Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The future of libraries

I read a blog earlier this year about the future of school libraries which caused a huge debate. The central thesis seemed to be that the library of the future might not need to contain any books. This would be replaced by easy access to books online with libraries remaining as attractive learning environments where librarians could guide students in research skills. Given that the idea of a library without books sounds counter-intuitive this provoked a storm of protest and some pretty vitriolic comments on the blog. Coming at the same time as several councils announced plans to scrap local libraries it is not surprising that the nation's librarians were keen to defend their role.  More recently Wellington College announced plans to significantly reduce their stock to make the library more of a learning space than 'the room with the books'.

Radcliffe Camera, Oxford

So what is the future of school libraries? Clearly they provide an excellent environment for students and staff to work. When I was at university I collected memberships of various libraries partially to broaden my access to books but also because they were inspiring places in which to work.  When I first started work at Berkhamsted I was completing a dissertation for my MA and the school library was the perfect place to do my thinking and writing.

Last summer we spent a lot of time and money on improving the facilities for our Sixth Form students. Central to this was more than doubling the size of the Careers Library, putting in more computers and access to a WiFi network throughout the building. There are an enormous number of rooms where the students can work (we are fortunate to be in a large and beautiful 500 year old building) but what is striking is that they gravitate towards the Careers Library and other shared study spaces. I'm sure that part of the appeal is the same as it was for me - great spaces are great places to work. More than that though, humans are sociable animals and I think my students are drawn to where others are working. When they need to totally zone in they will go back to one of the many House Rooms in the building where they can usually guarantee some solitude.

What I would like to see though is more of them with a pile of books and articles on their desks as evidence that they are synthesising material from a variety of sources.  The truth is that mostly they do not need to do this as part of their A Level studies.  I don't think there's much change here since I was in their shoes just over 20 years ago.  All I needed came from one core textbook and the teaching in the classroom.  However, in the Upper Sixth I 'discovered' the theology section of the school library and with very little additional work I found that my essays improved dramatically.

Worcester College Library, Oxford

My angle is that students may not need to research independently for their A Levels but that they should do so.  There are a number of clear benefits to this.
  • It develops their love and understanding of the subject.
  • It will improve their performance and strengthen their applications to universities.
  • Synthesis, selection and deployment of information are skills most of use in our professional lives.
  • It will better prepare them for the independent study expected at university.
  • Increasingly post-graduate study is becoming more common which is where such skills are mandatory not optional.
So it seems to come down to an age-old debate in education, one set against the backdrop of the huge pressure to attain the best grades.  Where is the line between ensuring the students are taught in a manner which will deliver the best chances of top grades and making them work more independently with the associated risk of lower performance?

For many years all of our students applying to Oxbridge have had to write an extended essay.  From this September we will be running the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) for a group of Lower Sixth.  Worth half an A Level, this is a 5-6,000 word essay in the style of a mini-thesis which universities love to see as it closely correlates to undergraduate work.  We are running a pilot group which will be drawn from the top 20 performers at GCSE - and over 100 students have expressed interest.  I suspect that we will be running it for pretty large numbers before too long.  I'd like to think the interest shown is more than just seeking an edge in UCAS applications, but part of me isn't particularly fussed - the end may well justify the means.  We are also giving all our Sixth Form students study skills sessions in how to research effectively.

So, what's my solution to the future of libraries?
  1. A high quality and updated stock of reading books aimed at the various age groups of the school.  A love of reading is at the heart of all education.
  2. Students being guided in research skills and using online resources.
  3. Subject specific works for research, with additional access to borrowing from other libraries and online journals.
  4. Great spaces all over the school for working.
  5. Departments planning opportunities for research essays.
Not exactly re-inventing the wheel but looking to make sure that we get the absolute best out of libraries for staff and students.

Berkhamsted School library