We are now two thirds of the way through our research on teacher-librarian partnerships, and over the summer I’ve been reflecting back on these last two years and all we have learned. It has been a truly joyous project. For me, the greatest highlights have come at our annual hui, when I listened to our school librarians delighting in the new role they’re playing as they partner with teachers in the classroom.

But I’m also sitting with a Really Big Question. And I must apologise in advance for the length and convolutedness of this blog post: this is my attempt to grapple with my question, to speculate a little, and to invite a conversation with others.

Here’s my problem

As I’ve read policy documents (from a range of countries) on library services, one clear idea comes through: academic libraries in schools and universities are vitally important – for information literacy, for student learning, and the aims of education. Over and over again, I read, libraries are the beating heart of the school.

Similarly, the literature on libraries, and particularly librarian-teacher partnerships, shows that libraries and librarians make a measurable difference to student learning.

And yet, there is equally clear evidence that what is happening in schools and tertiary institutions does not match this elevated rhetoric about the role of the library. Our surveys of both schools and tertiary institutions show that academic libraries and librarians are NOT the centre of their institutions, that library services are pushed to the periphery of the life of the school or university or polytechnic. Librarians reported a lack of support from senior management, a systematic marginalisation, and an under-valuing of their professional skills. And all around the world, academic libraries are in decline.



So, the Really Big Question I’m sitting with is WHY? Why is there such a discrepancy between what governments and institutions SAY about the value of the library, and what is actually happening?

I don’t have an answer to this question. I wish I did, because then we could address the discrepancy at a systemic level and make a significant and long-lasting change to the professional lives of librarians and the development of our students.

Here, then, are some speculative thoughts….

Speculation 1: Maybe the library isn’t what we thought it was….

 #libraries stand for freedom, literacy, knowledge, tolerance & understanding & it has never been more important to defend these ideas. – Nick Poole, CILIP CEO

The quote above implies that the library is more than a building containing a collection of resources: that its function is to embody or symbolise the values and attributes of a liberal democracy.  This suggests an interesting idea: maybe the library’s true function is not literal but symbolic?

Let me explain. All through history, libraries have meant more than walls and books.  If we think back to the great libraries of the ancient world such as the Great Library of Alexandria and the Imperial Library of Constantinople, we see them symbolising the knowledge, wisdom, values, and learning of their age.  Throughout Western history, the libraries of the great monasteries and emperors and kings have been the repositories of the scholarship, thinking, and knowledge of their time.

In relation to this, destroying a library or books has always meant more than simply destroying walls and pages; it has symbolic value. To burn books – or a library – is to reject and destroy a civilisation and its knowledge and values. The sacking of the Library of Alexandria, for example, was a sign of the devastation of an Empire; the destruction of the Library of Bagdad (also known as The House of Wisdom) was largely an effort to devastate Islamic culture. Closer to home, we think of the Nazis destroying the books of Jewish authors, or – more recently – right wing Christian groups in the US burning the Quran. These are symbolic gestures, a rejection of a particular group or value system.

burning library

(The Burning of the Library of Alexandria, 1876. Private Collection. / Getty Images)

Libraries, then, are symbols, signifying the wisdom, knowledge and values of a civilisation.

If we think about academic libraries in schools and tertiary institutions today, can we go a step further and suggest that libraries are symbols that are used to validate the identity and gravitas of an educational institution? It is generally understood that you can’t have a university without a library. Similarly, a principal quoted in A National Strategy for School Libraries in Scotland, comments: “It’s not a school if it doesn’t have a library”. Why is this? Perhaps the reason why an institution is not a university or a school if it doesn’t have a library is because the library represents the knowledge, values, wisdom and scholarship of our age – which are traditionally seen as the work of educational institutions.  The library, then, confers on its institution its identity as a space of learning.

Is this what all the rhetoric about the beating heart of the school is about?

If this is so, then perhaps all that is needed of the library is that it simply exist, as a physical, demonstrable space, for an institution to claim its identity as a place of wisdom, knowledge and scholarship.  It then follows that fully resourcing the library, valuing its occupants, integrating them into teaching and learning, may be largely unnecessary. It is enough that the library exists. As the nominal heart of the institution, the library signifies the nature of the institution, validates the existence of that institution, and thereby attracts all the necessary accoutrements that the organisation needs (accreditation, funding, students). The library is essential – but primarily for what it signifies.

Does this explain the gap between the rhetoric of the library and the reality of the library?

I’m reminded, as I write this, of a school library we visited which contained a single shelf of unused books, no computer access, and no librarian. We would all agree, I hope, that this was not a satisfactory situation. But the school had a designated space called a library – a seriously under-resourced, inadequate library, yes, but a library nonetheless. The school was, therefore, a school.

Speculation 2: Or are we just confused?

A more optimistic speculation about the discrepancy between what we say and what is happening would be that we simply don’t know what a library is any more – and so we haven’t caught up with our own rhetoric. Recently, my son (who, until recently, worked for the library at Victoria University), went to visit the new Christchurch City Library. I’d read a lot about this library – how it has a spectacular design which includes a treehouse for children, a media suite. “Was it wonderful?” I asked. “Yeees”, he said, thoughtfully, “but I’m not sure it’s a library”.

But what IS a library in the 21st Century?

We used to know what a library was. It was a quiet place where scholarship or quiet reading took place, a repository of scholarship and knowledge. Yesterday, I was sitting in the university library, chatting with a colleague about our vision of the perfect university library and we were in total agreement: a library is a hallowed hall, almost a sacred space. You walk into a vast book-lined room, and in the centre are lines of long tables or cubicles, each with its own personal light, where individual scholars sit in silent absorption.

But even as we discussed this, we laughed; we only had to look around us to see that this is not what libraries look like any more – if they ever did. University libraries today contain cafes and meeting spaces and collaborative work spaces and banks of computers. School libraries contain classroom spaces as well as quiet spaces – and yes, maybe tree houses and media rooms. In a truly wonderful podcast by This American Life – The Room of Requirement – the library is variously described as a meeting room for people divided by national boundaries, a repository for unpublished manuscripts, and a safe warm place for homeless families. The librarian is described as the person “who will find whatever it is you need”.

Which sounds wonderful.

But there is a problem with the librarian being seen in these magical terms as the person who will find you with whatever you need. We saw this problem emerge in our survey, where librarians complained of teachers turning up without notice, with a whole class in tow, expecting the librarian to simply intuit and find what they needed. In sheer practical terms, such a definition of a library or librarian is an impossible role for anyone to fill: the Room of Requirement in the Harry Potter series did not need preparation time or a budget. How can anything meet the competing rhetoric that requires the library to simultaneously do all of the following:

  • Uphold the values of a Western democracy,
  • Hold any resource we might need (AND show us a way to find it),
  • Teach children to love reading AND university students to understand what research is,
  • Contain quiet spaces AND collaborative spaces AND classroom spaces AND reliable WiFi,
  • Teach students of all ages and abilities about Fake News AND information literacy AND evaluating sources in any discipline AND the limitations of Wikipedia, AND how to use APA referencing conventions,
  • Be a place for solitary reading and classroom projects AND a haven for kids during wet lunch times AND a cool-down space for kids in trouble,
  • And justify the identity of an institution as a place of learning.

Surely nothing can do all of this?

The idea of the library as a room of requirement sounds great. But is the impossibility of this rhetoric leading to a kind of stunned inertia?

Where to from here?

I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ve answered my question here. I suspect that, to some degree, both of my speculations are at least a partial explanation of what’s happening: that a lot of the rhetoric we read about the library is positioning the library as a symbolic space, and that decision makers are genuinely unsure in this digital age about what a library is and might be (even though librarians have been trying to tell them!) But I’m not sure I’ve entirely got to the bottom of this.

Whatever the case, something has to change! What is motivating me here is that I really want to do something about this discrepancy between what is SAID about the library and what is actually happening.  Our project is working at the local level to effect change but what I’d really like is to initiate some systemic change that will enable the library to be all that we say it is.

This year of our project, which is dedicated to data analysis and consolidation, will allow us to pull together the thoughts and experiences of teachers and librarians to tackle my Really Big Question with a bit more clarity. I will write again to fill you in on our findings, but in the meantime please do get in touch with your thoughts, reflections, experience – email me (l.emerson@massey.ac.nz), or comment on Facebook or Twitter. I would love to have a richer understanding of how libraries are seen by you all, and what you think needs to be done to bridge these gaps. Let’s make something happen!

Lisa Emerson

Project Director, Massey University