The library at the American School Milan, Italy
How does your school library look today?
By Dylan Jones
Education and schools have changed in many ways over the last thirty years or so. Technology and access to knowledge have been key drivers of that change, often making certain aspects redundant and others more important. So, I ask the question, “What and where is the library in this new educational paradigm?”
A learning machine
To begin with, I would like to ask you a question: “Where do the students go to learn?”
I consider myself incredibly lucky; I travel the world and meet inspiring teachers, librarians and school leaders who dedicate their lives to helping students learn. Not only do I meet wonderful people, but I also get to experience innovative, open learning environments and the most dynamic place in many schools is the library.
Now, you might be picturing a musty room with dark wood paneling, dusty leather-bound books sitting decorously on shelves with students shuffling around in silence hidden behind stacks of books like Hermione at Hogwarts. Think again. The modern international school library is the heart of the school. It is where students go to access information, where they socialise, and where they learn to build, programme and create. A modern international school library is a well-structured, well-organised learning machine.
A vital facilitator
And what of the librarian? You may think of the librarian as a quiet, reserved person sat behind a counter checking in and out books. Once more, think again. The best librarians work with the school leadership team to shape a creative learning space. They often teach and bring new ideas to support and underpin literacy, to inform and build the school curriculum. Librarians collaborate with teachers in shared planning sessions, ensuring the right books, apps, digital assets and materials are in place to underpin the curriculum.
While students do learn in the classroom and at home, it is in the library where children explore and acquire a vast range of information; filtering, accessing and compiling knowledge from a myriad of different sources and locations. This process of discovery through inquiry and research requires students to understand how best to find the knowledge they seek, where the knowledge might be kept, and how it relates to the subjects and curricula they are learning in the classroom. By guiding students towards the right direction, librarians make a real difference by introducing new authors, books, web sites, apps, and helping students to develop key research skills. Critically, in today’s world the librarian is instrumental in helping students understand fact versus fiction from innumerable sources of information.
However, the library is more than a research location. Andrew Hoover, Head of School at the American International School of Chennai commented, “If your vision of the library is as a repository of knowledge – you will have a hard time justifying its relevance today, our perception of knowledge has shifted, how we think of knowledge has changed.”
At AIS Chennai, the library is used to support the whole school and the community, showing how both the space itself and its contents can change lives and become the heart of the school. Jeremy Willette, the Director of Library Services, spoke of the successful engagement the school library has had with its 70% EAL student population. Through working with parents to select world literature, AIS increased their world languages collection to 11% of books in the library, this now accounts for a 25% share of the total book circulation.
Many school leaders utilise the librarian to support and benefit the community. This was a clear message that came out when I spoke to Maureen Madden, Director at the American School of Milan, where the new library occupies the centre of the school, linking the upper and lower schools. When I asked how they fund developments for the library, Maureen responded that, “it’s never just the library; it is a community effort.” This approach allows AS Milan to recognise and leverage the benefit the library brings for the whole school community.
Another exciting development in the library is the Makerspace movement. Stuart Crouch, Head of Senior School Libraries at the International School of Düsseldorf, spoke recently on this. He described how the use of a Makerspace had engaged different children; building robots, programming games, facilitating creation in a free environment guided by the librarian. In fact, the children were even aiming to build a K’nex rollercoaster big enough to hide the librarian in!
So how do we get the library from Hermione hiding behind piles of books, to students building roller coasters from K’nex?
First off, says Maureen Madden, “forget about the library you knew when you were students; that is not the library of a modern international school.” Secondly, “empower your librarian”; give them the impetus to bring ideas for the library to the leadership team with the expectation that they will be listened to and that the money will be approved. Andrew Hoover remarked that it is crucial to have, “a strong vision for the library as a dynamic learning space, and this vision should come from the librarians.” Thirdly, Maureen and her excellent librarian, Angela Marie Roberts, recommended that you need to “take risks, think about how students really learn, think about how they use their devices.” Finally, recognise that the library should be at the centre of the school. It’s the living hub of the school community. Ensure the space is flexible, engaging and energetic, and not the ‘shush zone’ of a bygone era.
Never before has the need for providing support and guidance for students been more important. Libraries and librarians are more vital in the new educational paradigm of today than ever before, and the modern international school should offer students the opportunity to embrace knowledge in all its multifarious forms in a safe, organised and vibrant space.
The picture shows the library at the American School Milan in Italy.
Dylan Jones is Senior International Strategy Consultant at Follett. You can contact him directly at