Libraries must choose evolution or extinction

Freshmen and sophomores cluster around tables on the first floor, chattering away with a volume that rivals the high school cafeteria. Dozens more are camping out in the sheltered aisles of nonfiction. A few students have detached themselves from the masses, having wisely decided to spend flex in the company of Macbooks and Barrons’ instead.

On a typical day, the Khoo Teck Puat Library is a favorite haunt for high school students at SAS. This Wednesday is no exception. Over one hundred students cross the sensor-equipped threshold to spend their 35 minutes of freedom before first block.

When the 8:35 bell sends students flooding out, most don’t even give a second glance to the “New Arrivals” on display, the array of Singapore-themed books, or the librarian working quietly behind the front desk. And of roughly 200 students – if not more – who walked through the library doors this morning, less than ten were interested in borrowing a book.

As of August 2014, the high school library contains 33,890 books, and that’s just counting the traditional variety. In recent years, the collection has expanded to include 458 e-books and audiobooks. Whether or not students are aware of these resources, they are being used by the SAS community. Circulation stats reveal that an impressive 189 print books were checked out in just one week of September.

However, according to longtime parent volunteer Helen Liu, library usage has in fact evolved, and she fears that leisure reading is on a decline.

Ten years ago, on her first visit to SAS, Liu was awed by Khoo Teck Puat’s expansive book collection and spacious design, being an avid reader herself. She had been on the search for a school to enroll her kids in, and recalls, “This library made the decision for me.”

But the library she joined as a volunteer was a much different place than it is today.

Liu remembers the time when she used to shush noisy students who were distracting those who actually wanted to read. These days, she says with a laugh, “I’ve learned to choose my battles.” Today, keeping the library silent during flex would have been mission impossible. As librarian Sarala Nair put it, the high school library is a “relaxed environment” where everyone feels welcome. Students use it as a place to socialize, study, get tutored, collaborate on projects, play games – to do everything, it seems – except read.

In her opinion, which library resources do students use the most often? “Textbooks,” Liu replied without hesitation. The library has textbook-return carts located on both floors, and these are typically full by the end of free periods. Electronic gadgets (such as USB headphones and chargers) are frequently borrowed too, especially after school. “Magazines used to be so popular,” she remembered. “We had students lining up to read the newest editions.” The Economist, Vogue and another 118 magazine titles now sit quietly, forgotten, in a corner on the top floor.Library Pull Quote

That’s not to say that reading is dead. From Jan. 1 to Aug. 30, 2014, circulation stats show a total of 1,471 fiction books were checked out. It’s a decent figure, but on closer inspection, it averages out to only 40 books a week. To put things in perspective, our high school student body numbers more than 1200. This would suggest that at most, only 3% of high school students borrow print books in any given week.

Moreover, Liu estimates that parents and faculty are responsible for a significant portion of check-outs. (In fact, during the interview, five people approached the front desk: four of them were parents, looking to borrow books. The fifth was a student, wondering if his earphones had turned up in the library’s Lost and Found.)

With the advent of online databases, Nair noted that nonfiction book check-out rates have dropped, though fiction is still borrowed regularly.

Students themselves say that they’ve changed as readers, too. Junior Kirupa Sargunaraja used to check out a book every two months back when she was living in Brunei. Since transferring to SAS at the start of last year, she has only borrowed one book that was not required for class.

So what changed? “High school,” Sargunaraja said. More specifically, a combination of the workload and our liberal laptop policy. Her schools back in India and Brunei did not have a 1:1 laptop program. Their libraries were designated solely for reading and quiet study. Here at SAS, although she uses the library every other day, Sargunaraja’s free block is occupied by homework or occasionally TV shows if it’s the end of the day.

“Sometimes I feel embarrassed just to go and pick out a book, because nobody’s reading,” she added.

Sophomore Gabriella Zhao is another regular at Khoo Teck Puat. In fact, she’s visited it every day since the school year began. “I technically live in the library,” she joked. And yet, several months into school, she admitted that she has yet to borrow a book. “I love reading, but there’s just no time.” While academic stress is partly to blame, Zhao acknowledged that technology is “definitely” a distraction as well.

Maybe high school bookworms aren’t extinct, but they seem to be an endangered species. Is this the death of libraries as we know them?

The answer is no. Not at all.

SAS libraries evolving by “going back to their roots”

A Pew study in 2013 found that the majority of young adults in America still value print media and traditional library services. For those diehard paperback fans who fear that the end is nigh, rest assured that these print resources will probably be around for a long time.

Back in its heyday, the Library of Alexandria was a dynamic and innovative hub of Mediterranean civilization.
Back in its heyday, the Library of Alexandria was a dynamic and innovative hub of Mediterranean civilization. Photo by Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons Licensed).

On the other hand, those who have embraced the digital revolution will not be disappointed either. Our SAS libraries are working to adapt to the changing student needs – and to do this, they will be going back to their historical roots.

The ancient library of Alexandria, Egypt, was one of the most greatest libraries in history, yet it was far from the ‘traditional library’ that we think of today. On top of their extensive scroll collection, they had a museum, a zoo, and specialized rooms for every possible subject including astronomy and mathematics.

Middle School librarian Ron Starker explained that the SAS libraries hope to emulate the “inclusiveness” of Alexandria. In addition to quiet reading spaces, the middle school library has already designated areas for students to do group work, make music, and experiment with virtual reality. There’s even a corner equipped with exercise machines. Starker cited studies which have found that “if you walk for just three minutes hour, it helps your concentration” and can improve general academic performance.

The high school library is also undertaking a few projects of its own. They have begun digitizing their magazine collection as well as expanding their e-book collection through a platform called Overdrive. The Khoo Teck Puat library may also be looking at a physical redesign to accommodate its many different users: students, teachers, parents, readers, gamers, performers and social butterflies alike.

After all, a library isn’t just a place to read. It’s a hub for the general community, which means that it has to keep evolving to suit the needs of the community. As Starker puts it, “If [libraries] innovate and become places where you don’t just access information, but create information, then they will remain vibrant places.”

Author: Sheyna Cruz

Sheyna Cruz is a senior and Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Eye. This is her second year on staff and her third at SAS. She loves Model UN, murder mysteries, mangoes, milk tea and other things that don’t necessarily start with M. She can be contacted at cruz45489@sas.edu.sg.

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