Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Geoff Johnson: Library skills still essential to adult literacy

Some years ago, I was privileged to be part of a design team that had taken on the development of a new secondary school — a school for the 21st century, or so we hoped.

Some years ago, I was privileged to be part of a design team that had taken on the development of a new secondary school — a school for the 21st century, or so we hoped.

The toughest challenge was to envisage a school library that would accommodate changes we knew were coming.

It was the early 1990s, and we knew that the school should probably be wired to accommodate connections between classroom desktop computers and the school library, but Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity — who knew?

Kids with laptops and tablets, Android phones, apps for everything, the all-seeing eye of those instant oracles Google and Wikipedia with their instant access to digital information about almost anything — we could not have guessed what the implications were for school library design and usage.

As adults who had grown up in the 1940s and 1950s and then studied at universities and colleges in the ’60s and ’70s, we still had a deeply comforting notion of the purposes of a library.

Libraries were cathedrals of quiet, venerable repositories of centuries of information, holy places where silence enabled us to contemplate our own ignorance compared to the wisdom of those who had gone before.

The librarian, troubled only by the presence of students, ruled.

By the time we opened our 21st-century school, our notions of library design were already outmoded. Today, that large, well-lit space is populated not by shelf after shelf of books and journals but by kids learning through a different kind of literacy we could not have foreseen.

Like public schools, B.C.’s universities and colleges have been struggling with the increasing costs of access to academic books and research journals.

As some librarians suspect, educational libraries will not be able to maintain a traditional lending and access model for much longer.

High school libraries, historically not high on the list of facilities with ready access to new money, face an even more difficult transition: how to prepare kids for the research skills they’ll need for the long road of inevitable lifelong learning after high school — and the kinds of libraries they’ll need to use.

The picture is somewhat clearer for public libraries, despite the popular misconception that library use is declining. Not so, says the Canadian Urban Libraries Council. There have been surprisingly strong increases in both visits to libraries and the number of books borrowed over the last decade.

In fact in Canada, overall library usage surged 45 per cent between 2000 and 2009, including a 16 per cent increase in book-borrowing.

While some large municipal libraries have noted a small but marked decrease in print circulation in 2012, many find that changing information behaviour, an improving economy, budget cuts or some combination of these factors have begun to increase book-borrowing.

Likely driven by the economic recession, patrons take advantage of affordable entertainment, Internet access, job-search assistance and educational resources, all at less than retail price and in a relatively peaceful environment.

This renaissance in public library usage might be due in part to the very technology that was expected to threaten the existence of community libraries.

All of which reinforces what both elementary and secondary school librarians have been saying for years: that the early and continued development of a full range of library skills and attitudes is the key to the continued development of adult literacy.

In fact, the evolution of libraries should be making it imperative for school library usage to expand and the library, not the 80-square-metre classroom, to become the epicentre of independent, self-motivated learning at school.

But school districts, faced with budget restrictions, will be hard-pressed to take the steps needed to modernize school libraries and ingrain lifelong library usage as a habit with today’s young adults.


Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.