Why Libraries are More Than Books, But Still Need Them
Recently, changes in Pasco County’s media centers have been making the news. Pasco is adjacent to my school district, so naturally I’m interested in what’s going on next door. Last year they eliminated their media specialists, much to the chagrin of their parents and students. Now they’re talking about modernizing their media centers to keep up with the times. (Note: I use library and media center, librarian and media specialist interchangeably in this post)
I love creating diverse, collaborative, flexible spaces in the library. This is part of what I’m trying to cultivate in my media center through removing static furniture, adding mobile tables, and creating a mini-Maker/Collaborative space. I love to see districts realizing that the library should be a dynamic space and more than just a warehouse for books. I love seeing all of these positive changes in the library universe. I’m even okay with *gasp* calling ourselves something other than librarians. But what I’m not okay with is taking change too far. I’m not okay with forgetting about the fact that the heart of the library is learning and discovery. And I don’t think you can have a school library without books and without librarians.
Pasco County has been making a lot of changes. Some are negative: eliminating media specialist positions and downsizing their libraries. Some are very positive: thinking about how the physical space affects learning, creating flexible, collaborative spaces, and being willing to think outside the box about how they use their space. And I applaud them for that.
But several aspects of this article grated on me. They keep mentioning how the books were infrequently used. Why were they infrequently used? Was it because the library was understaffed? Because the media center was closed frequently for testing? Because teachers were so strapped with curriculum that they couldn’t give students five minutes to go to the library to get a book? Or was the collection developed well? Did the library have books that students were interested in? Or, like my library was when I first got here, were they books on the shelf that hadn’t checked out since 1972?
I don’t think the problem is that kids aren’t interested in physical books anymore. Sure, lots of them are reading more on their devices now, and that’s fine. But kids are still checking out and reading physical books. At my school of 800 students, over 5,000 books were checked out during the first quarter. I don’t think Pasco’s problem is where the books are located – I think there’s other issues that may be answered by the questions I asked above.
Pasco’s solution to this problem of unused books was to divvy up the books and create classroom libraries. Now I’m all for classroom libraries, but moving the books into classrooms and out of the library means you’re restricting what students get to read. Now they’re limited to whatever books are in their teacher’s classroom, rather than having the choice of the thousands of books that had been available to them before. And there’s no guarantee that there will be a budget to add future books to these classroom libraries, or any idea of who will be selecting them. Some books were moved into a computer lab made into a cozy reading nook. That sounds like my media center – we have a computer lab, cozy reading nooks, and plenty of books. So why do they need to move them out and into a different room, without a librarian to help kids choose books to read?
Part of what I do as a media specialist is help kids select books. I read a ton of middle school books and kids come to me almost everyday asking me for recommendations. If we don’t have a book a student is looking for, I can borrow it from another library in my district. By taking their librarians away and taking the books out of the library, they’re now pushing that responsibility on the teachers, who are already strapped for time, and may not be familiar with middle school literature. And if the book that would be perfect for that one struggling reader isn’t in that classroom library, well, they’re out of luck.
What I do love about Pasco’s changes are the recognition that the media center is a diverse, multi-functional space. I think it’s great that they’re adding mobile whiteboards, collaborative spaces, social learning spaces, and productivity centers. These are all things I’m hoping to accomplish in my media center. I think that we need our spaces to become more flexible to accommodate all types of learning and to cultivate collaboration among students.
I think that the best solution is a happy medium. Our libraries need innovation, fresh ideas, and outside-the-box thinking. But we also need books to support reading and discovery, and professional librarians to help students select books, discover new resources, and grow in their knowledge of the world. We can no longer remain book warehouses. We need to provide space for collaboration, for students to work on projects. We need the flexibility of a multi-functional, technology-rich space. We need to be able and willing to change to meet the needs of our students. That’s the goal I’m aiming for with my library.