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School libraries supporting 21st century learning

School libraries

Libraries have existed for millennia. Their purpose has always been focussed on knowledge acquisition and sharing for the development of society. In the 21st century, school libraries are re-engineering themselves to focus on learning, curriculum and the skills needed for 21st century learning.

The evolution of school libraries into flexible, dynamic, high-tech learning centres designed to prepare students as responsible digital citizens to function effectively in a complex information landscape is dependent on visionary leadership and strategic planning to reach this level of functionality. “School libraries provide a common information ground for supporting learning across the school and fostering the development of deep knowledge through the provision of accessible resources, and the development of sophisticated information and technology understandings and skills” (Hay & Todd 2010a, p. 30).

The Student Learning through Australian School Libraries study (2004-2006) highlighted the value students placed on the technology, services, environment and support provided by their school library. The study found that flexible access to computers, printers, internet and other resources, including teaching expertise, before school and at non-class time was valued highly by students (Hay 2006). In 2010, one principal stated, “When I enter my own school library I see a social network – students and teachers doing all manner of things – everything from reading, promoting, quiet games, social skilling, researching, working on the computers, group planning, the list becomes quite endless. I see a thriving centre of learning – and something that is integral to the way the whole school functions” (Hay & Todd 2010b, p. 5).

The concept of a knowledge commons or learning commons becomes the physical and virtual catalyst for inquiry, imagination, discovery, creativity and innovation. The school library becomes the hub for networking, information access, digital literacy instruction, learning and knowledge creation – a shared space for all students and the school community. The advantage of a ‘commons’ approach is it provides an opportunity to re-engineer the school library into a place/space that brings together the library, information technology and a qualified team of information, technology and learning staff whose combined knowledge, skills and expertise collectively support the integration of 21st century learning into the curriculum.

The report of the School Libraries 21C online discussion, commissioned by the NSW Department of Education and Training, School Libraries and Information Literacy Unit, identifies a set of principles underpinning 21C school library design as an instructional zone within and beyond the school. In summary, the following points are identified:

  • A facility which features fluid library design that allows for the customisation and personalisation of learning.
  • A blended learning environment which harnesses the potential of physical learning spaces and digital learning spaces.
  • A learning centre whose primary focus is on building capacity for critical engagement – giving emphasis to thinking creatively, critically and reflectively with information in the process of building knowledge and understanding.
  • A centre of learning innovation where teachers and teacher librarians are involved in creatively designing learning experiences.
  • A learning environment that demonstrates the power of pedagogical fusion where pedagogy underpins the decision making behind a school’s information architecture.
  • A facility consisting of seamless search interfaces.
  • A facility which seeks a balance between print and digital collections and which does not privilege one format over another.
  • A centre that supports literacy learning.

(Hay & Todd 2010b, pp. 15-16.)

The new mission of teacher librarians is a return to the original purpose of libraries, that is “to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities” (Lankes, R. D.).

As identified in the Horizon Report: 2011 K-12 edition, there are three major factors driving role changes for all educators:

  • The increasing amount of resources and social networks available for learning;
  • The increasing ubiquitous nature of mobile devices; and,
  • The increasing need for digital media literacy so that students can utilise the above resources and mobile access for learning and knowledge creation.

“The abundance of resources and relationships made easily accessible via the internet is increasingly challenging us to revisit our roles as educators” (Johnson, et al 2011, p. 4.). This key trend highlights the importance of why school libraries need to function effectively in the school community.

The abundance of resources adds to the complexity of the information environment in which students work. It highlights the need to continue the highly effective practice of collection development undertaken by teacher librarians to support the curriculum across different platforms on which resources are available. As an example, in an always-connected world, the recent announcement by Apple to introduce iBooks 2, iBooks Author and New iTunes U (Apple Events 2012) identified that there are already 20K education iPad apps and 1.5 million iPads in education institutions. Teacher librarians know which apps are free and trustworthy and can then recommend these to staff and students. The same collection development skills used to evaluate “traditional” resources to determine which are current, relevant, authentic and authoritative, are also applied to online databases and web sites.

The mobile devices students use to access these resources are multi-functional and make it easily accessible via the Internet. As indicated in the Horizon Report: 2011 K-12 edition, “Mobiles have moved to the near-term horizon because of the rise of a new class of devices, led by the category-defining blockbuster that is the Apple iPad” (Johnson, et al 2011, p. 14). The multifunctionality of tablet devices heralds the convergence of several technologies that lend themselves to educational use. With always-on internet it is imperative that the skills required to assess the relevancy and credibility of information, and to then make sense of this information, is paramount.

“Digital media literacy continues its rise in importance as a key skill in every discipline and profession” (Johnston, et al 2011, p. 5).Digital media literacy can be defined as the ability to locate, access, organise, understand, evaluate, analyse and create content using digital media (Wikipedia; Australian Communications & Media Authority). Even though this level of literacy involves knowing how to use technology it is “less about tools and more about thinking” (Johnston, et al 2011, p 5.).

The general capabilities in the Australian national curriculum, especially “critical and creative thinking”, provide a vehicle for teacher librarians to be active in the delivery of digital media literacy skills through inquiry based programs. For example, research pathfinders encourage active engagement in the interactive information seeking process. Pathfinders provide a starting point for the generation of questions, discussions and identification of suitable and relevant resources. Collaborative knowledge building environments such as wikis can facilitate the inquiry based activities that allow students to engage in collaboration, construction, knowledge sharing and creation. The school library is an ideal environment to engage in conversations about digital citizenship, the impact of a student’s digital footprint, ethical use of information and social responsibility in an always-connected world.

The vision is to go beyond school libraries being perceived as repositories of information artefacts to being flexible, dynamic learning environments; “centres of inquiry, discovery, creativity, critical engagement and innovative pedagogy” (Hay & Todd 2010b, p. 40). To make this vision a reality is a challenge for school leadership so that the best learning environment, resources and learning is available for all Australian students.


Apple Events 2012 Apple special event January 2012, Viewed 21 January 2012. 2012/

Australian Communications & Media Authority 2009 What is digital media literacy and why is it important? Commonwealth of Australia.

Hay, L 2006, ‘School libraries as flexible and dynamic learning laboratories … that’s what Aussie kids want’, Scan, 15 (2), pp. 18–27.

Hay, L & Todd, R.J. 2010a, ‘School libraries 21C: the conversation begins’, in Scan, 29 (1), pp. 30-42. Viewed 22 January 2012.

Hay, L & Todd, R.J. 2010b, A school libraries futures project: school libraries in 21C, NSW Department of Education and Training, Curriculum K-12 Directorate, School Libraries and Information Literacy Unit. Viewed 22 January 2012.

Johnson, L., Adams, S. and Haywood, K. 2011, The NMC Horizon Report: 2011 K-12 edition, The New Media Consortium, Austin, Texas.

Lankes, R. D. The atlas of new librarianship: companion website. Viewed 22 January 2012.

  Wikipedia 2012 Digital literacy, Last modified 21 January 2012. Viewed 23 January 2012.

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