Monday, 3 March 2014

Thoughts on the purpose and role of the school library

We use information everyday to make sense of the world around us. In primary schools the information students access is usually driven by either by the curriculum or personal interest. The decisions that have been made about what knowledge students at a particular stage of schooling are required to know, in the past set by the state, is now being set through a national curriculum framework.

In years gone by, this knowledge was accessed through the teacher, who was seen as the holder of the knowledge, the portal through which information could be accessed. The teacher librarian supported the classroom teacher by building a library collection with relevant and ‘up-to-date’ reference and non-fiction texts. As discussed in ‘The Information Cycle’, information in these texts was first reported on, then studied academically and eventually the academic findings were published. This meant access to information, particularly information that had been simplified for student use, was often published years after the fact.

Nowadays, with virtually instantaneous access to information, students can research events and information as it unfolds without the buffer of quality research, and a guarantee of accuracy. Information is now accessed online, digitally 24/7 and the teachers in school are no longer the gateway to knowledge but the facilitators of developing skills in inquiry and research. Schools are no longer solely about teaching content, but about teaching how to access, assess, evaluate and synthesis information. 

This has had major repercussions on not only the way teachers and teacher librarians teach students to access information, but also the way information is accessed and curated in the school library. Understanding the way that the information cycle has traditionally worked, and that the now instantaneous access to information is not a guarantee of accuracy, places the onus onto teacher librarians to ensure that the library is place where a multitude of rich, quality resources is available to students and staff. With many libraries making a shift to virtual digital libraries, it therefore becomes even more important that there is access to quality, research produced information. This cannot always be guaranteed through the use of the internet, and can be limited by what has been transitioned into digital format. There is also a consideration of the issue, discussed in my previous post that reference, picture books and illustrated books have yet to make a successful transition into digital format. It is vital that the teacher librarian, is able to provide a range of quality information resources, and at this point in time, I believe there still needs to be some balance between the digital and print resources. Not necessarily an equal balance, but a balance of sorts. I don't think we are quite at the point with what is available digitally, of eliminating print resources completely. 

Over the past decade, there has been a need for schools to invest heavily in technology: hardware, software, infrastructure and ICT management. In many schools, this has led to a misunderstanding about the role of the library and the role of the teacher librarian. Where school executive staff still hold a belief that the library is a simply a depository of books, and the librarian a curator of only printed materials, the library is in grave danger of being not only underfunded, but eventually phased out of existence, with resources being ‘reallocated’ to other areas. 

Assertions that 'people don't read books' anymore are bold statements that don't accurately reflect what is really happening in this digital age. People do still read. The function of actual words to communicate a message has not changed. The format that people use to access what they read is what has changed. Whilst gaming and audio visual material for communication information has exploded, people are still accessing information through written word - just in digital formats. There is still a need for teaching students how to read and how to be critically literature - assess, evaluate and synthesise the information they read whether it be from a website, a blog, online reference, social media, databases. There is still a need to be literate in order to begin the information search process - after all there is a big difference in searching for information on boat sales and boat sails. The skills of being able to interpret and comprehend information are the same whether viewing in hard print format or digital. Teacher librarians are skilled in the teaching and provision of resources that enable these skills to be developed across the school.

Students in primary school especially, whilst becoming increasingly digitally savvy, still need access to printed materials. Not all primary schools have the hardware to support a digital - only library, and Bring Your Own Devices are often not a feasible option for most primary school students both for cost and issues surrounding intranet safety. Also worthy of consideration is a desire  and concern from parents of young children, that face to face time with computers and smart devices is not a 24/7 situation. 

It is imperative that teacher librarians are vocal in their pivotal role in provided a rich variety of multimodal texts and are advocates of the crucial and critical skills they provide in resourcing across the entire curriculum of the school.  Having a firm knowledge of the standards for teacher librarians, the Australian Curriculum and how to provide a rich and varied library collection will give teacher librarians the way to advocate for not only the place for libraries within schools, but also the funding for resources to go with it. 

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