The Lamp

A Holderness School journal committed to critical reflection and fostering conversation around issues connected to independent schools and education in general.

Integration, Literacies, and the Library of the Future

Peter Durnan, 2014-2015 van Otterloo Faculty Chair Recipient


The education I have pursued during my Chair Program year has been delightfully low tech.  The MA program at St. John’s is essentially a great books program, a journey through the greatest of the Western Dead White Men: Aristotle to Nietzsche, Plutarch to Tolstoy.  Our classes, energetic book discussions, take place around big tables in classrooms utterly devoid of technology.  I took notes on my ipad for about five minutes during my first class.  I’ve never brought it back.  Books and pencils are all we need.


Urged by Phil Peck, I recently interrupted my bookish ways to participate in a webinar entitled “Redefining the Library of the Future.”  On my ipad I downloaded the GoToWebinar app, followed links from email to a sleek site where I found the video-streamed faces of school architect Peter Bachmann and Hotchkiss library director Peter Hilliker.   Theirs was a model of 21st century learning.  A split-screen format allowed the audience to see the speakers while simultaneously viewing images and video.  In a little over an hour, the two presented their understanding of how libraries need to change in order to prepare students for a rapidly shifting and ultimately unknowable future.

To begin with their conclusion, both presenters see libraries of the future as “hubs” of activity for schools, busy, sometimes loud and messy places that gather students and foster integration.  Their vision of libraries is active and inclusive: the integration they hope to foster includes interdisciplinary work, active work stations, collaborative spaces, and flexible furniture configurations.  Bachmann and Hilliker are working on a major renovation of the library at Hotchkiss, a project that allows for creative thinking and redesign on a scale impossible for Holderness at present, but the ideas and goals that lie behind the redesign at Hotchkiss can offer us a number of useful notions.


The pair began by focusing on literacies.  Traditionally, of course, libraries have been bastions of bookish literacy.  Hilliker takes this literacy for granted, though he acknowledges that his library is shedding (apparently the term-du-jour is “deaccessioning”) about half of Hotchkiss’ books.  What needs to be added (he claims) are other literacies: media literacy, cultural literacy, technological literacy.  It is a library’s work to allow students to practice these literacies, or codes – to create a space “that caters to multiple literacies.”  Given the strictures of our space in Alfond Library, there simply isn’t room for work spaces that would allow students to engage in hands-on engineering work or to create multi-media projects.  To accept these strictures as absolute, however, would be to violate the second point made in the webinar: the modern library is an amalgamation of physical and virtual space.

A few years back Mary Kietzman, then our head librarian, sought the advice of the faculty about which research engines would be most valuable to our students.  Out of her work grew an intranet resource page that gave us all access to research sites like Lexis and Oxford English Dictionary.  While modest, the work Ms. Kietzman did points toward the “virtual” possibilities of a modern library.  A truly modern library website could offer students news from the world’s newspapers, connections to native speakers of French and Spanish and Chinese, forums to exchange ideas and practice skills.  The pair of presenters noted excellent work being done by museums that create apps to lead patrons on tours using their phones.  Almost all of the work once done by traditional libraries has been shouldered by the internet, and the presenters sensibly suggest the possible power of working with this change.


A small but vital point made in the webinar was the new role of the librarian.  If once the work of a librarian included solitary hours collating and tending a vast collection of books, today’s librarian has much less of this work.  At Hotchkiss the librarian’s office has been repurposed into a room for collaborative work and the librarian relocated into public space, where she can offer face-to-face guidance to her students.  Hilliker called this a “pivot to services,” and it seems a logical possibility for our library.


The webinar included a couple of interactive polls (in my limited webinar experience, this seems a de rigueur nod to “full participation”), the last of which (below) indicated directions forward-thinking libraries are pursuing.  Only one, it is worth noting, involves actual physical upgrades.  The rest are available to us at Holderness as we rethink the ways our library can best serve our students as we continue on into the 21st century.

Taking part in the webinar was an enjoyable foray back into the world of online learning that I have largely left behind this year.  Thanks to Mr. Peck for urging me to reengage with modernity.  But now, happily, now it’s back to the pages of War and Peace for me.  My pencil is sharp.