5 Ways School Libraries Can Stay Relevant in the Digital Age

An explosion of online information presents an opportunity for school libraries.

by / December 5, 2013 0
Students in Douglas County School District read, collaborate and research in flexible spaces. | Douglas County School District

A flood of online information has caused school libraries to contemplate how they can stay relevant in today's digital world.

While stereotypical libraries might be quiet places where people check out books, that's no longer an accurate description of many school libraries across the country. They're becoming collaborative spaces where students learn how to attack information problems.

The mission of school libraries is to make sure students and school staff can effectively use ideas and information, said Joyce Kasman Valenza, teacher librarian at Springfield Township High School in Erdenheim, Penn. That includes teaching students how to evaluate resources in different formats such as infographics, tweets and digital images, which are often manipulated.

"If you believe that school libraries are just about prints, although that's a fine thing to be about, then you don't know school libraries," Kasman Valenza said. "We're about encouraging and motivating young people to be readers and to be excited about literature in all its new and glorious emerging formats."

Libraries can stay relevant in today's digital world by becoming information guides, keeping up with the times, moving resources to the cloud, working with teachers and helping students evaluate research materials.

1. Transition to the role of information guide

In an era of digital resources, school libraries no longer function as warehouses of information, but as guides to information, said Debra Gottsleben, school library media specialist at Morristown High School in New Jersey. Students don't understand how to evaluate, sift through and use information from the Internet, and their parents don't either. That's why they need information experts to lead them, particularly since they'll be doing more of it given the Common Core State Standard's emphasis on research.

"We definitely still need school libraries now more than ever because of there being so many more places to find information, and not only are there more places to find the information, those sources have no editorial or vetting that goes on," Gottsleben said. 

2. Keep up with the times

As more resources move from print to digital, school libraries need to reflect that shift, Gottsleben said. Libraries won't look relevant if they don't have digital resources, mobile devices and social media accounts.

Many libraries now have two front doors: A virtual door to the cloud and a physical door to a collaborative space, Kasman Valenza said. By keeping library doors open, schools provide equitable access to the digital research tools that students need to succeed, particularly in high school and college. These resources include e-books, databases, websites, subject directories and wikis.

"For about half the kids in our country, they do not have the access to the tools they need to explore the kind of investigation that kids ought to be doing at any level," Kasman Valenza said. "And part of the reason for that is because people don't get what they're eliminating when they eliminate libraries and librarians."

Librarians stressed the importance of keeping some physical books on hand because many students prefer them. But those books should be up to date, relevant and well-used to stay in school library collections, Gottsleben said.

3. Transfer resources to the cloud

By weeding out print collections and moving many of them to the cloud, libraries will free up room for learning spaces and provide access to digital resources 24/7, said Linda Conway, director of library media programming at Douglas County School District in Castle Rock, Colo. Through a library service called Libguides, librarians in the New Jersey district answer student questions online and put together guides for different areas including library orientation, language arts and chemistry, Gottsleben said.

In the first quarter of this school year, students have viewed 136 Libguides more than 25,000 times. That's nearly double the numbers from the first quarter of last school year. Circulation has doubled as well.

"We're at a crossroads with libraries, and one thing that I think helps us to stay relevant is not only to collaborate with the teachers, but also to take all those resources that we have available and push them up into the cloud," Conway said.

4. Collaborate with teachers

It's also important for librarians to plan lessons with teachers, Conway said.  By planning lessons together, teachers and librarians can combine content knowledge with 21st century soft skills including critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.

5. Transform library spaces

Through the library's physical door, school districts are reimagining what libraries look like. In Douglas County School District, 16 out of 80 school libraries have created learning commons that include maker spaces, brainstorming areas and cafe-style places. Learning spaces were designed to meet the needs of particular students and schools. Key components of these spaces include flexible furniture, flexible devices and flexible schedules.

But ultimately, it's not about the space. It's about the learning, Conway said. When the learning shifts to something like project-based or STEM style, the library space shifts to support that learning.

"Their primary function really is to serve almost as a collaborative workspace, and certainly as a gatekeeper for information, not necessarily for the access to that information, but certainly as a gatekeeper to guide people to the best places and resources for information," Gottsleben said.

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.