School libraries in the digital age

Amy Icke reports from the International Association of School Librarians (IASL) conference held in Japan.

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The IASL conference brings together school librarians and academics from over 30 countries to share their research and best practice. The conference reflected the diversity of school libraries and the challenges face by school librarians.  Four key themes emerged.

1. Diversity of the school librarian’s role

It was evident from the conference that colleagues were working on a diverse portfolio of projects, ranging from promoting reading for pleasure and teaching information literacy to encouraging citizenship skills, partnering with museums and art galleries and opening their library to the community. 

Australian librarian Debra Brown described how she established a Human Library. In a human library, you ‘borrow a real person’ and have a conversation with someone from a different background, to gain an insight into their life and way of thinking. In this open forum, difficult topics can be explored and powerful connections can be made. The Human Library helps foster a culture of empathy and respect and promotes tolerance within the community.

Per Johansson, a librarian working in Sweden, spoke of the role the library played in integrating refugees into the education system. Schools are often the first port of call for refugee children, but without basic language and digital literacy skills, it can be alienating and overwhelming.

In Johansson’s schools, the school library supports these children by providing computers, talking books, print collections and a safe, neutral space they can visit. The job is particularly challenging. There has been no formal training for librarians or teachers to help them support the ever-increasing number of refugees arriving in schools. Johansson explained that actions feel largely reactive rather than proactive, but argued that helping these children doesn’t require a plentiful supply of money, but is rather about approach; the ‘new arrivals’ must be seen and treated as children, not as refugees, as this is what will help to ensure they are integrated as smoothly and quickly as possible. 

This diversity in the work of school librarians is likely to continue and develop in the future as the role of the school library evolves to support broader changes within education and the curriculum

2. Meaningful collaboration and relationship building

School librarians across the world are often solo workers, and therefore partnerships are crucial to the successful dissemination of their message and promotion of their work. Alongside internal relationship building, several presentations detailed successful collaboration with universities, charities, local communities and other schools. 

A particularly striking example of in-house collaboration was explored by a librarian and English teacher from Japan. In this school, the close relationship between the English department and the library has enabled students to benefit from an integrated and exciting reading programme. This partnership went beyond teachers encouraging students to read widely from the library, to teachers processing some of the reading stock – and even re-shelving books. Pupils saw teachers in the library, so there were lots of opportunities to discuss reading material and teachers gained a genuine familiarity with the books, thus being able to provide more targeted and appropriate advice to students and their colleagues. A blog was created where teachers could review and discuss books. 

3.      The importance of context

Many of the projects discussed at the conference illustrated that the librarian had identified a need or area of development and had adapted their role and work to suit the needs of the school. 

A new build school in Japan opened to first grade students in April 2014, with a rolling introduction for students in all grades by April 2016. As this was a new-build, senior leaders and architects had the opportunity to design a space that broke down traditional barriers in the Japanese classroom (e.g. rigid room layout, linear organised buildings, separate ICT rooms). They created a space which encouraged collaboration and reflected the desire for mobility and versatility within the fabric of the building. This flexible and creative space reflected the school’s preferred curriculum of “research based learning” and the library sits at the heart of this space. So, instead of thinking in terms of building a library within a school, the librarians used the tagline “a school within a library” to emphasise both the physical centrality of the space and the pedagogical centrality of the library in supporting students in their independent learning. 

Dr. Dianne Oberg’s keynote speech also alluded to the importance of recognising context when evaluating and assessing the impact of your library service. After introducing the topic of evaluation, and the difficulties of carrying it out in a school library, Dr. Oberg went on to discuss the importance of “evidence based practice” and the role context plays in this.

Dr. Oberg was keen to stress that the take home message from the session was that evidence needs to be interpreted within the particular context of the library. Drawing on the example of her home country, Canada, Dr. Oberg explained that education is not managed nationally but rather policies are set by individual provinces and territories. As a result, there is significant variation in practice and provision and there’s no statutory requirement to have a school librarian.

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