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Redefining the school library for the 21st century

Published on 27/01/14

The school library appears to be in its death throes - killed by those modern-day harbingers, of destruction or progress according to your viewpoint, Google, Kindle and Wikipedia.

Borrowing levels for non-fiction, for example, have flat-lined. School pupils, if given a research task, will naturally gravitate towards the digital world for reference material rather than to the world of print as their departure point for discovery. Regardless of whether we welcome or deplore this development, we must recognise it as a fact, and use it to best effect.

An obvious response to the challenge to a library's raison d'être, and one made by many schools in the last few years, is to search for equivalents, simply replacing outdated elements with modern versions of the same thing. Books are replaced by e-books. Scruples about use of the word 'library' for a space with few books steer us towards the term 'learning resource centre' – quickly abbreviated to the hardly-meaningful LRC. Library desks become terminals. The word is suggestive. In the process, we have lost the vitality – we end up with a husk.

If the information in a library can be 'virtualised,' then what is the physical space for? Can it be dispensed with? Our approach has been different. Instead of looking only to the future, we have looked to the past for inspiration - reculer pour mieux sauter. In particular, we looked to the Renaissance which, with its restless spirit of enquiry, its method of looking ad fontes for the roots of wisdom and its innovative approach to education, offered a fruitful source of inspiration for a re-imagining of the library for a new world. This brought us to the Cabinet of Curiosities.

It is, from many points of view, an appropriate blueprint for a 21st century school library. First, the Cabinet of Curiosities or Wunderkammer is a celebration of the power of the object. In Tradescant's Ark, the first Wunderkammer in England, for example, we would have found a walrus's jaw, oriental footwear and the 'feathers of a phoenix's tail.' We recall that, in the Renaissance, books were prized as rare and beautiful objects, as the Laurentian Collection or the Studiolo of Federigo da Montefeltro in Urbino demonstrate. In our digital age, we can already see signs of a time when this will be true again, as the proliferation of digital publishing creates an appetite for highly crafted books as valuable artefacts.

More generally, though, objects draw the eye. Learning from recent advances in museum development, we have appreciated the vital role of curating and of using, as our own Curator, Katie Joice, has put it, a powerful combination of 'juxtaposition, surprise and ambiguity' to inspire wonder, pique interest and guide the imagination and intellectual curiosity of the onlooker. Beholding such objects invites us to move from the particular to the universal. We have seen, for example, in Neil MacGregor's 'A History of the World in 100 Objects,' how a rich net of meanings and connections can be spun from a single object.

Second, as Roman Krznaric puts it, the Wunderkammer, as an array of objects each with a story to tell, is a repository of 'lore and learning, tastes and travels, a treasured inheritance' which connects the present to the past. This is one of the reasons why we chose, for our new Library, a room in the heart of the oldest part of the School. With many of its 19th-century fittings left intact, it forms a suitable backdrop to our work, connecting us to the heritage of the School.

The original impulse behind the creation of many early Wunderkammern was the desire to control nature, by accumulation and the arrangement of specimens. Thus, we find John Vigani's Cabinet in Queens' College, Cambridge to be stocked with materia medica, carefully labelled and laid out in a logical order in order to provide the basic ingredients for his pharmaceutical preparations. From this, we arrive at a third dimension to the Cabinet; moving, as it were, from the general to the particular, and allowing the human mind to comprehend the vast array of knowledge in all its raw profusion, through the processes of identification, discrimination and classification. In this way, our students learn the vital (but increasingly rare) skills of careful observation, organisation and retrieval, and will gain an understanding of the importance of attention to detail, even to apparently small points of difference.

From a well-stocked cabinet to a well-stocked mind. What does this look like for contemporary students? There is currently a view in fashion that our best students should be 'first-rate data sharks,' (as Seth Godin has put it). To many of us, however, this conjures up images of efficient consumption in the focused pursuit, incurious and utilitarian, of a fixed objective, which is quite antithetical to the aim of education. Nor, though, in the age of the personalised cloud, does it make sense to impose upon our children, as some authorities would have us do, a prescribed canon of facts and figures as the first down-payment on a lifetime's supply of cultural capital.

The well-stocked mind consists, then, not of a corpus of received knowledge but, rather, an attitude of mind, an approach to learning and, in Professor David Perkins's phrase, the 'understandings of wide scope' that will equip young people for life in a complex and ever-changing world. It puts a premium on the breadth and intellectual reach that will allow our students, throughout their lives, to remain in the conversation, interested and interesting.

Our Library has, in fact, two doorways. Beyond the physical, there is a digital gateway, created for us by our Digital Researcher, Aisling Brown, in collaboration with our staff. This allows our students to enter the Cabinet virtually, from anywhere in the world, bringing them to the physical space and the exhibits here via a curated digital domain, which, in turn, points them towards curated spaces, including museums, libraries, sites and websites, elsewhere, in a dynamic interaction between physical and virtual sources of knowledge.

Sources K Fontichiaro and B Hamilton eds. School Libraries: What's Now, What's Next, What's Yet to Come Wikipedia on Tradescant's Ark R Krznaric The Wonderbox C Haley 'Boltheads and Crucibles' on Vigani's Cabinet of Curiosities David Perkins Keynote Speech at the IB Leaders' Conference, Liverpool, 2010