Gone forever are the days when students spent hours in the library, pulling encyclopedias from the shelves and poring over hard copies of science treatises, historical tomes and current magazines to research topics for assigned papers, or to just quench an intellectual thirst. Nowadays, it is the rare teenager that is not carrying the world’s knowledge in his pocket on his smartphone, or at the very least, has access to a computer at home.
As a reaction to this reality, school libraries across the country are being eliminated. For example, there are only eight certified school librarians that remain in the Philadelphia School District, down from almost 200 in the 1990s, according to a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The libraries that remain have pivoted their purposes to remain relevant in the 21st century.
“We’re still alive and kicking,” said Whitney Philips, who has served as the full-time librarian of Community Day School since 2015. “There have been a few improvements; the information landscape has changed, and you have to keep up.”
One of Phillips’ primary responsibilities, for example, is to train students on how to “safely search the internet and how to distinguish between reliable and unreliable news.”
Students from the age of 3 through sixth grade come to the library about once a week as part of the school’s regular schedule, and Phillips collaborates with seventh- and eighth-grade teachers in their classrooms to teach internet skills.
The CDS library, she said, continues to play a vital role in the education of students.
“In some ways, we’re more important because of the way the information landscape has changed with more information accessible,” Phillips said. “It’s more important that every child we teach be capable of knowing who to trust. A teacher 30 years ago could see what students were reading, but if they are searching the Web, we need to know that they are being safe and smart.”
Hard copy books, however, are far from obsolete at CDS.
“We still have a beautiful traditional book collection,” Phillips said. “I don’t collect e-books for our library. I find that our students prefer the feel of a book with pages in their hands.”
While some of the younger students choose audio books, Phillips insists that they check out the corresponding hard copy books as well.
“But whatever format they are using, we’re teaching them to be responsible and how to distinguish between sources,” she said.
Keith Webster, dean of libraries at Carnegie Mellon University, has identified the central issues facing school libraries today.
“[L]ibraries are straddling two worlds, the ‘traditional’ print library and the library centered upon digital content,” Webster wrote in a blog post that examined findings by the Education Advisory Board. “Simply put, their perspective is that the former — often facing declining demand — represents the popular image of the library. The second, which has emerged over the past 20 years, is now the center of huge demand for digital tools, content and services, an environment which few of us are fully equipped to support.”
Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh is evolving its library services as the times dictate while maintaining the traditional roles of the librarian that are still relevant to its students.
While Hillel continues to maintain a full-time library on staff, it’s physical library has been somewhat repurposed, according to Rabbi Sam Weinberg, the school’s principal and education director. The space is used often for club meetings, research and maker projects, he said, although the younger students still come to the library for story time.
“The older grades use it as a resource center,” Weinberg explained, noting that the library contains more than 30 laptops. It also is used as a makerspace, where a 3D printer and robotics components are employed.
“The library has evolved to function beyond books, but more broadly to learning and information,” he said. “The library has not necessarily taken on a different role — it is still a place to gather information — but as the world changes, the library means more things. Once you have the internet, there is essentially a library in every classroom.”
The library maintains its traditional function, though, where Judaics are concerned, according to Weinberg.
“We still have a robust Judaics library,” he said. “Students have studied these texts for thousands of years. That’s not going away.”
Teachers also use the Hillel library in a traditional manner, to find books on a particular topic that they then use to instruct their classes, according to Bonnie Morris, who has served as Hillel’s full-time librarian since 1976.
Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh continues to maintain its libraries, although because “most research is done online today,” the libraries are no longer used primarily for general research, acknowledged Rabbi Yossi Rosenblum, principal of the boys’ school.
The exception, however, is research on Jewish topics, he said, adding that although so much in print has been digitalized, many of the Jewish texts are not online.
Although they are “not investing in them like we did in the past,” Yeshiva continues to purchase new books for its libraries, as “the students still pick out books to take home and read, especially Jewish books,” Rosenblum said.
Yeshiva schools never employed full-time librarians, according to Rosenblum. Instead, administrative staff are charged with processing the checking out of books.
Because the libraries are used less frequently, they often are used as conference rooms, said Rosenblum. pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at