital and information technologies in a tightly integrated teaching and learning environment. Interestingly, she chose a person who had a teacher librarian background.

In a digital and, in particular, a networked mode there is a vital and growing need for information professionals with a strong understanding of teaching and learning to play a central role in the school's operations. In a digital environment where the technology is converging, and where the digital capacity of the home and the student's mobile computing is becoming ever more important, it is vital that the same person/team has responsibility for the management of all the school's information: its educational, administrative and its archival. The actual form of that unit will depend in large part on the particular context and will, in fact, be evolving in nature.

Karen Bonanno in her chapter 'Managing and servicing the information needs of a digital school' in Leading a Digital School (Lee & Gaffney, 2008) spells out desired attributes of that information service very powerfully, while Lyn Hay (Charles Sturt University) in Developing a Networked School Community (Lee & Finger, 2010) identifies the information paradigm needed to support a home–school nexus.

What we are witnessing in many respects is a gradual cessation of the old ICT and school library wars that started in the mid-80s when the 'computer empires' began to burgeon, and a merging of those operations to better suit the needs of a digital and networked school.

In a previous life, as the director of an education authority school closure program, I saw the damage caused by those who tried to forestall the inevitable. You all can see the dramatic impact the digital world is having upon our lives.

Recently, I spoke with a colleague who had just returned from visiting some Japanese schools. The one that hit home was the secondary school where its vast investment in a school-wide, carefully controlled network was now only used by the administration. The students had in their pockets the wherewithal to access the internet whenever, and wherever they wished, unfettered by any educators' controls. That is the kind of reality we need to recognise as we seek to provide the best possible education.

This article is republished from Connections Issue 72, 2010.

References

Bonanno, K. 2008, 'Managing and servicing the information needs of a digital school' in Lee, M. & Gaffney, M., Leading a Digital School, ACER.

Lee, M. 1996, 'Close the school library: open the information services unit', The Practising Administrator.

Lee, M. & Finger, G. 2010, Developing a Networked School Community, ACER Press.

Lee M. & Gaffney, M. 2008, Leading a Digital School, ACER Press.

Lee, M. & Winzenried, A. 2009, The Use of Instructional Technology in Schools: Lessons to Be Learned, ACER Press.

Mal Lee has co-authored Leading a Digital School, The Use of Instructional Technology in Schools: Lessons to be Learned, and The Interactive Whiteboard Revolution: Teaching with IWBs. Mal is currently working on a new book to be titled Developing Networked School Communities.

KLA

Subject Headings

School libraries
Information services
Information management
Information literacy
Information and Communications Technology (ICT)