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Online learning – Do schools still need physical libraries?

As we move ever further into a digital age, there are some sound reasons for keeping collections of books in schools – but doing so because ‘we always have’ isn’t one of them…

  • Online learning – Do schools still need physical libraries?

Of all of the changes the digital revolution has brought to our world, for some, the challenge to libraries is among the most deeply felt.

Change is always a challenge, but it can be particularly difficult to lose physical artefacts that feel essential to the experience of being human. Maps and clocks, for example, have played hugely important roles in the human journey, but for most of us, these now exist only as virtual renderings on our phones.

Yet when it comes to books, many people see their digitisation as a step too far. Why is that?

Libraries have historically been symbols of civilization – markers of knowledge and power. From the ancient library in Alexandria to the futuristic Tianjin Binhai public library in China, a great library is an outward-looking, physical extension of all the potentialities we humans have.

When the Grand Library of Baghdad – the appropriately named Bayt al-Hikmah, the House of Wisdom – was destroyed by the invading Mongols in 1258, it was seen as an epoch-defining, civilizational catastrophe.

Shared memories

However, a modern civilizational disaster would be if the internet were to suddenly vanish, taking with it all our collected human knowledge and potential. If the British Library burned to the ground, it would be a painful and tragic loss, but it wouldn’t cause the world to stop. Like many libraries, it has been busily digitising its resources so that they’re available online, but also for the security that comes from preserving fragile documents remotely in an electronic medium.

School libraries retain some of that House of Wisdom mystique, but none of the jeopardy. Not only can everything in them be accessed digitally, giving students access to vast online libraries will actually provide them with a more comprehensive and convenient service than any school could achieve in a physical setting. It would also be cheaper, freeing up money that could potentially be redirected to other, more essential services.

Arguments for retaining physical libraries are often difficult to evidence. That some people prefer physical books to their digital counterparts is comparable to hearing from those who couldn’t access literature at all until the arrival of audiobooks.

It may be the case that books have become embedded in our shared cultural memory over centuries, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we should preserve libraries in aspic. The products and processes of the last great social and cultural change – the Industrial Revolution – were thought of at the time as unnatural; harbingers of a mechanistic world where humans would be enslaved by sinister machines. But we still recognised that motor cars were better than horses.

Learning impact

School libraries can serve as vibrant, joyful learning hubs around which many schools are built, as well as places of quiet and sanctuary, but this is a model that can be reimagined. Is it not the case that all locations within a school should be joyful and vibrant? Shouldn’t every school be a sanctuary for those who need it?

A library can still be all of these things, just with digital media. We still have physical books at Halcyon, but they occupy a flexible common space that also supports readers who log in to digital resources. Once you open the digital box, you can immediately see how rich, endless and frictionless it all is. Our online libraries extend far beyond anything we could ever hope to collect in one building. We are quite literally bringing the world into our school.

Libraries occupy real estate and are costly, so it’s worth considering whether such spaces are providing intended learning impacts and are sustainable and commensurate with that investment. If your school library consists of books on shelves when your students use Kindles, are you really making good choices about where you’re investing in learning?

Yes, we can keep physical books. They’re beautiful, and can offer a unique, tactile, physical experience of learning. But let’s not keep them because ‘we have always kept books’. Keep them if they provide a learning impact that’s better than any alternative.

At a time when most textbooks have migrated online, and when students’ experience of the wider world is increasingly digital, using e-readers won’t present any threats to human potential. Quite the opposite, in fact – to do so is to embrace the reality of a changing world, and a different generation’s civilizational potential.

Barry Mansfield is the director of Halcyon London International School, Marylebone; for more information, visit halcyonschool.com or follow @halcyonschool.

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