It’s not a school library, it’s a ‘curiosity space’
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The Winnipeg School Division wants principals to rebrand their libraries as “curiosity spaces” and “literacy-design centres,”among other options in an approved list of new titles — to denote the facilities’ modern roles.
As part of the division’s anniversary events for its 150th birthday on Oct. 30, 2021, administrators created a committee tasked with “reimagining school libraries.”
“As learning content becomes more accessible online and the role of libraries expands from being the familiar place to choose books to read, it is also becoming a place for inquiry-based learning, collaboration, and constructing knowledge,” states an excerpt from a new division document on the subject.
“In recent years, more and more schools are shifting to a vision where libraries incorporate reference, information, and media centres.”
A reimagined library contains a wide range of multi-modal resources and focuses on centring student exploration, promoting STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics) activities and building digital citizenship, per the report.
It recommends these physical sites have an open, versatile design and feature flexible seating, whiteboard tabletops and new technologies. Green screens, 3D printers, virtual reality devices, fabrication equipment and coding materials are listed as examples of possible additions to existing study rooms.
An appendix encourages school communities to develop a consultation process to reimagine each respective library and refer to an internal list with a dozen synonyms that better describe what happens in these spaces in the 21st century.
“How we access information has changed and a room full of dusty books and chairs, which is what people think of a library, doesn’t really hold true anymore. Libraries are moving to a lot of online platforms, a lot of e-books,” said Heather Milne, an elementary school parent and professor of English at the University of Winnipeg.
Milne said she is not opposed to the transformation of libraries into multimedia spaces, given students are surrounded by endless information online and need to learn how to sift through misinformation.
At the same time, she suggested purchasing physical books and investing in school collections — including personnel with expertise in monitoring resources — remains essential in order to build a literate and empathetic society.
While there are references to teachers and staff who will occupy reimagined libraries, there is no mention of librarians in WSD’s eight-page document.
Data obtained by the Free Press shows WSD’s roster of public school librarians has dwindled significantly over the last decade. In 2012-13, Manitoba’s largest division employed 31 full-time equivalent professionals. That number is six today.
École Laura Secord School in Wolseley, where Milne’s daughter is enrolled, is one of the K-12 buildings that no longer has a trained librarian on staff.
Not long after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, the school’s former librarian invited families to borrow more books than would typically be allowed outside a crisis due to uncertainty surrounding when children would be welcomed back into the building.
Milne said classroom teachers still take students to the library, but there has been a notable drop in new books being ordered and added, according to her bookworm child who is part of “library buddies,” a group that voluntarily reshelves items.
One librarian in WSD, who was not authorized to participate in an interview, called themselves “very lucky” to have their job because few such positions exist in 2022-23.
“To me, it’s the people who run the spaces that are going to make the spaces valuable, not the tech,” they said, adding discussion about the future of traditional libraries in the division is ongoing.
The Manitoba School Library Association’s executive team wants to see the government introduce standards for staffing in these spaces to improve equity across the K-12 system.
In Sandy Welbergen’s words, a school without a teacher-librarian lacks a critical expert who can help teachers dive deeper into their curriculum and ensure they incorporate current materials with diverse perspectives.
“Teacher-librarians are there to help safeguard (freedom of expression, intellectual freedom and freedom of the press) and help guide students and staff through muddy waters and sensitive topics,” said the president of her profession’s advocacy group.
Both Welbergen and Milne noted plenty of research shows well-funded libraries are important for literacy development.
School libraries allow children to easily access books free of charge, which in turn supports them to build the literacy skills essential to lift families out of poverty and open up post-secondary education opportunities, Milne said.
The Winnipeg parent and professor added the need for school sites is more important than ever due to the limited public library hours across the city, time and transportation barriers to visiting these facilities and growing safety concerns at the Millennium Library.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.
Updated on Saturday, December 31, 2022 10:04 AM CST: Adds PDF document