The Role of Libraries in an mLearning World

Posted: September 17, 2009 in digital culture, ebooks, edushifts, Mobilelearner
Tags: , , ,

“Instead of a traditional library with 20,000 books, we’re building a virtual library where students will have access to millions of books,’’ – Article for the Boston Globe

In the modern school system, the role of schools has always been to improve the literacy and mental capacity of the nation’s citizenry for both the benefit of the individual and the benefit of society as a whole. At the core of the school system is it’s library; the library has always been the storehouse of books containing the written information and past knowledge used to make students in schools literate. For as long as public school libraries have existed, the information that has been housed in them has been in the form of books and made available to readers thanks to the marvels of the modern printing press.

While the quality of its materials is important to any library, ultimately, the strength of a library can only be measured in quantity; how many and how various the materials are in any given library. When literacy rates were low and the amount of published materials was relatively small (by today’s standards), it was possible to stock libraries with an adequate enough collection to be all encompassing and meet the various needs of students and their teachers. However, 20th century public literacy initiatives have created a world where basic literacy rates are at or near 100% in many countries around the world creating not only more demand for information, but also increased authorship. This has placed strain on library systems as:

Increases in authorship and readership = increased number of published books;

Increased numbers of published books = greater literacy and more rapid social change.

Rapid social change = increased need and frequency for more up-to-date learning materials.

In the 21st century, with the rise of a new digital platform for authorship, any literate person can new circumvent Digital and Physical bookstraditional forms of publication and share thoughts and ideas with others eitherfreely or cheaply . This has had the unintended effect of placing severe strain on traditional libraries they simply cannot physically house the amount of materials needed to stay relevant in this ever changing, ever expanding world. Today’s digital collections are much larger than any library’s physical collections and the gap will continue to rise exponentially.

Add to the above the growth of elearning and mlearning and we find ourselves in a situation where physical libraries are struggling to stay relevant.  However, while it is true that in the 1990’s, $70 Microsoft Encarta CD’s destroyed Encyclopedia Britannica’s traditional business of selling $1000 physical encyclopedia sets, it did not destroy Encyclopedia Britannica itself.  Encyclopedia Britannica is not in the book business, it’s in the information business.  They have learned to survive using new forms of disseminating information. Similarly, libraries are in the business of information and education, not in the book business.  While digital databases are destroying traditional notions of libraries, it doesn’t mean that libraries are not needed.  In fact, libraries are needed more than ever to help it’s patrons sift through and make sense of the dizzying amounts of information available on the Internet.

Libraries can survive in an mlearning world by staying true to it’s values.  While libraries have always been associated with books, ultimately, what they have always done is provide access to information, assist in the development of literacy and help it’s patrons sift through information databases to find the information they need.  Here are some reasons why we still need the institution of the library and how it can change to meet changing needs:

  • As new methods of information transfer (including but not limited to online access via computer or mobile device) continue to replace books, we need libraries to provide us with access to higher quality reference information that may not be available freely on the web.
  • While the Internet offers vast amounts of information and that is good, we need librarians to assist us in navigating the masses of information on the web by teaching search and information verification strategies
  • Libraries have always provided education services such as reading programs.  We still need those programs.

I am not suggesting that libraries get rid of their books completely and become glorified Internet cafes.  What I am suggesting, however, is that more investment is needed in digital spaces and more services provided online through webpages and through mobile devices. In addition to a physical investment, we also require an acceptance that virtual libraries can be just as good as physical ones.  When it comes to the new digital and mobile world, proximity no longer matters.  Libraries must reach out into digital spaces and provide materials digitally in order to maintain their relevance and to provide people with the services they need when and where they need them.


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