New Endangered Species: Elementary School Libraries

Anthropologists and archaeologists often use the term material culture. The idea is basically that we can analyze a culture by looking at the relationship between people and their materials or things. In other words, the things we surround ourselves with, the buildings we construct, and the items we ascribe importance to, all say something about our values and our beliefs in what is important. This can be easily seen in the evolution of American architecture over the last 100 years. We have moved from living room/dining room/ family room designs, where formal and informal living spaces were separated, and instead we have opted for an open concept/great room style which focuses on informally gathering all members of the household together as often as possible. This shift in architecture design reflects a change in values within our culture, moving from more rigidly traditional to much more relaxed.

It is with this lens that I wish to raise the red flag on the new school design being proposed for a future elementary school to be constructed in Douglas County, Colorado. While this is a story primarily about a local issue, the implications are far more wide spread. I would posit that the change in architecture reflects a cultural shift in priorities, and one that I personally find alarming.

The following transcription comes from the Douglas County School Board meeting on January 20, 2015. It is the explanation of the architectural plans for a new elementary school that is to be built. The new school is to be built into a hillside and contains plans to use green technology and state of the art energy saving ideas. Apparently, what it will not utilize, most likely, is a school library. Here is one of the team members discussing the project plans:
One last thing that I want to point out in the plan is that there is program for a library, and you know, that's another heated discussion these days about whether libraries are really relevant in today's educational models. What we opted to do was to perhaps take the square footage of the library and decentralize it so that each one of the neighborhoods could have its own little moment in time that looks out to the mountains, but then allow for some of that square footage to remain at the very north end of the site, which happens to be the highest point of the site, and just moving to this last view, becomes the kind of pinnacle of the school where it becomes everything from an additional classroom for the building to special projects moments in time for the kids as well as a professional development program for the school. Getting up there, you know, takes some time, but that's the whole point with the concept is that there is a correlation between how you live with your body and with your mind. I'll close by saying we can probably speak for another three hours about what we've done and with all that said, this is just the beginning. I mean, this intended to initiate a discourse on how we can move forward with developing a wonderful school for your community. Thank you for your time. (the full video of the meeting can be found here, The specific section quoted can be found at 54:45.)
Plan for the new elementary school, broken down into "neighborhoods"

 After the presentation they opened up the floor to questions and comments. The response to one unheard question was, " will be contemporary and progressive which is, I think, where the district is really headed in thinking about  how to educate their kids." Another member thanks him for his team's work and then comments, "it really speaks to what our vision we want education to be, you know, there is definitely a lot of thought provoking ideas that you have had."

I will tell you, it certainly doesn't speak to my ideas of education. My two girls, who attend our local public school, wake up early every Tuesday morning and triple check to make sure their checked-out books are in their backpacks. They do this because they don't want to miss library day. Just recently my first grader told me, out of the blue, that library day was her favorite day of the week. She told me that just being in the library made her happy and that it was so much fun to look through the books. What kid, raised to appreciate the written word, wouldn't want to embrace a giant room full of them?

The idea of taking libraries out of elementary schools is appalling to me, but there is an entire school of thought which argues that with the increase in technology and the ease and convenience of research on the Internet, libraries are basically irrelevant at the elementary school level. Not only do I believe libraries are still important, but librarians are even more important. And yet, in Douglas County, it is my understanding that the hiring of a school librarian is optional.

In today's plugged-in world, we need gathering spaces and information repositories regardless of whether that is a room full of computers and devices (God forbid!) or a room full of books. More importantly, we need a trained professional to help guide knowledge seekers in ways of filtering the intense barrage of non-stop information we now have access to. It is not enough to know where the information is, but also how to find it. We need to know how to separate the good information from the bad information. We need a librarian. To quote an older article from the New York times:
Libraries are more relevant than ever. They are a place for personal growth and reinvention, a place for help in navigating the information age, a gathering place for civic and cultural engagement and a trusted place for preserving culture. While the technology for accessing library materials has changed and will continue to change, our mission – to inform, to share and to gather – will not. (Full article found here)
It is all very well to have a "little moment in time" with a view, but what we really need for our children is a library, with a trained professional who can guide our children in the art of research and discernment as to the value of knowledge which has been scrutinized and reviewed. That would be a progressive idea, a vision for how I want my children to be educated. How else are we going to build the future scholars of America if we don't start by bringing them together in an atmosphere of learning and respect for information?

From a cultural materialistic perspective, the removal of libraries from elementary schools sends a clear message that we as a culture have become so segmented and individualized, such as each individual school "neighborhood" and behind our own individual technology and devices, that democratic gathering spaces like libraries apparently no longer hold the magic and meaning that they used to. Much in the way that the formal living room has gone by the wayside, apparently so goes the school library.