When treasured, tangible emblems of our culture go digital — whether it be vinyl records evolving into MP3 files or letters becoming ecards — many of us often feel a sense of loss. These physical things carry memories, and feel essential to being human. But we soon adapt to feeling equally protective of our iTunes libraries. Replacing books with digital alternatives is, however, still seen as a big, worrying step for some.
Of course, we would all be upset if the British Library disappeared. But many libraries offer their most important experiences — reading, learning, and questioning — on digital platforms. Established libraries are digitising their resources, not only to be online and accessible, but also to have the security of preserving fragile documents.
“Physical things carry memories…but we soon adapt to feeling equally protective of our iTunes libraries.”
Without the need for physical maintenance, this approach would be cheaper for school libraries with limited resources and space, allowing them to focus on improving pupil’s learning experiences in other ways. Every book in your school library can be digitised — and added to other digital resources that schools don’t have physical access to.
In the same way that the Natural History Museum’s digitisation of its resources is projected to contribute “2bn to the global economy” through facilitating research and innovation, virtual school libraries too can encourage bustling, curious, inquiring activity in our schools.
It is commonplace to hear that some people prefer physical books to their digital cousins, but on the other hand, there are some who couldn’t easily access literature until audiobooks or podcasts came along. It might feel that books are organic, or natural, or are embedded in our shared cultural memory over centuries, but that feeling itself — although resonant for many — should not be enough to justify unchanging preservation of our bricks and mortar school libraries.
“The feeling that [printed] books are in our shared culture should not be enough to justify unchanging preservation of our bricks and mortar libraries.”
In our shared common space and in our classrooms at Halcyon London International School, we still have physical books, but they occupy a flexible area that also supports readers who log-in to digital resources. We have seen for ourselves that once you open the digital box, it is rich and endless and immediate. Our online libraries extend beyond anything we could collect in one building – we are quite literally bringing the world into our school.
A digital library — supported by an in-house digital librarian with knowledge of online archives — can offer students the chance to request millions of books or journal articles, with almost instant access.
Not only does this provide young people with access to an almost unlimited wealth of knowledge and perspectives, it helps them to select and prioritise a range of secondary research skills that they’ll need to digest the vast amount of information they’re already absorbing online. It will also help them prepare for university, where students are left to use their own judgement to find resources on platforms such as JSTOR.
“Our online libraries extend beyond anything we could collect in one building.
We can keep some physical books: they can be wonderful, tactile objects that enhance learning for students. But from our own experience, we know that offering young people the opportunity to use digital alternatives does not put them at a disadvantage. It helps make them ready to face the reality of an ever-evolving society, and develop the new skills and capabilities that come with that.