Subscribe to SLJ
Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Neverending Search
Inside Neverending Search

Do schools still need brick-and-mortar libraries?

I received my copy of ISTE’s Learning & Leading with Technology in the mail this weekend and I found the editors’ two selected answers to that question that has been bouncing around the ISTE Ning for a while: Do schools still need brick-and-mortar libraries?

Here’s the full question:

Google has settled the lawsuits and is moving forward in its quest to make the holdings of the world’s major libraries available online for free. Several university libraries have already started digitizing their collections, including Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, Princeton, Cornell, and Columbia, as have such esteemed libraries as the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress. And the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education is taking this trend toward digitization a step further by eliminating its physical library altogether. Do you think K–12 public schools should follow suit? In this era of bare-bones budgets, can schools afford the real estate and the payroll it takes to support a brick-and-mortar library when free digital options are available? Are there benefits to having a brick-and-mortar library onsite beyond the content of the books?

Though the selected responses are not yet online in fully edited form, you can see Doug Johnson and Keith J. Mastrion’s responses from back in August.

Doug’s response was absolutely honest and reflected the need for brick-and-mortar when schools value such things as:  collaborative activities, project-based learning, information and media fluency, voluntary reading, differentiated instruction, quality content, inquiry, authentic assessment, and new information and communication skills.

Keith’s words truly saddened me.  Though I know he represents the view many well-respected professionals have of school libraries, as a long-time card carrying ISTE member, I am embarrassed that these words appeared in ISTE’s Learning and Leading.  Along with many other SIGMS members, I have been attending every NECC/ISTE meeting trying hard to represent.

Friends, we need to do something quickly if we are going to shift this view of what libraries are or should be.

It is clear that Keith has never seen the stuff that happens in a vital brick-and-mortar library or the kind of hybrid program that is possible when the library supports its intructional program with its online presence. Keith doesn’t ever mention any of that stuff.  (See some lists of stuff in my Manifesto wiki or My 2.0 day and the response/rant about our cover argument or  14 Ways K-12 Librarians Can Teach Social Media. or David Loertscher’s work on school library as learning commons.)

"Whether or not we need brick-and-mortar libraries" is NOT the same debate as whether or not we should read a book in a print volume or on a computer.  And, perhaps the question itself is the wrong question.

Keith’s argument against brick-and-mortar facilities:

No. Schools need places to hold words and ideas and a way to access those words and ideas as efficiently as possible. Hard drives are far more economical, in every sense of the word, than massive spaces holding bound volumes.

He shares a teaching experience:

One day teaching in Harlem, I knelt next to a student struggling to comprehend a passage about Mars. He re-read the words to me, then I said, "Okay, Mark, close your eyes and make a mind movie about what you just read. Now, tell me what you see?" Without opening his eyes, he looked at me and blurted, "I see black!"

If we’d had a computer in our classroom connected to our school’s digitized library — the world, and in this case the entire universe — within literally a minute I’d have helped Mark comprehend what he’d read. Sure, we had a library upstairs, but it may as well have been on Mars. I couldn’t forsake the rest of my class to take one child on a Mars quest. So, probably alone, the librarian sat in her information monarchy.

And he shares his experience as a dad:

Now I’m teaching my son to read. On my laptop with a digital camera, I’ve written several leveled books for him. Just two weeks ago, it warmed my father/teacher heart when he insisted on sleeping with his arm around that laptop.

And he shares his experiences as a student:

I read Hamlet 20 years ago as an undergraduate at UVa. About all I remember from the play was the "Words, words, words" quote. With five minutes of digitized research, however, I was well on my way toward writing this. Were you fooled? I’m not that smart, but that’s exactly the democratization of information Mark and I needed that frustrating day in Harlem. With it, we’ve all got a fighting chance.

Now as a graduate fellow in the Curry Center for Technology and Teacher Education, I’m thrilled beyond words that Virginia’s Curry School is leading the trend toward digitization, eliminating its physical library, nearly in its entirety. With Google digitizing 50,000 volumes, and with so much physical and virtual space now available, creativity is our only limit. . . which is no limit, indeed.

Keith, if you think it’s about digital books vs. print books, you haven’t been in what I call a library.  I wonder if you have ever seen a teacher librarian teach?  Have you ever partnered with a librarian on a digital storytelling project?  Have you ever used a dynamic library pathfinder? Have you ever relied on a library-sponsored database for your own graduate research? Have you seen the amazing collections of e-books also provided as part of library collections?

A school library is so much more than its volumes and shelves.  My guess (or my hope) is that the librarian who sat in her information monarchy actually created Keith’s digitized library and made developmentally appropriate databases available to Mark, and helped him learn to search and evaluate some good stuff on Mars, and would perhaps help Mark find stunning video through a pathfinder, and would perhaps help Mark tell a digital story about his MarsQuest, and would perhaps share it safely, make it a part of the collection, and help attach a Creative Commons license to Mark’s work.

And perhaps Keith’s own son might benefit from the notion that books and stories might be shared, that books–old and new–have value for children, and that however wonderful that leveled digital book he wrote was, some authors have written leveled books (of both the print and e- variety) that might inspire his son even more cleverly and artfully.  And perhaps his son’s teacher- librarian would involve his son in the story-writing and publishing process.

I wished the L & L question was posed a little differently. 

It isn’t about whether brick-and-mortar libraries should exist. It is about what should be happening in vibrant library programs wherever they live.  It should be about how teacher librarians guide students to reading and writing in all their glorious old and new formats.  It should be about how teacher librarians help students become creative citizens, able and excited to truly participate in their current information and communication times.

And Keith, who uses a hard drive anymore?

And most importantly, wouldn’t our answer to whether we still need brick-and-mortar schools and classrooms be dependent on what type of activities, what type of learning, actually occurs in those physical facilities?

Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza


  1. teacherninja says:

    I go to a suburban satellite campus of a major university. The building is very high tech and it’s a lot like walking around in the starship Enterprise. When you go to the library, there are newspapers, magazines, computer terminals and tables. No books. It’s wired into every major state library and database and the librarian can help you find anything. The only thing he can’t do is pull a volume off the shelf, but he can help you do amazing searches and get whatever you need delivered. He says that when he’s not in the room, it’s a computer lab, but when he’s there, it’s a library. And yes, it’s a needed space!

  2. Naomi Mellendorf says:

    When adults and students alike state that “everything is on the Internet” or as this ISTE article phrases matters, “free digital options are available,” I wonder how widely and deeply have they searched. How complex are their information needs?

    I assist several hundred juniors and seniors each year in completing a significant Chicago history project for the Chicago Metro History Fair. Their information needs go far beyond a few Wikipedia or Encyclopedia of Chicago paragraphs. They must explore historical newspapers, archival materials not yet digitized, and original monographs from historical scholars whose ideas are available ONLY in books, also not digitized. It is the nature of their research beast, and a fairly common one among students researching deeply.

    Work with students in this fashion and one will realize exactly how little of the world has been digitized, how complex information needs can be, and how important my library (and my assistance) is.

    Naomi Mellendorf, Librarian
    Maine South High School
    Park Ridge, Illinois

  3. I think another problem is the vision of a library as a place of silent, solitary work. I’d rather more folks (students & teachers & community members) thought of libraries as a shared physical space. I love that our township library has knitting & philosophy meetings, snacks for teens after school, story times, and movie talks. I love that my school librarian (brand new!) does book talks in classrooms and helps students narrow down their research topics.
    And I’m sorry that Keith’s son doesn’t sleep with a copy of “How do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?” or “The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig”.


    Touche on the parting shots…”And Keith, who uses a hard drive anymore?
    And most importantly, wouldn’t our answer to whether we still need brick-and-mortar schools and classrooms be dependent on what type of activities, what type of learning actually, occurs in those physical facilities?”

    I would say Keith hasn’t ventured out much in terms of visiting actual school libraries that are cutting edge.

    But we all know the saying: Don’t judge a book by its cover.” He is judging all “brick & mortar school libraries” by his limited experiences in them. It’s as hypocritical as NCLB, no? I’m just sayin’….

  5. PGH School Librarian says:

    Hamlet was just words on a page? He considers himself to be a teacher. I am all for making information accessible. I thought that was my role as a librarian. As a librarian, I know that not everything is online yet and therefor, it is important to keep information in low tech formats until they are digitized. What really bothers me is that many supposed technology educators are throwing students online without teaching them how to evaluate their sources because it looks good to have the students do all of their research online. For awhile, teachers in my building were doing this until I did a couple of in-service presentations and informed them about the importance of bringing students in so that I could do my job and teach them information literacy skills. The result has been that my students are better online and off line searchers than they were a couple of years ago. We have reached a balance. I have also worked hard to make my print collection more accessible by putting contents in the marc records. I had to laugh last year when one of the students exclaimed to their teacher that “books have information in them”. Initially the teacher was only going to use the internet for his class’s research on the French Revolution. I sat down with the teacher and worked things out and the lesson went smoothly. The kids were also amazed that our scanner could be used to copy pages and that the students could send the pages to their email accounts. The other thing that worries me about the increase of internet research is that the kids are using information that is not reading or grade level appropriate. Many of my books use “big words” while many websites are written in an elementary manner. What is going to happen to reading levels?

  6. Patty McClune says:

    Google Book Search is great, and like many librarians I directly link users to the site with a search widget from our library home page. While titles in the public domain are available on Google Books in full text, it’s critical to note that this is not the general rule. Titles still protected by copyright may offer a Preview (a section to give readers the flavor of the book) or only a Snippet (a few lines of text to whet the appetite). Google Books includes basic bibliographic information to assist the user in locating the print copy. Everyone realizes that not all the books in the libraries at Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, Princeton, Cornell, and Columbia are available in full text, right? It’s basically older titles with no copyright restrictions. While these are a boon to researchers, they are not the end all be all. The ebook collections and databases that teacher librarians have in place are crutial to the instructional research process. Going beyond research, sure you can find the full text of “Hamlet” online, but what about the very best new fiction, and the most authoritative, up-to-date nonfiction? Librarians evaluate, select and promote hot new titles that engage student readers; and it’s brick-and-mortar libraries that house those collections.

  7. What about all the studies that link student sucess with well stocked (Print & electronic), well staffed libraries?

  8. LaLibraryBug says:

    If physical libraries are expendable, then why do we need walls for classrooms? Courses and textbooks are now online. In a truly dynamic classroom, more is going on than just information being disseminated. In a truly dynamic classroom, information is being shared, discussed, debated, etc. Likewise, libraries are dynamic places that deserve their walls. I still fight the “quiet” stereotype to provide a dynamic, social, and print/digital compatible format facility daily.

  9. Would you want to visit a foreign country for the first time without some kind of guidance? Current information environments are MASSIVE, very fragmented, full of dead ends, and, sometimes time-wasting snarls of frustration. Sure it’s convenient to get to these digital environments… but is it effective if you don’t know what you are doing? Well, you get my drift.

    Also history tells us that information formats generally don’t disappear, they just accumulate. TV did not eclipse the big screen movies as was predicted in the 1950s. I find it hard to believe that books will disappear, especially since it has been one of the oldest and most successful formats. Nevertheless, I believe that books have to move over to make room for digital formats but it’s not a zero sum game.

    Personally I believe my book stacks might decrease in size a bit over the next ten years. Extra space can be used for information commons-like amenities such as practice presentation rooms, a sound-proof room, collaboration stations, high-end computers with advanced programs, virtual conference spaces, skype booths, and any number of functions that could emerge in the future.

  10. I am sorry for the child who finds himself in a classroom of a teacher who has no clue what a librarian in a library full of ALL types of information in all kinds of formats could do to help him understand a concept…if only the teacher would send him there.

    And I am even sad for a little boy who may not experience the thrills and joys that can be found in books written by imagination magicians (aka authors) if the stories are only on paper!

  11. Not only is the L & L question poorly formed (maybe they should have consulted a librarian to develop better ways of questioning) it is inaccurate. The Google settlement in not over…the revised proposal will return to the courts in the coming days. Many stakeholders will be coming to the table to advise the court and educate the public. The American Library Association has created a task force to be part of this process. The type of open access to digital collections that Keith describes is far from certain. Smart, committed librarians are getting involved to ensure that the very type of access Keith describes will be there for him and his students. Librarians are thinking ahead to “build” learning spaces for the future.

Speak Your Mind