M.E. Steele-Pierce is a school district leader in Ohio.

In the library U-Scan line, the customer in front of me was perhaps four years old, not much taller than a toddler. Fascinated, I watched as she scanned her stack of picture books.

She stands at the intersection of physical print and technology. What is reading going to be like for her as she grows up? How will literacy be different in her world to come? And how will schools prepare her for that?

Only recently did I learn the word transliteracies (it’s so new even my spellcheck doesn’t recognize it). I started noticing it in websites like The Daring Librarian and Librarian by Day, where I’ve been lurking lately as I puzzle over the future of libraries — school libraries in particular.

When my children were in elementary school, I volunteered in their school library. My weekly task was to collect books as kids filed in and stamp their book cards as they left. Thirty years later the only difference between their 1970s library and some libraries I have visited is the book scanner (and perhaps a bank of computers). Like it or not, some old-school libraries are still warehouses of printed text where children show up, on schedule, to check out a limited number of books, sometimes at the “appropriate” reading level signified by a colored dot on the spine.

If this sounds familiar, I invite you to join me in rethinking school libraries. I enter this conversation with more questions than answers. So to those who have found a way to lead our students into new learning spaces: Please share with those of us who are looking for affordable, sustainable alternatives to the old library model.

Pink slips and shrink wrap

Because of the state of the economy and Ohio’s school funding, our district recently pink-slipped 61 educators. Ten of those are library staff. With 12 schools, we will enter the 2011-12 school year with two licensed librarians. Some districts in similar circumstances chose to close their libraries and shrink wrap their collections. We won’t do that. What we are doing is talking with designers, leaders, and librarians with experience and vision. We’re asking lots of questions, seeking models that do not replicate the stacks of the past.

Are libraries facing extinction? The question is a hot topic, with blog posts and news reports (including the front-page NYT story In Lean Times, Schools Squeeze Out Librarians) evoking prickly responses, lengthy explanations, and impassioned advocacy.

Aren’t libraries sacred institutions? No longer. The feds are pulling school library funding. Districts across the US are closing their library doors. The big story from Los Angeles this spring was LAUSD’s interrogation of their school librarians, demanding proof that they deserve the designation “teacher.”

I’m hoping for another way.

I want to be a part of the shift to new thinking about what it means now to be a learner — and about how library spaces can morph to accommodate new visions of the learning culture of school, transforming the job description of the librarian as well.


Thinking Shift #1: Redefine reading and writing

“People who think libraries are only about reading are missing the point.” — Susan Vater, school librarian, Cincinnati OH

Part of the challenge in rethinking libraries is rethinking reading. Educators, parents, and the community bring long-standing mental models about reading to the table. (On Twitter, when Jane Bozarth asked “What are you reading?” I automatically thought “book,” despite the fact that within the hour I’d been reading an infographic, a blog post, my twitter stream, a google map, and the New York Times online.)

So part of the thinking shift about libraries has to include redefining what it is to be literate. My district colleague and Heinemann author Tanny McGregor says

Literacy isn’t decoding and encoding (it’s not just reading and writing). It’s a term that’s evolving and it’s evolving more quickly than we even realize. Just about every field has embraced “literacy” as its own; for example, we have digital literacy, financial literacy, numeracy. When you look at the term in a broader context —which we have to do now— the common thread that runs through is the construction of meaning. It’s still connected to what we used to think of as literacy (the ability to read and write), it’s just grown to include how our students need to think in the 21st century.

Our biggest misconception is that these broader literacies are not as important. You really have to go back to your personal definition of reading. I happen to believe that reading is synonymous with thinking, and that thinking can be about images, words, or sounds.

Something I’ve really been thinking about lately is what Louise Story calls “blank space.” Students (all of us, really) have less and less blank space in our lives. We are bombarded with images, words, and sounds that we need to make meaning of. That’s what 21st century literacy is.

Not long after my conversation with Tanny, I asked Gwyneth Jones, one of Library Journal’s Movers and Shakers of 2011 to define 21st century literacy. She gently corrected me. “Transliteracy. It’s transliteracy.” I began googling to learn more. Transliteracy, writes media librarian Tom Ipri, refers to “mapping meaning across different media,” not about or within specific media. “It is not about learning text literacy and visual literacy and digital literacy in isolation from one another but about the interaction among all these.”

These insights remind me of Michael Wesch’s idea of moving students from knowledgeable to knowledge-able. I “met” Wesch via this gem of a website, Libraries and Transliteracy, in a post by Gretchen Caserotti (a 2010 Mover & Shaker). Wesch says

As we increasingly move toward an environment of instant and infinite information, it becomes less important for students to know, memorize, or recall information, and more important for them to be able to find, sort, analyze, share, discuss, critique, and create information. They need to move from being simply knowledgeable to being knowledge-able.

Watch Wesch’s TEDxKC talk when you can (even if you’re not a TED fan) to hear and see one of the most cogent arguments for changing the way we think about learning. Because new media change our space, our relationships, and our culture, Wesch argues that our new role is to help students connect, organize, share, collect, collaborate and publish. He challenges us to rethink our own practices, and Caserotti takes Wesch’s challenge to heart as she performs a fearless self-inventory of her role as children’s librarian within the knowledge-able context. She writes

 Wesch says learning is not a one-way conversation anymore – I say neither is librarianship! The old model with youth was ‘sit-down, be quiet and take in what I give you.’ We need to find ways to transform the one-way into two-way conversations.


Thinking Shift #2: Rewriting the job description

“I am constantly pushing out resources and following up with hands-on assistance. Collaborating. Embedding myself. Acting as consultant and partner. It’s about saying ‘YES,’ it’s not about ‘ssshhh.'” — Kathy Kaldenberg, school librarian, Solon IA

In our district we’re thinking about what it means to “run” a library. Who can do that? A licensed librarian? A tech specialist? A paraprofessional or media aide? In his recent controversial post, “The future of the library,” Seth Godin wrote: “The librarian isn’t a clerk who happens to work at a library. A librarian is a data hound, a guide, a sherpa and a teacher.” I like that definition, though some people were offended by it — especially by the metaphor of “sherpa.” A sherpa, however, is an expert in the local terrain. (My beloved librarian Deb Baldwin was my sherpa. She led me into new terrain and always gave me more than I asked for.)

Is Godin’s description accurate? I went to the American Association of School Librarians to see how their professional organization would answer. Their Standards for the 21st Century Learner (a great document) provides the framework for a 21st century job description. In a nutshell, a 21st century librarian, according to the AASL, helps students: (1) inquire, think critically, and gain knowledge; (2) draw conclusions, make informed decisions, apply knowledge to new situations, and create new knowledge; (3) share knowledge and participate ethically and productively as members of our democratic society; and (4) pursue personal and aesthetic growth.

Whoa. Too abstract? Too lofty? Still, I love the ideas.

The best part of the document offers up several key questions about teaching for our students’ future. The four standards are important but daunting. The AASL’s questions are the meat of the librarian’s role, I think. They focus on skills, dispositions, responsibilities, and self-assessment:

  • Does the student have the right proficiencies to explore a topic or subject further?
  • Is the student disposed to higher-level thinking and actively engaged in critical thinking to gain and share knowledge?
  • Is the student aware that the foundational traits for 21st century learning require self-accountability that extends beyond skills and dispositions?
  • Can the student recognize personal strengths and weaknesses over time and become a stronger, more independent learner?

Forget the color-coded reading level dot on the book spine. Bring me a librarian who can help learners—at whatever age—say “Yes” to these questions.


Thinking Shift #3: Creating new library spaces

“Libraries should be more like kitchens than grocery stores. They should be creation spaces, instead of pulling-things-off-the-shelf spaces.” — Ira Socol, Michigan State University, East Lansing

How do we create the kinds of library spaces our students will need to learn in these new ways? And, how could we provide these spaces with limited resources?

In my own district, we knew that we couldn’t be the first to experience these challenges, and we didn’t want to move into knee-jerk reaction. We needed a vision. Literally. Who could help us see what libraries, redesigned, could look like?

Research was one thing, but we wanted to talk to educators who were involved in library turnarounds. Early one Thursday, a small team from my school system gathered around the conference table to Skype with Ira Socol, education researcher and expert in universal learning design.

He asked us to consider the 24-hour Apple Store or a Starbucks as physical models of how to envision a library makeover. He continued

I just say “library” but library means “media center” truly. Yes, the Latin origin is “chest for books” but before that, the “lib” really was the verb “to peel” in original Indo-European—to open up, to make accessible—and that’s what we are discussing.

Learning how to function in open, social spaces is essential for every student. This is what learning will be in this century. If I walk through any of the libraries at Michigan State I notice that the tables, the collaborative spaces, always fill first, even in the “silent area” like the first floor of our law library. There are always private carrels open, but social spots are full, and any place people can sprawl on the floor is full as well. Perhaps libraries need to begin hosting “meet-ups” on certain “topics” (affinities) during lunch, before or after school. Programming, emo poetry, graphic novels, music editing, whatever.

Furniture matters. Lighting matters. Sightlines matter. In all these cases, variety is essential.

Ira Socol and Pam Moran, superintendent of the Albemarle (VA) schools, both use the metaphor of creating caves, watering holes, and campfires for transforming libraries into learning commons. Campfires are teaching spaces, watering holes are gathering spots, and caves, as the name implies, offer privacy. It’s a relatively easy mental shift from rows of bookshelves to furniture re-arranged to accommodate small group learning, social spaces, and quiet spots.

Via Skype, Twitter, PhotoPeach and email, Albemarle librarians Joan Ackroyd and Melissa Techman shared their expertise and experiences in making modest moves that powerfully impacted their students. Is this do-able on a budget? Both Joan and Melissa say, “Yes!” Joan wrote me following our Skype visit together:

I would start with an area of the library or convert a room (as we did). Our equipment is bare bones. Dave literally resurrected 5 laptops that were destined for the trash. Our Fruity Loops music program is the free version. I did allocate library funds for the purchase of stereo headphones, maybe a microphone and a 12 port jack – all purchased from ACP Direct. That is literally all we have spent. Really only a few hundred dollars.

Ira and Pam’s advice to us has been to begin by moving furniture, bring in lamps for lighting – all to create collaborative, kid-friendly spaces. I have been weeding extensively to make more room for collaborative areas/spaces.

For me, the most important aspect is attitude. You need librarians and teachers who truly love working with kids and seeing them blossom in whatever technology-rich environment you can provide. I’m a very non-traditional librarian. I LOVE books, but students are way more important to me than books. My “library” belongs to the students and teachers. I’m just the caretaker/facilitator.

And so . . .

Our district will enter the new school year with ideas, mentors, and models for our library turnarounds. It’s part re-visioning and part renovating on a shoestring. We won’t close our libraries, but we’re looking for new ways to assure they belong to our students and teachers. Right now we’re meeting, talking, experimenting, sharing. We’re prepping ourselves for big shifts and real change by remaking our own mental images of what a “library” can be.



Resources: Voices that can help us rethink school libraries

“What good is a dead library?” says my librarian friend, Susan Vater.

What good indeed? How to change that? Read or watch more…

…about transliteracy

Introducing transliteracy: What does it mean to academic libraries? by Tom Ipri. College & Research Libraries News. November 2010

Libraries and Transliteracy, a blog with multiple authors (library innovators and visionaries with their feet on the ground)

…about repurposing library spaces

7 Things You Should Know AboutTM…The Modern Learning Commons. Educause. April 2011

…about rethinking libraries and librarians

From Knowledgeable to Knowledge-Able, TEDxKC by Michael Wesch, October 2010

The future of the library by Seth Godin in his eponymous blog. May 16, 2011

Seth Godin Misses the Point on Libraries Again by Bobbi Newman. Librarian by Day. May 16, 2011

Librarians are Teachers, Too: Why Schools Need Librarians Now More than Ever by Sarah Jackson. Spotlight on Digital Media & Learning. May 24, 2011

Tell Me, What Do You Teach? by Joyce Valenza. NEVERENDING SEARCH on The School Library Journal. May 26, 2011

Making Connectionsan Ignite presentation by Kathy Kaldenburg at the Cedar Rapids Art Museum, June 22, 2011

Together for learning: school libraries and the emergence of the learning commons, an open wiki published by the Ontario School Library Association.

Photo sources:

(1) Paul Goyette – Flickr Creative Commons

(2) Pam Moran – Albemarle Schools VA

(3) Kathy Kaldenberg – Solon IA

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