The Evolving Role of Librarians
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, January/February 2019 Issue
By Meagan Gillmore
Sandra Harnum was pleased when Botwood Collegiate in Botwood, NL, removed most books in its library. “It’s really changed—quite a transformation,” says Harnum, the school’s only teacher-librarian.
Harnum is not in the library full-time, but she has been changing it into a library learning commons since September 2017. She arrived three years ago to a cluttered space, even though her colleagues had started cleaning it and getting rid of books that weren’t being used. They’re not abandoning books altogether, just updating the collection.
“Books are a form of technology,” she says. “They still have a place in the learning commons.” The shelves are now placed against the wall to make space in the middle of the room. There is also increased internet access for computers, along with more makerspaces.
More schools are creating learning commons. In 2018, the Newfoundland and Labrador government released Extending the Classroom: The Library Learning Commons. This curriculum support document clarifies what learning commons are and gives guidance about creating them.
In a library learning commons (LLC), sometimes just called a learning commons, it is not quiet. Students collaborate and participate in learning. “Within a library learning commons, new relationships are formed among learners, new technologies are realized and utilized, and both students and educators grasp new ways to learn,” the government’s document says. Libraries, it says, play an “essential role in the implementation of this innovative vision for education.”
Creating a learning commons begins by reimagining education. Technology demands school libraries become places where students collaborate to create learning environments. “Libraries used to be a place to consume information, and now they are spaces to create new information,” says Angela Monk, describing how she has seen school libraries change during the last decade.
Monk began transforming the library at Fraser Heights Secondary in Surrey, BC, into a learning commons in 2009. “[Students] used to come to the library to get information,” she says. “They do that still, but now it’s more of a place where they come to create information, to create different things.”
Karen Belter, president of the Alberta School Learning Commons Council and a school librarian at Centre High Campus in Edmonton, AB, describes the learning commons as “a collaborative kitchen, as opposed to a pantry. The libraries of the past would be a place where you picked up information: you picked up books, then you left. Now it is this great collaborative space where so many other things are happening.”
The whole school needs to collaborate, says Carol Koechlin, chair of Canadian School Libraries. A former school librarian with the Toronto District School Board, she has long advocated for technological innovation. A library, she says, “is a place where learners go to be inspired, where they go to learn and innovate and even play a little bit.” Information and resources, whether physical or virtual, need to flow between the classroom and library learning commons.
“Ideally, [the learning commons] is a change agent for the school,” says Koechlin. “It’s a place for teachers and kids to experiment with ideas and information.” This means strategically preparing the space.
When Melanie Mulcaster designed the library learning commons at Hillside Public School in Mississauga, ON, she only wanted furniture that could easily be rearranged. Shelves have wheels. Tables can be moved easily. “You use that space in so many different ways,” she explains. Making maps of Ontario on the floor requires lots of room, for example.
“Different learning situations require different spaces,” she says. “The sooner you can organize your space, the more learning you can experience. It’s just adapting to the needs of your students—because that’s where the curriculum is. The curriculum is our students.”
“Furniture is meant to move,” says Carlo Fusco, teacher-librarian at Waterloo Collegiate Institute in Waterloo, ON. “Whatever location it’s found during the day is the right location for that day.” He has designed his learning commons with different sections. Students can work together at desks or in individualized study spaces. Fusco also wants places where introverted students can be alone. There are couches and soft chairs to give students a break from hard chairs, and stools for students who fidget.
Technologies must meet students’ needs. Fusco, a former science teacher, became interested in school libraries because he saw them as a place to integrate technology into learning. He noticed the rise in students’ owning hand-held devices decreased the need for desktop computers. He traded in 30 desktop computers for 50 mobile devices. This allowed more students to work in the space and gave them more room. It also required new technologies. Fusco has increased the library’s electrical outlets so students can charge their devices. Students can also sign out chargers for the day. Students who can’t afford their own mobile devices can take them home. Arrangements are made on a case-by-case basis, he explains.
In Surrey, Monk has also filled the learning commons with technology her students can’t readily access. “A learning commons is ever-evolving, and it has to meet the needs of that community,” she says. Many of her students already have chargers or mobile devices. Instead, she created a digital makerspace with equipment for recording music or editing and filming videos. Music classes have recorded there, while language classes have filmed newscasts in various languages. “The makerspace is something that they would not have at home,” she says. “Who has a recording booth in their house?”
Creating space for this new technology often requires weeding out unused books. Monk explains that when she began creating the learning commons, she eliminated approximately 100 boxes of books, mostly non-fiction. Fusco also reduced his non-fiction collection, replacing much of it with digital resources. Some say, however, that physical books will always be key to promoting a love of reading, something important for all libraries.
“This is still the gateway of literacy,” says Belter, explaining why books are crucial to learning commons. For students to love reading, librarians must invest in high-quality books, she adds. Sometimes, this means buying a classic book with an updated cover and easy-to-read font. Other times, it means offering popular and new titles. “If you want [students] to read, you’ve got to have great books,” says Belter.
“Fiction is still really big,” says Monk, noting students at her school still prefer to read fiction from paper books. The learning commons at Hillside Public School is used to teach many subjects, but literacy remains key.
“We always try to tie everything to a text,” Mulcaster says. When she read students The Little Boy Who Lived Down the Drain, a children’s book by Carolyn Huizinga Mills, she asked them to make drains using different angles they’d learned about in math.
Digital resources can increase access to books. Just ask students in New Brunswick who now have access to the Sora app. It allows users to download audiobooks and e-books, including books that highlight text while a narrator reads. Students can download the resources to their devices so they are available without an Internet connection.
“I see students who before were reluctant readers coming in and wanting to read,” says Catherine Glencross, a Grade 6 teacher at Port Elgin Regional School in Port Elgin, NB, just a couple weeks after the school launched the app last fall. She says the first thing many students ask to do with their tablets is read. The availability of books is especially important because the school is located about a half hour’s drive from the nearest town and local library.
The app can also help foster a love of reading in students who are learning English or have learning disabilities. “Those are the kids that I worry about at night,” says Jean Anne Green, a language arts teacher at Florenceville Middle School in Florenceville-Bristol, NB. “You’re always looking for that book at a garage sale that will match up for them, that book that turns them into a reader. For a teacher, the most exciting thing is when you see they can’t get enough of books.”
Students can look up definitions of words, and reading while listening to the book may help English language learners. Students can enlarge the font or make it bolder. This can make focusing on words easier. Some students may be embarrassed if they’re reading below grade level, but their classmates can’t see what they’re reading on a tablet, explains Glencross.
Students’ love of reading is more important than the format they use to read, says Heidi Muise, a Grade 8 teacher at Ridgeview Middle School in Oromocto, NB. Her school launched the Sora app on Halloween, with teachers, Muise included, dressing up as characters from books. “My goal is to have lifelong readers and for them to be reading,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s listening to a book or if it’s reading from an actual book. I just want them to be lifelong readers and enjoy books.”
Many students began using the app immediately. The government said in an email to TEACH that by the next evening, Ridgeview students had checked out 74 books using the app. In total, almost 2,000 books had been checked out three weeks after the program launched at several schools.
Despite the immediate interest, however, creating a learning commons takes time, and requires patience. “There is no definitive jump from a traditional library to a learning commons,” says Koechlin. “There is no cookie cutter. It’s about the big ideas of participatory learning environment and having good professional leadership and working towards enabling students to achieve and grow and be the best they can be.”
Harnum reminds herself of this while transforming her school’s library space. “Some days, you go through a rough patch where you don’t know where the budget is going to come from to get a collection or the technology that you would like to see,” she says.
But she perseveres. “It’s worthwhile to stay with it and see if every student can achieve having a school library learning commons in their building.”
Meagan Gillmore is a freelance journalist in Toronto, ON.