A library without books?

The question is a vital one. Indeed it wouldn't be too dramatic to say the question relates ultimately to your continued employment.

When you do a concerted analysis, you'll find there is a dramatic difference between a 'school library' and an information services unit, a difference that has to do with both perception and the actual situation, which sees one disappearing and the other continuing to play a significant role in the education of the young.

In 1996, I wrote a piece for The Practising Administrator - at the time, Australia's preeminent educational administration journal - entitled 'Close the School Library: Open the Information Services Unit'. In it I argued that that, based on the contemporary trend lines, 'the time has come to close the school library and open the information services unit … It is strongly recommended that schools, and indeed teacher librarians themselves, work towards a ceremonious closing of the library and ushering in a new era with a name change.' (Lee, 1996)

The schools and the teacher librarians that took heed of that warning are today generally very well positioned to continue to play a significant role in schooling, but those that did not have little or possibly next to no time to do so.

Soon after writing the aforementioned article, I followed it up with another arguing for a name change and the creation of the position of director of information services. Fifteen years on, most of the flourishing information services units are led by a person with that type of title – leading an information services and management unit.

When I was researching the history of the school library for The Use of Instructional Technology in Schools (Lee and Winzenried, 2009), it soon became apparent that the standing of the teacher librarian position, rightly or wrongly, has always been closely correlated to the facility to astutely integrate the latest information technologies into the school's educational program. The failure to do so would have long resulted in the demise of that library. It was also apparent that the life of the teacher librarian is relatively short - 40, maybe 50 years at best - and that their traditional habitat is fast disappearing. The days are numbered for that segmented school organisation where the teacher library takes almost sole responsibility for teaching the 'library' and more recently information literacy.

As schooling across the developed world evolves, and pathfinding schools move from the traditional paper-based mode to a digital operational paradigm (Lee and Gaffney, 2008) where the use of the digital is normal in every classroom, each classroom becomes a digital teaching hub and thus a 'state of the art library'. As digital integration daily dismantles the traditional segmented school operations, the role of the specialist 'teacher librarian' will become ever more questionable.

When - as we are now starting to see globally - schools move from the digital mode where the operations are still conducted within the traditional school walls to the networked mode where those walls are dismantled, the old book-dominated school library becomes an anachronism.

What we are seeing globally within the more proactive, path-finding schools and education authorities is libraries morphing into information services and management units or, daftly, in some instances disappearing.

It is - in very general terms - only in the slower-moving, more reactive (Lee and Winzenried, 2009) schools and education authorities where the pen, paper and the teaching board remain the most commonly used teaching tools that the 'school library' survives. However, as many on this list have noted, even those operations are under evergreater scrutiny. The teacher librarian is a very easy person for school leaders to grab to help solve the growing teacher shortage.

One of the great problems is a perceptual one - the names 'school library' and 'teacher librarian' act as clear targets for the educational administrators. Bear in mind the perception is the reality. The old labels serve to inform the educational administrator that that group/entity has not moved with the times.

This was brought home to me vividly recently in discussions with one of Australia's national award-winning school principals. Her school had normalised the use of digital technology throughout the school. She wanted to create a unit to handle the burgeoning information support and management needs of her school. She was about to be given a new library, but she had a teacher librarian who refused to change her role. She turned to me for advice. Having control of her staff funding, she decided to terminate the position of teacher librarian and create a new executive position that was in essence a director of learning technology, designed to oversee both the operation of the new 'library' and all the other digital technology within the school.

She wanted a person in her primary school that had the professional acumen to oversee the total use of all manner of digital and information technologies in a tightly integrated teaching and learning environment. Interestingly, she chose a person who had a teacher librarian background.

In a digital - and in particular, a networked - mode, there is a vital and growing need for information professionals with a strong understanding of teaching and learning to play a central role in the school's operations. In a digital environment where the technology is ever-converging, and where the digital capacity of the home and the student's mobile computing is becoming ever more important, it is vital that the same person/team has responsibility for the management of all the school's educational, administrative and archival information. The actual form of that unit will depend on the particular context and will most likely evolve.

In her chapter 'Managing and Servicing the Information Needs of a Digital School' in Leading a Digital School (Lee and Gaffney, 2008), Karen Bonanno spells out the desired attributes of that information service very powerfully, while Lyn Hay (Charles Sturt University) in the soon-to-be-released Developing a Networked School Community (Lee and Finger, 2010) identifies the information paradigm needed to support a home-school nexus.

What we are witnessing in many respects is a gradual cessation of the old ICT and school library wars that started in the mid '80's when the 'computer empires' began to burgeon and a merging of those operations to better suit the needs of a digital and networked school.

In a previous life as the director of an education authority school closure program, I saw the damage caused by those who tried to forestall the inevitable. You all can see the dramatic impact the digital world is having upon our lives.

Recently I spoke with a colleague who had just returned from visiting some Japanese schools. The one that hit home was the secondary school where its vast investment in a school-wide, carefully controlled network was now only used by the administration. The students had in their pockets the wherewithal to access the 'Net whenever and wherever they wished, unfettered by any educators' controls. That is the kind of reality we need to recognise as we seek to provide the best possible education.

Mal Lee

Mal Lee

Mal is an educational consultant specialising in the development of digital schools.

Mal has co-authored Leading a Digital School, The Use of Instructional Technology in Schools - Lessons to be Learned, and The Interactive Whiteboard Revolution: Teaching with IWBs. Mal is currently working on a new book, Developing Networked School Communities.