With so much learning content published online and an increasing number of children absorbing stories through eBooks, many schools have questioned the role of the school library. And yet, as teacher librarian Sharon Bates explains, their role is now more important than ever.

Across the world schools constantly face budget constraints and sadly it has been easy to think of school libraries, with their rows of old books, as something that can be cut. However, these schools are missing two very important facts.

Firstly, whether they come in hard copy or digital format, the importance of books remains; the more children read the better readers they will be. Ensuring libraries are well stocked with reading books at the right level to develop each child’s love of reading remains an indespensible part of their life. Whether they prefer curling up with a hard copy book or are attracted to eBooks, it is a school’s place to ensure the right materials are available for their personal needs.

Thankfully, Nambour Christian College has been forward-thinking enough to recognise that in addition to this, the increasing use of digital content means that children also need to learn to access information safely and effectively; digital literacy.

We all recognise that the internet is a powerful source of information; in theory it should be an ideal repository of learning content.

When we go to the internet, either to look for new information or to verify information we already have, we are presented with relevant websites by the search engines - that is, sources that are on the topic we’re researching.

Therein lies the challenge.

Relevant isn’t necessary reliable (trusted and verified). We have gotten into a behavioural pattern in which we don’t pay attention to the source of the information as long as it is on the first page of our search engine results. Unfortunately, current search engine algorithms are not advanced enough to differentiate between plausible and credible information. So, as adults we employ our critical thinking to vet the information that is presented to us, but do our young students have the necessary skills to do this? In many cases the answer is ‘no’.

So where does this leave teachers, who also recognise the incredible value of the learning content on the internet?

The answer lies in developing each child’s digital literacy, empowering them to successfully navigate the internet minefield.

This brings us to the second misconception of the role of today’s school libraries. Schools must recognise that the role of today’s librarian is so much more than books and story time. Librarians play a new and essential role in our schools.

At Nambour Christian College, each teacher will brief me on a specific unit of work they are focusing on. If, for example, this is Australian explorers, I work with the students to show them the safe routes to researching information on the internet, possibly about explorers such a Robert O'Hara Burke and William Wills.

I often start by providing students with access to the online Humanities and Social Science resource LaunchPacks from Britannica. With the clutter of information on the internet, it’s important for schools to ensure students are browsing in a safe and secure environment.

Using these types of resources means that teachers can let their students freely roam a resource, knowing that they will be accessing credible information at their required level of learning. With 250 years spent providing schools with trusted, researched information this has become our ‘go to’ repository of reliable information.

Once the students have found out the facts required for a particular activity, we then go onto the internet to continue our search and to compare the information with the diverse content out there. These activities are great to engage the children in the subject they are studying while also raising their awareness of the dangers of trusting all internet content.

We take time to look at the web addresses of each site, the dates of the publication and the publisher and then discuss the distractions of pop ups, the temptation to click on these and the potential implications if you do.  

Another free learning resource from Britannica to teach children to assess the credibility of a website, is the Building Career and College Readiness Skills whitepaper, which has a useful section that focuses on helping teachers and students to ‘evaluate online sources’.

It provides teachers with step-by-step guidelines for introducing the topic and illustrates how students can use the tools provided to conduct an evaluation of online sources. There are also several lesson activities such as ‘The five ‘W’s of website evaluation’, designed to give students the skills and knowledge to identify legitimate, credible learning content.

Another useful free tool, Britannica School Insights, is a Google Chrome browser extension that enables searchers and knowledge seekers to cut through the noise on the internet and access trusted information with a deeper context, at the top of their search results page. Britannica Insights can be added easily with a single click from the Google Chrome Web store.

At our school, we consider that these skills should be brought into the curriculum, as they have never been more valuable and will certainly be skills that will play an increasingly important role in their future careers. When we then consider the number of children in some countries still studying from home due to the pandemic, often without an adult overseeing their work, the need becomes even greater. It is difficult for teachers to bring this into the already crowded curriculum; it’s a perfect role for school librarians.

All school librarians should be evolving in line with the changing face of information sources and the need for children to learn to effectively steer their way towards factual and safe content.