The 21st century librarian

| March 26, 2013 | 0 Comments

By Dianne de Villiers

In the 21st century, what does a school librarian do?
Things are moving so fast that it is not clear to many people exactly what modern teacher librarian practice is. The school library has changed radically due to the huge number of new tools and abilities we have today. When I think back to learning how to research via encyclopaedias and physical journals stacked on the shelves at university, I am amazed at how limited and time-consuming it all was. Now we are able to get information at the click of a mouse, download an e-book in a matter of seconds, talk to students thousands of kilometres away via Skype and collaborate with colleagues all over the world. Gone is the stereotypical ‘bun and bril’1 librarian telling students to “shhh”!

What we are and are not

In her Manifesto for 21st Century Teacher Librarians,2 Joyce Kasman Valenza suggests several things that teacher librarians should unlearn. We have discarded them at the preparatory school at Somerset College.

Our library is not:

  • a quiet place… but rather a hive of activity
  • a tidy place… the sewing machines are out while we make costumes for our North American Indian Readers’ Theatre presentation during Cultural Week
  • a place merely to get stuff… it’s fast becoming the hub of the school
  • a place with a collection that is just in case rather than just in time… our collection is relevant to what the children are learning; it reflects their interests
  • a place where we care whether we file under Mac or Mc. This used to be important. Now small details like this don’t matter. What is important is that books are shelved in such a way that the children can easily find what they want to read. So we are about to embark on a total reorganisation of the library. It is a daring move! Out with the Dewey Decimal System and in with the bookshop approach, where books are shelved according to genre.

Open to change

I have had to change my mind about Wikipedia. It is not so bad, but rather a useful ‘jumping off ’ point when children start research. Databases are not the only online sources with value and credibility. Wikis, blogs and tweets are also relevant sources of information. I have to rethink closing the library for the annual stocktake. Our books need to be counted to ensure that they don’t get lost, thereby incurring a waste of money, but I cannot stop children from reading for two whole months at the end of each year because I need to stocktake. Books will be available throughout the year in future, even during the December holidays.

I also don’t believe that a 21st-century library’s effectiveness is measured by the number of books issued or by the number of children quietly reading in a corner under the watchful eye of the librarian.

The librarian must also change The 21st century librarian is a person who:

  • promotes reading in new and innovative ways. We have recently acquired our first Kindles and iPads and have changed our approach to audio books. Audio books will be made available on the Kindles. Some children just don’t like reading long books. They don’t have to miss out on great stories. The performance company Hooked on Books visits our school every year and really do bring books to life
  • shares e-book apps with students on their iPhones, iPads and other mobile devices
  • encourages collaboration and sharing. The best work is done when there is collaboration
  • considers iPods, iPads and iPhones as learning tools. Grade 7s can bring their smartphones to school. Any device is welcome in the library
  • understands that learning should be authentic and can be playful. Learning must be relevant to children to catch their interest. We also have lots of fun in the library. I am mad about games… board games, word games, strategy games, quizzes, brainteasers and logic puzzles. These all help with critical thinking
  • guides pupils to locate, analyse, evaluate and select relevant information from that bottomless pit… the internet
  • teaches digital citizenship
  • continues to retool and relearn.

Enormous strides
While I’m enormously proud of these forward strides, I sometimes have to swallow the panic rising in my throat and remember everything we have achieved in our library so far:

  • Most Somerset College ‘preppies’ are readers. The library collection is extensive. There is something for everyone. We have comics, graphic novels, annuals, chapter books, easy readers and books across all genres and subjects. The best prize-winning books are bought to enrich those pupils who are already established readers, and lots of fun books are bought to encourage new readers. We have traditional ‘dead tree’ books and a growing number of ebooks on our Kindles and book apps on our iPads. Our bronze, silver and gold reading awards extend children and encourage them to explore all genres. And everyone enjoys being recognised with a Fabulous Reader Award.
  • Research skills are taught from Grade 2. Even our youngest ‘preppies’ know that they have to put information into their own words. Projects are done in information technology (IT) classes and library classes, and often the two mingle. The children are encouraged to work together and this results in a lively hum of voices across the library.
  • Team teaching takes place, especially between IT and the library. These two departments are moving closer together, the IT department providing the essential technical support needed for all the changes taking place in the library. The librarian works closely with class teachers, supplying the resources they need in the classroom. We work on projects together with other subjects. Literature studies done in the library are included in the children’s English mark.
  • The library is a place where the children want to be. They stream in at both breaks and after school. They enjoy working on the iPads or sitting reading in the big comfy chairs in front of the window overlooking the dam. The boys like sitting in groups of two or three on the window seats looking at non-fiction books. The Guinness Book of Records and Ripley’s Believe It or Not are hugely popular.

A book is a book is a book… thank goodness!
Some things remain constant.

  • Librarians love books. I have always strived to instil a love of books and reading in all children, and will continue to do so. I am passionate about children’s literature and try to read the books that cross my desk so that I am able to match books to children. Although we have a growing collection of books on our Kindles and iPads, we will not stop buying the paper version. There is nothing like being surrounded by a pile of fabulous new books with enticing covers, each begging to be read.
  • Librarians love reading to children. Kerry Dunkley, our assistant librarian, has a real gift when it comes to reading to the little ones. She is able to assume the voices of the different characters and her accents are quite superb. The little ones love story time with Kerry. She has a sound academic background in children’s literature and is a skilful puppeteer as well.
  • Librarians love words. I am passionate about writing. The children are encouraged to write stories during library and I plan on making creative writing one of my priorities next year… helped by a number of amazing apps on the iPad such as Book Creator, Toontastic, ComicBook, PhotoComic and StoryBuddy.

Environmental library design

Our new library is beautiful. It is the first of many buildings on our campus built taking the environment into consideration. We very seldom have to turn on the lights. This is because of the clever design involving skylights and natural lighting. This has significantly reduced our electricity consumption, making the library a sustainable building.

Skylights in the roof will open in summer, allowing the rising hot air to escape and negating the need for air conditioners. Our shelves are spacious, with lots of room for new books. The tables are welcoming. They encourage groups of children to work and relax together. The view is spectacular. Just to stop and look out of the window feeds the soul. Our library is a very happy place, and these are exciting times indeed… 

Dianne de Villiers is the librarian at Somerset College Preparatory School in the Western Cape.

1. ‘Bun and bril’ refers to the traditional conception of a school librarian. ‘Bril’ is an Afrikaans word for glasses.

2. Available at: librarians/.

3. Learn more at:

Category: Autumn 2013, Featured Articles

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