The changing role of the school library

The changing role of the school environment—where students have access to tech all day long and inquiry assignments set each student or student group on their own learning trajectory—means that educators need to re-think how and where we work with students during the school day to best help them navigate their learning.

We know that most students know how to use a computer, but experience has shown that they often don’t work well online yet. In order to function well in their workplace students must know how to organize their workspace, research effectively, analyze their information, and express their opinions and new learning successfully. Many workers today take their work out of the office, which involves being able to work alone as well as with others in spaces that might be considered non-traditional.

Third space in the school – that space between the classroom and home – is an important place for on-site, individualized, and directed learning and practice. A third space environment can be a great place to be around people, yet still focus in on work. In schools, this third space is the school library.

Sophia, a high school students describes why the library is important to her:

The library offers this student a third space environment in which to work, providing resources and staff with “just-right” instruction when it’s needed.

A well-staffed school library with a flexible schedule could be how students learn to work in this 21st-century way.

Students have been coming in and out of the library during the school day for years, so would much change? For the most part student movement around the school is regulated by passes or other identification that lets us know that their teacher knows where they are. They are often sent down to the library to “find a book” or “change your password” or other simple task. What other kind of system might we create to allow greater working flexibility during class time? How could we offer greater student mobility in school so that they could use their library in much the same way that college students work in their libraries? Is it necessary for students to be confined to the classroom when they are working on projects that could require different kinds of help than the classroom teacher might offer? We heard Sophie remark that the classroom wasn’t always the best place to accomplish work – but in the library she found a space to work that suited her work style.

A physical science teacher might have a short research project going on, while in another classroom the history teacher has asked students to locate a primary source, and in the art classroom students are looking for examples of Renaissance art. Traditionally, each one of those teachers would sign up for the library to conduct this research. But with devices in hand, students often proceed with these tasks in the classroom, happily “Google-ing” their way to their answers.

What if we worked with administration and teachers to create a Learning Commons, free-flow environment, where collaboration includes noting what kinds of information students might need and where students could be at any given time as they work? Teachers, librarians, and other specialists create the lessons and see where in the process of those lessons that students need particular types of instruction or other support. A teacher lecture means that students stay in the classroom; however, when they begin to work in groups or are up against an information wall, they can take their work to the library. The librarian could drop by the classroom to check in, specialists could do likewise, and students could stay or head down to the library to continue their work.

There would be a learning curve; new protocols for keeping tabs on where everyone is would need to be developed, and there would no doubt be lots of heartbreak when students go elsewhere and get caught; but normalizing workspaces other than the classroom imitates what happens in the workplace and college.

This rethinking of the school –library classroom dynamic came about after I noticed that last year classes weren’t coming in as often as before. So I tried out a few things:

  • Concierge services: librarian by appointment. Students made appointments with me for 15 or more minutes of my time. This was, by far, a most rewarding service. I was able to spend real time with students to brainstorm topic ideas, ask questions, and prod towards self-reflection on the research questions they might have.
  • We also tested an “Ask the librarian” virtual service. Students could fill out a dialog box on the library website, and I would answer them. The drawback to the service meant that I needed to be near a computer or keep my tablet with me. But for days when I was at my desk, students in classrooms could ask questions without coming down to the library. Usually, I would end up suggesting that they come on down so I could offer better help, but for the quick question, it worked very well. This is also an excellent way to help students with passwords.

Beginning now to help our students learn to work with their technology responsibly within different environments will give them a leg up on how to behave and learn as they grow. What could this look like? How does your 1:1 environment work in your school?

Sophia. Interview by Joe McHugh with Connie Williams. Circulate This: Stories from the School Library. CSLA, 2009. Web. 4 Aug. 2015.


Author: Connie Williams

NBCTeacher Librarian and author of “Understanding Government Information: a Teaching Strategy Toolkit for grades 7-12”. Member of the CA State Library Services Board, and History Room Librarian at the Petaluma Regional Library [Sonoma County Library]. She welcomes all conversation.. give a holler!

Categories: Blog Topics, Makerspaces/Learning Commons