Yesterday I told you about my ‘new’ library, which is arranged on a modified bookstore model. In this segment I will describe the circumstances that led up to my breaking with tradition and redesigning my library from a functioning repository for books to what is quickly becoming a vibrant learning commons.
Nudge #1: Unsuccessful Browsing
My initial motivation was prompted by a combination of many factors. As the sole person in the library, I deal with the everyday challenges of such a position, the most frustrating of which is the knowledge that a student has gone away unsatisfied. I can’t always help each student in a class, either because there are too many students in line ahead of them, or because they didn’t try to ask.
Students don’t always know what they want. Often they have a vague interest in mind: possibly a book they’ve read previously and enjoyed, or a hobby they would like to know more about. I could see them in the stacks wandering up and down, or fooling around with each other because, despite my attempts to leave a book face-out on the crowded shelf-ends, nothing was catching their eye. Busy helping other students navigate the online catalog, locate books or check them out, I was often unable to spend the time chatting with these wanderers to help them find something that interested them. I started to realize that my library was just not very user-friendly.
Nudge #2: No More Library Skills Instruction
Adding to the problem was the growing lack of understanding about common library arrangements. Nowhere in our curriculum does it specifically state that children must learn the skills required to access material in a traditional library. For several years after I first took over from the last teacher-librarian in our district, I tried to carry on her (increasingly infrequent, because of changing assignments) attempts to instill this knowledge in our students. I failed. I am not a teacher and was not able to provide adequate activities to instill any real understanding of the Dewey Decimal System in the elementary classes, which still visit on a weekly basis. The students understand that books are arranged, but never really understood how. It didn’t help that I often could not answer questions like, “Why are knights and castles in different aisles?” to their satisfaction.
Nudge #3: Repetitive Labour
Then there was the repeated assembling of books pulled from various parts of the library for annually required book displays and curriculum support materials. I began to threaten (myself) that I was going to just keep these themes permanently assembled on shelves of their own so I didn’t have to continually feel like I was living the year-long version of Groundhog Day. I was always looking for ways to promote books that were unjustifiably underused because they were hidden within others that were basically unrelated just because Dewey (and his successors) put them there. If you only have a couple of books about money for elementary students, they can be completely lost within high school level books on politics and government.
Nudge #4: Changing Needs
The last factor had to do with the changing of the times that all libraries have had to adjust to. I could no longer consider most of my collection relevant. With much more current and varied resources online, it was a waste of money and time to attempt to support much of the curriculum from Grades 6 and up with print materials. If I was going to keep the library relevant, I needed to build a collection that appealed to an increasingly visual, highly trend conscious student population, and arrange it appealingly.
The Stars Begin to Align
A general frustration was setting in. I had spent twelve years sneakily re-classifying books so they would suddenly appear in popular sections where I knew they would go out; giving up on the always faint hope that before I retired, a professional librarian would be hired whom I could assist rather than trying to figure it all out for myself. Suddenly, I realized that I knew my students and I knew my library. The two were drifting further and further apart and I was the only one would could or would do anything about it before it became completely obsolete.
There were four other elements that came together around this time that prompted me to begin to completely re-think the whole set up of my library. First, our Parent Action Committee completed their fundraising project for new library shelving. I had been looking forward to this new shelving and until now had assumed I would simply replace the rickety nonfiction ranges in their existing configuration.
Secondly, I had been following the progress of Alberta Education’s School Library Services Initiative that was looking at school libraries in the province for the first time since 1985. Their findings had been postponed several times, but what I came to understand was that whatever the final report was going to say, the shift was not going to be towards reinstating teacher-librarians as I had hoped. A new buzzword was going to be an important part of it. School libraries or Media Centres were going to be asked to transform into something called the Learning Commons.
I felt that my library could do more to support Alberta Education’s inquiry method of learning embedded in the curriculum in 2004 and described in the Focus on Inquiry document. This method encourages an “integrated, cross-disciplinary approach” to learning and “capitalizes on student curiosity”. The document also prescribes students taking ownership of their learning and describes how learning should involve the unexpected. A reorganization of the library along broad themes and a move toward the learning commons model seemed to be a step in the right direction.
As I was trying to wrap myself around what this new breed of library would look like, I ran across some articles on the Internet about some radical public libraries that were doing away with Dewey and adopting the bookstore model to increase patron satisfaction. And it seemed that it was working.
Jumping in With Both Feet
I tried, but couldn’t find any school libraries that had gone this way or at least any that had described the project. I was beginning to warm to what I understood about the Learning Commons concept and felt that the book store model could help this kind of atmosphere evolve. By nature, I am a (sometimes regrettably) impulsive person and as all this came together I made the decision. If my principal would continue my pay over the summer and allow me to hire an assistant I would transform my library to be one that students would want to be in and once there would find all kinds of inspiration, challenge and motivation to read and discover.
I tried to stop myself. Did I really want to give up my summer? And truly, what right did I have to mess with a time-honoured system when I’m not really qualified? Never mind, (I told myself), I still have more than ten years to retirement – ample time to clean up any mess I create.
Enthusiastic Support Where it Mattered
I was lucky. My principal went for it whole-heartedly. He is a modern thinker and loved the idea that his school would model a whole new concept in libraries. I regretted the use of the word bookstore, however, since his first thought was of a cappuccino machine…
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I approached my administration team and the staff, I had to have a very clear idea of what I wanted to do and how I was going to do it. I’ll cover those many initial considerations in Part 3 tomorrow. I welcome your thoughts and experience to the comments section below so that the dialogue can be relevant to anyone thinking about changing arrangements in their school library.