Are Libraries needed within a school setting?

Good morning everyone!!

First off, let me apologize for the long post. In order to keep my schedule of Tuesday/Friday updates, this one needed to be longer, as I will be away from my computer for a week at then very beginning of August. Rather the 2/3 posts in a day, I thought I’d combine a couple posts. Feel free to skim.


I’ve been thinking lately about the role of school libraries. It appears that before we can truly discuss deeply the technology challenges and enhancements, we need to first define the role we see, have, and want libraries to play in our schools and in our educational system.

In order to look at this problem, I did some reading and poking around, and came up with what I think are 2 strong arguments for the ‘benefits’ of libraries within a school setting.

1) Libraries as an educational place of learning

Perhaps one of the most immediately recognized roles of school libraries, I think this is what most people outside schools see libraries as for. While the notion of going to the library to research something for a school report or project may no longer be a defined role of the school library, they still retain several useful resources. Chief among this is that ‘library’ time still seems to be loved by children and the excitement of hearing a story read to them, or the freedom of being able to choose a book that interests you and read it still remains enticing.

The question I have is why?

What makes going to the library such an appealing concept, especially when websites like offer the same content from the ease of a computer, E-reader, or tablet?

One of the more interesting pieces of information I managed to stumble across was a report from the 1990′s about the social aspects of reading and library use in Israel. ( You can view it here – While the piece did also move on to other territory, the main idea was that reading and learning TOGETHER was an idea that had great traction both to children (who by nature seem to be more social creatures then adults) and as a cultural value.

The spin-offs later in life were quite astounding, with higher continued library use, language skills, etc. and got me thinking about the power of books and libraries socially, and academically. Is it possible that one of the great draws of libraries is the ability to discover and explore new ideas with some level of freedom, but also as a group activity? Can reading and exploring what is found by a group (of children in this case), and talking immediately about everything there, dreaming about its meaning, fantasizing and storytelling in REAL TIME really be that powerful?

It certainly appears to be so, and if it is, then is this something that technology can really replicate? Are groups of children gathered around computers websearching having the same experience as those same children picking through a section of their school library? Several studies already show the reading on a screen is different then reading on hardcopy, so what differences (if any) are there between sharing a book and reading together in a library vs reading together on a monitor?

2) Libraries as a social place

This has already been briefly touched on, both in this post and in the comments of last entry, but libraries really are a social place, a so called ‘third’ place outside of home and work. Whether it is getting together out of our normal structured environments, or there is something inside us that seeks places where we can be socialized, libraries have an appeal for individuals who just want a safe, mostly quiet-ish place to congregate. In that way they provide a neutral ground, a meeting place that can stretch across age, gender, etc.

One of the most succinct advocates of this view is Doug Johnson, and a good overview of a more in depth case can be found on his blog at

The question begs to be answered though, is this unique to the library setting? Can the same experience be given to students, patrons, teachers, etc in an online format?

Discussion boards, live chats, and the access to social media the internet affords have created a wide range of forums for even the most shy and timid individual to have a voice, something that can be lacking offline. To me, perhaps one of the most interesting questions is: “Are libraries intrinsically set up to foster a social environment, or have we simply invested them with those attributes?” In other words, is there something special about the library for socializing, or do they simply fulfill a role we have given them?

As an example, the university that I currently attend has gone to great lengths to make their main library a more attractive place to socialize, with large seating area’s, numerous work stations and rooms for students to gather and do homework, and also as a place to go for a cup of coffee and to simply relax. Was this done to ENCOURAGE the growth of the library as a social place, or was this a response to the library ALREADY being a social place? If the library disappeared, would students still continue these activities elsewhere?  I can’t help but think they would, whether by moving to new physical locations, or using interactive technology such a Elluminate virtual rooms, video calls, etc. The likelihood of that happening really puts a damper on the physical library as a social necessity argument.

Finally, if school libraries TRULY are social places, then to what extent do schools, boards, and divisions need to take that responsibility seriously? If school libraries are safe places, ‘third’ places if you will, then to what extent does that role need to be embraced?

In the coming posts I hope to look at e-resources and technology vs. serials and traditionally library set ups. But I would like to challenge anyone reading this to think about the implications of accepting the library as a ‘third’ place in education, and social life. If that premise is accepted then in the end the WAY the library is structured, while important, becomes of second nature to WHY the library is structured in a certain way. What difficulties, challenges, or oppurtunities do you think that opens up, or presents?


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~ by librarianowl on July 15, 2011.

3 Responses to “Are Libraries needed within a school setting?”

  1. Regarding the library as a central social space…

    I think you’re very right that people would gravitate elsewhere for social engagement if the library wasn’t a welcoming place, and in fact, I think that’s exactly what happened for decades. And successfully. I attended Indiana University, and it houses one of the finest collections for research anywhere and far better than what we had at the University of Saskatchewan. I even went back on an early sabbatical so I could graze in their wonderful pasture of information. It was definitely not a place for socializing. If you wanted to do that, you literally took the elevators to the basement where there was a meagre food service outlet and tables where people could talk. But what it offered was terrific, and those silent, dusty, slightly creepy stacks still live fondly in my memory.

    Fast forward 25 years.

    The wonderful pastures of information are not confined to libraries, and in fact, many libraries are finding it increasingly challenging to afford physical copies of resource, much less being able to afford all of the infrastructure and salaries necessary to maintain them. So if we don’t house the information physically, how can libraries remain vital? By becoming the places where people can gather and learn informally. The information is still available there, and much of it is still physical. But I think savvy librarians figured out that they had to approach that information very differently in order to survive. The job was not to protect it and distribute it selectively, the job became connecting people around it. And the University of Saskatchewan took it a big step farther and collected a host of other university services into the same space, but all centred on learning and sharing. At least on the first two floors. You can still get “shushed” in the stacks.

    I think this has been a difficult transition for a lot of librarians. The very culture of a formidable institution is being shaken. But in my opinion, it’s a good shake, and one that is turning libraries into much more vibrant, exciting places to learn. So, returning to your point, if libraries disappeared, people would certainly find other places to congregate, but I think the library is still the right place for it to happen, and the heart of many institutions, particularly in higher education.

  2. To me, the idea of a library being both a place to study and a place to socialize is an attempt to combine two conflicting ideas. There is very little that is more annoying then to be trying to read or study next to people who are talking loudly. On the other hand, it is very awkward to talk with your friends/classmates with people glaring at you for disturbing the silence. I am guilty of using libraries for both purposes at different times and think the idea of libraries having different dedicated floors or areas works well for both worlds. Personally, my favorite place to meet up with someone is at a library. Even if they are late I am never bored!

  3. I agree that library time is the best part of elementary school. Now I find it a great study venue but I rarely use any of the books in it, more often I just bring my laptop. I bring my resources to the library.

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