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Libraries in the 21st century: the struggle between perception and reality

By Pilar Quezzaire

A panoramic view of a school library in Amsterdam. (Photo submitted by Joe O’Brien, Librarian, Amsterdam International Community School, Netherlands)

It speaks volumes when the man in charge of the world’s fourth-biggest public library insists digital technologies are an opportunity rather than a threat to libraries. In an interview with Forbes Magazine, Anthony W Marx, president of New York Public Library, countered fears that they were dying:

There are people who think that the Digital Age is a mortal threat to the library. I think it’s the greatest opportunity in the history of libraries, and that means that this institution of huge scale and beloved by millions of people is also at a moment of revitalizing itself fundamentally. In my line of work, that’s an unbeatable combination.

In truth, libraries and librarians have fundamentally changed but not everyone has noticed. Those with the privilege of Internet access have the ability to find every sort of information offered on the web. Much of modern global culture has been captured into bits and bytes of data, then packaged for consumption to suit every preference. The Internet in these ways seems very similar to a library, or at least a repository of information, distributed on a global scale but accessed locally. However, the presence of the Internet has obscured the library, making many unaware of how it has evolved, what makes it different, and why it is so important to co-exist with the Internet.

Dr Marx points out this distinction:

The library is misunderstood as a repository of books. The library is a repository of information, and a sharing, and providing of access to information, and guide to using it.

Many librarians see collaboration as the most impactful aspect of their work. (Photo submitted by Stefanie Gaspari, Director of Library Services, Trinity Grammar School, Sydney NSW, Australia)

The Internet is no doubt a giant resource, but it does not guide creativity and understanding—it is designed to reflect preferences rather than needs. Algorithms, bots and social media tracking filter and package information based on searches but they do not highlight information that helps us to learn and grow in understanding. Humans still need to research, analyze, and ultimately decide on complex, difficult issues. Internet sources are not usually designed to assist in doing these things. In fact, they can negatively affect our judgment and restrict what we do depending on how the information is packaged.

An image which is stuck in the past

Many IB World Schools have modernized their libraries specifically to challenge perceptions of its function in the community. Despite this, libraries and librarians face problems with how they are perceived, despite the obvious transformation most have made. The phenomenon known as library nostalgia can influence resourcing decisions so that schools even with the best of intentions can underestimate or misunderstand the role libraries and librarians play. (Hochman 2016)

Libraries fit elegantly into many spaces, as a library in California demonstrates. (Photo submitted by Jolene Finn, then at Santa Margarita Catholic High School, CA USA)

The notion that libraries are physical or conceptual gates that can be opened and closed is nostalgic and belongs in the past. Libraries can be used to help make sense of information, but they no longer fully contain it. They do not control or limit what we can learn. Libraries are welcoming spaces inviting us towards information, and they provide services that help us understand it. No library in the 21st-century gatekeeps as its primary function and no library exists as a single, physical space.

A more expansive argument for the value of libraries is possible based on services to the community and the variety of ways they can be preserved to promote reading, literacy and community involvement. Libraries do not simply disappear when closed. Libraries exist in cyberspace, community centres, and classrooms. They exist in doctors’ offices or in bookstores. Every time a space or a collection is designated for reading and using information it becomes, to some degree, a library. Every collection of information that is catalogued or sorted is potentially a library. When a physical library closes, an identifiable place of learning is lost, which is tragic and should not happen regardless of cost or space-saving concerns. The library concept can and does exist anywhere and should actively support the community regardless of existing physical spaces.

Libraries are also classroom spaces, and librarians are also teachers, as demonstrated in an information literacy class in the United States. (Photo submitted by Gina Finley, Technology Assistance Librarian, Dublin Scioto High School, OH USA)

Library nostalgias are also unfairly applied to librarians

Stereotyping of librarian duties has led to staff reductions and changes that in the long term are detrimental to learning and teaching. The stereotype of librarians as “overprotective of their books” and “always shushing people” (Jennings 2016) is present in the media, despite widespread evidence of the opposite. Some schools remain unaware of the expertise librarians bring to learning and teaching in the information age, assuming that libraries merely support written curriculums instead of inquiry and personal development across the community.

The library also drives other aspects of school life that make learning experiences better for everyone. It is a multipurpose space that can provide resources for reading, both for academic development and personal enjoyment. It can be a social space, an experimental space, as well as a safe space in many ways. A functioning 21st-century library system, therefore, energizes the curriculum and the school more generally, in some areas driving school life and culture.

(Photo submitted by Gina Finley, Technology Assistance Librarian, Dublin Scioto High School, OH, USA)

A functioning library provides the information and possible directions that learning and teaching need to go, and when properly resourced guides lifelong learning as well. Delivering a curriculum without a functioning library is akin to flying a plane without an instrument panel.

All IB World Schools are obligated to provide libraries. How they look and function is significantly enhanced by the presence of experienced librarians. Libraries should reflect what an active 21st-century information hub can and should be, and for IB World Schools they should also fully energize as well as support an IB education.

Realities librarians face in IB World Schools

Experienced librarians’ impact and influence on school culture are immediately evident in the collections and services they provide. The language the school uses to describe multiliteracies, inquiry and language development often indicates when a librarian has been integral to school life and culture. In the highest quality IB programmes, librarians are active members of pedagogical leadership teams in the schools or districts they are expected to energize and support.

External circumstances such as budgetary fluctuations, new school construction and the introduction of new technologies impact what is expected of librarians. Many are plunged into uncertainty about their work as schools struggle with resources—a situation which can compromise learning and teaching. External factors such as these can be mitigated to support what a librarian is and can become, and should not obscure what a librarian should do to aid, extend and energize learning and teaching in IB programmes. Even with limited resources, librarians can develop exceptional approaches to energizing IB programmes with the right support and leadership in the school.

Librarians make libraries “loveable!” (Photo submitted by Carole Mondin, then at American International School of Lagos, Nigeria)

Open conversations on libraries

Communities have vastly different needs and ideas about the nature and function of their libraries. It is very important to have open conversations about them. Open conversations are ongoing dialogues designed to generate ideas, plans, concerns and actions that transform the school community. They are characterized by the open-minded approach of participants in addressing topics and questions. Open conversations are one of the most effective avenues to explore how libraries and librarians can fulfill the community’s needs and objectives.

Once an open conversation has been established, the outcomes and actions which result become meaningful for the whole community.

Pilar Quezzaire is the Curriculum Manager for Cross-Programme Development at the IB in The Hague, Netherlands.


Wolfe, J. (2015) “The 21st Century Library: A Conversation with NYPL’s Anthony Marx.” Forbes Magazine.

Gaiman, N. 2013. “Neil Gaiman: Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media.

Hochman, J. 2016. School library nostalgias. Curriculum Inquiry. 46:2, 132-147


  • Susan K.S. Grigsby

    Thank you for such a thought-provoking piece. I love the term “library nostalgia” as it perfectly describes what appears to be the contradictory attitudes of loving libraries but choosing to cut library resources or hiring non-certified, professional librarians to run school libraries. It is so important for librarians to make sure their administrators know what they are doing and how it impacts students, teachers, and the school community.

  • Latha H B

    I would like to join this group

  • Latha H B

    We are planning to purchase e -books for IBDP programme (Grade XI&XII) in our school but very few books are available in electronic format. Could any one pl share where can we buy complete e-books. thank you
    Best regards,
    Latha, Sarala Birla Academy, Bangalore

  • Mickie

    Dear Latha, thank you for interest in IB DP resources. Please drop an email to Heather Johnson at, a dedicated customer service representative on IB resources, so she could guide you through the existing options and help you choose from a vast collection of the available content. We’d also like to suggest checking the Destiny Library Manager——and its Collections tool which is a new, collaborative way for librarians, teachers and curriculum staff to share free or purchased resources across your district, school or between users. Also, there is another great tool for the collection analysis called TitleWise——that many IB schools benefit from. Let us know if you find these platforms helpful. Thanks again, and kinds regards.

  • Trevor

    What about the role of providing accessible and credible information? In the past, the library was the place to find information. Now and in our future, the Internet will be the main provider of information. As our learners embark on their PYP Exhibition journey, the quest to find credible and accessible sources is one of the most critical factors in being successful and is one of the most difficult. (fake news, incomplete information, biased information, etc.) What if our libraries provided the safe zone and taught/reinforced the skills to find accessible and credible information? The role of the library would be an information gateway.

  • Quezz

    Hi Trevor,

    I am Pilar Quezzaire, the author of the article. Your concern and idea are captured in the resources on libraries coming out very soon: in it, we discuss the ways the library can become a gateway and a safe space for information literacy and related skills. There are clear approaches to handling and sorting information that schools can explore, and a librarian is best equipped to teach those approaches.

    We have created a new workshop on the role of the librarian that addresses ways to reimagine the library services and spaces to augment learning and inquiry. What librarians and scholars in library science have said about information literacy is far more expanded than many schools realize. I hope that your school will use this article and seek out the resources you need to increase information literacy and inquiry skills in your learners…and to a great your teachers too!