tl;dr Closing a Physical Library is Always Bad for Learners

When I was a child, I looked forward to our class visits to the library. As a teen, I spent more time than most in the library, but not as much as others. As an undergraduate student who lived off campus, I was very familiar with the library. I spent many days there studying to avoid trips back and forth to home. When finished studying, I had the spots I would go: The recent periodicals, the shelves where book of interest were found. I’d pull one off the shelf, browse, read, look at graphs.

In my adult life, libraries have taken a lesser role in my life, but I have replicated them. When you enter my office, either at home or at work, you will find books. Lots of books. Stacks of books. You will also see stacks and stacks of hardcopies of articles, many of them stacked on books.

These are books and articles I would have obtained from the library previously. It is well that I get my own copies now as I have the habit of writing in my books and on my articles. I appreciate my marginalia when I return to books, and I learn more when adding those notes; but I do not write in library books.

To me, a library with books is an essential part of being an educated person. I make no judgments about those who do not share my view. My career has been in education; I am learning professional and a technology professional. To do my work, I have had to continuously learn. Many of the journals I read would not have been in the libraries I visited as a student as the fields did not exist back then.

A library… a spot with lots of books and hard copies of articles… this is the foundation of education. We get acclimated to them as students and create them throughout our lives.

As one who values libraries, I have found the videos of empty bookshelves due the disgusting efforts of politicians to censor collections in some states to be distressing. Whenever library bookshelves are empty, I know the space is no longer conducive to learning. For that reason, I was particularly troubled when I heard this week that the state college system in Vermont was moving to digital-only libraries this summer.

Of course, some will see some hypocrisy in view. I earned my terminal degree at an institution that offered only online programs, so there was no physical library for me to use. It was during this time that my personal library grew the most and it was during this time that I made regular visits to the library at the school where I earned my master’s degree (one that is being closed) and the library at the school where I earned my bachelor’s degree.

Some will also see hypocrisy in my view as I am a digital and online learning professional. I spend my days working with faculty as they teach online, interacting with students as they complete online coursework, and building and managing online classrooms (among other responsibilities).

I’ve been using libraries for more than 50 years. Counting my undergraduate studies, I’m closing in on 40 years in education. I’ve been teaching online since the turn of the century. I feel I am qualified to make some observations about libraries and schools.

First, digital libraries are disappointing. I appreciate full-text databases when I can retrieve the contents of articles returned in my searches, but I am that researcher who forgets to check the “full-text” only options, so I am teased by the results. Sure, this solved by using a system with a greater number of full-text articles, but that will cost more… and I think we all can predict what will happen.

Second, digital libraries are deficient. I work in education. Much that I need to do my work has been published in the last 10 years or so, and I can get that from a digital library (if it is not too disappointing). Much that I need to do my work is published in the last 40 years in books. Digital libraries claim to have books available, but they are not the books we need. You can browse recent academic books (well some… they are disappointing too) and handbooks compiled for the purpose of being included in the database. In the past, I have searched for titles that are important to me and my field in digital libraries; I have never found any.

Third, digital libraries reaffirm privilege. I have always been in a privileged position. I have been in the position to build my library. If I place and order for $100 worth of books, I can pay the bill. I can safeguard to books. Those additions to my library will not jeopardize my ability to eat or have a place to sleep. Those are privileges I have because, in part, the schools I attended were sufficiently supported and the leaders saw value in libraries. Every student deserves that.

I have heard arguments for closing school libraries. I have even worked in some where the libraries are closed. The process tends to follow this arc:

  1. School leaders change curriculum and instructional practices so that library-based learning (think research, interest-based reading, problem and project-based learning) is not done.
  2. School leaders complain the library is unused… of course it isn’t, you told teachers not to use it.
  3. School leaders look to other schools that have closed their libraries… any many even a college too… and decide they can do the same.

This post has been long and rambling and somewhat disorganized post. Let me summarize it: Closing a physical library is always bad for learners.