Nice VLE, Shame About the Library

My visit to the Online Information Conference recently reminded me, yet again, what a marvellous bunch of people librarians are. If you really want to know about searching for information and making connections, aska  librarian.

I'll be exploring such matters in the (hopefully) near future, but in the meantime I thought I'd reproduce an article I wrote this time last year. Don't worry: although the news referred to is old, the principles are still relevant, and I've updated the article.

Libraries are still relevantLast week it was reported that a school in England has decided to dispense with its library, and its librarian, and have an all-encompassing virtual learning environment (VLE) instead.

It probably isn't the first school to do something like this, and no doubt will not be the last. But is the decision a good one from an educational point of view?

I have to say that, in my experience school librarians are the salt of the earth. Their role is traditionally similar to, but different from, that of their counterparts in public libraries. That is because, as well as being founts of knowledge when it comes to finding stuff, the good ones could save a teacher an incredible amount of time.

For example, in a few schools in which I've taught, the school librarian has invited staff to share their schemes of work with her (they are usually female in my experience) so that she can put together "project boxes" for the teacher.

A typical project box would contain a couple of dozen books on the topic, possibly even a few artifacts, and a list of follow-up reading. It therefore provided a very rich extra resource for the classroom for that half-term.

Now, in case you think I must be harking back to the pre-industrial age, I should tell you that I availed myself of this service several times as Head of ICT in a secondary school. I always felt it important that students know that not everything they want to find out needs to be looked for on the internet.

I also wanted them to understand the concept of triangulation, ie corroborating one set of "facts" with another set found in a different source. When you have in your classroom a box containing twelve or so very different books, as well as access to the web, this idea becomes much more transparent.

But even in traditional terms, you can't beat a good librarian. For a start, I have met very few teachers who are as good at searching for information (and finding it!) as the average librarian: librarians seem to understand the concept of "search" in a much deeper and more innate way than the rest of us.

You also cannot beat a librarian who is really at the top of his or her game. The chief librarian in my local library, some years ago now, was amazing. You could go up to him in at the desk in the reference section and say:

"I'm doing a report on butterflies in history, with particular reference to yellow butterflies in Denmark in the 16th century"

and he would say something like:

"Ah yes, you will need Cooper's History of Scandinavian Insects, but you may also like to check out the November 2001 issue of the Journal of the Moths and Butterfly Research Association".

Interestingly, one of the speakers at the conference, Paul Sonderegger, likened the traditional librarian to an interactive flow chart. This is shown in the illutsration below, which represents how the librarian responds when someone asks "Do you have anything by an Irish writer?".

What the librarian does

Finally, I happen to think that folksonomy isn't everything. Taxonomy is important too, and whilst I cannot claim to know the Dewey Decimal systems, I can claim to understand how it works, and the numbers of the type of book in which I am most interested. Where will students gain that kind of knowledge, easily, once school libraries and their custodians start to disappear.

Look at this blog for an article about the school referred to at the start of this article, along with references to newspaper reports on the matter.

See also: 7 Reasons to have an educational technology library