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School libraries in the digital age

For schools that aim to develop their students as global citizens, libraries play an important role as windows to the world of information. It is the responsibility of librarians to work with teachers and students to offer a supportive environment that facilitates inquiry-based learning, says Raghunathan M.O, Librarian, GEMS Modern Academy Dubai 

Dubai, March 20, 2023: A school library is integral to developing 21st century skills among students. Inquiry learning requires students to develop a range of skills including problem-solving, decision making and others. The library serves as the ideal space to develop these skills through self- paced learning with the help of reference, research and intellectual recreation. However, are our school libraries living up to these expectations? Are they still relevant in the era of digitisation? And how has the role of the librarian changed in this scenario? 

Education Middle East spoke to Raghunathan M.O. to find answers to some of these questions. 

Raghunathan M.O, Librarian, GEMS Modern Academy Dubai

Raghunathan is the Librarian at GEMS Modern Academy Dubai. A dedicated librarian with more than 15 years of experience, his expertise in library science is widely recognised by his various achievements. He is the winner of the AKS Global Librarian Award in 2021 and the Second-Place recipient of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature Librarian of the Year 2023 award.  

As the GEMS Library Network Leader from 2016-2021, he effectively led a team of librarians to promote the importance of school libraries in the education system. An active member of the International Association of School Librarianship (IASL) and the UAE School Library Network, he has represented GEMS Education in many international conferences and seminars.  

His passion for library science is reflected in his numerous published articles and research papers, as well as the appreciation he has received from the institution for his outstanding work performance. 

What do you enjoy the most about your job as a librarian? 

I have a passion for education. I find joy in facilitating learning by providing access to authentic resources and information for students, teachers and parents. I embrace challenges and strive to enhance library services with creative ideas. I offer engaging learning opportunities for students to improve their skills, encouraging reading and critical thinking, as well as collaborative and interactive discussions fuelled by student participation, deepening their understanding. I take pride in successfully implementing innovative projects that benefit both students and the community. 

With information now available at the click of the mouse, tell us about the relevance of libraries. 

Besides their traditional role of supporting literacy and education, libraries help shape new ideas and perspectives that are crucial to creativity and innovation. 

With advancements in technology, the role of librarians has evolved, and library services have expanded beyond traditional book borrowing. Now, students not only have the opportunity to showcase their skills confidently during library session, but they also perceive the school library as a hub of teaching and learning. 

A good example of this is GEMS Modern Academy, Dubai, where we used the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to effectively accelerate the transformation of our e-school library into an accessible and engaging online platform. We explored new and ingenious concepts to evolve our library service into an effective and efficient online platform that offered different resources while supporting students and staff with learning activities. 

How can schools ensure the relevance of libraries in the era of digitisation? 

The solution lies in libraries that are adaptable and nimble, taking into account students’ unique circumstances while still offering opportunities, such as effectively promoting reading during distance learning. 

For example, during lockdown, at GEMS Modern Academy we used our library platform to deliver engaging learning and productive remote sessions, aimed at developing and enhancing 21st century skills. Orientation was provided to students and teachers on utilising digital resources effectively. 

In addition, the library introduced projects, activities and innovative ideas to foster a love for reading, allowing students to showcase their skills and personalities. We organised events such as the Arabic Reading Challenge, celebrations of World Book Day, International Mother Language Day, International Writers Day, and virtual author visits. Other initiatives included online book reservation and tracking of students’ reading progress, an online library newsletter promoting creative writing, and student-led activities and surveys with parental involvement. 

Can you explain the changing roles of a librarian in an academic setting? 

Librarians have adapted their roles to match the changing needs of students, giving them more voice, choice and ownership in their reading and learning activities, as well as paving the way for them to further explore their interests. For example, e-libraries provide access to digital resources and promote reading and research. In our school, librarians guide students to a media resource specialist as part of the ‘Unit of Enquiry’, developing their academic skills and teaching the importance of academic honesty and citations for independent research. 

The implementation of these learning programmes improved students’ reading habits, aided them in developing collaboration skills, and allowed them to participate in interactive discussions where they could freely express their ideas and abilities. These activities included book talks, book reviews, read-alouds, poem recitation, author portfolio projects, story and book writing, book-based skits, poster creation and blackout poetry, among others. 

You’ve been involved with the GEMS Library Network for many years. Tell us about the significance of the network and how it helps librarians.   

As a leader of the GEMS Library Network in the Middle East, I have overseen numerous successful initiatives. The network connects school libraries and operates under the guidance of GEMS Education. As a leader, I understand the crucial role the library network plays in supporting library practices and professional growth for librarians. Our network encompasses 55 schools and 100 librarians across the Middle East. 

Over the years, the network has faced challenges, but we have always taken a proactive approach, set targets and outline a plan for success. By implementing SMART goals and incorporating new techniques, we’ve been able to overcome obstacles and achieve our goals effectively. This process has been crucial to the network’s success. 

Besides SMART goals, the GEMS Library Network also aims to provide a platform for discussions and inquiries, promote cultural awareness and align with the national curriculum, offer guidance on library management systems, evaluate electronic information resources, provide support for acquiring digital collections and offer budgeting assistance.  

The electronic age of the 21st century has greatly impacted libraries and library networks. The advancement of information technology and web-based services has created new opportunities for modern library networks, distinct from traditional libraries. Our network has proven to be crucial in supporting library practices and the professional development of librarians. This framework empowers school librarians to actively offer support through a highly professional network platform. As a leader, I have encouraged network members to collaborate, work with confidence and enhance their professional skills. 

How can library professionals keep themselves updated with all the latest changes in their field? 

In the 21st century, a librarian’s role is vital in helping students, instructors and other learning professionals. To provide effective and efficient service, librarians must stay updated with the latest information and tools. They should create a supportive and inquiry-based environment and collaborate with teachers and students to develop multiliteracy skills. To stay current in the rapidly evolving field of knowledge, librarians must continuously upgrade their skills.  

Academic libraries are constantly adopting new technological applications for information, learning and research. To be flexible and adaptive with new concepts in learning and research, librarians must do the same. As media specialists, academic librarians need to use the latest technology to direct students to reliable and current resources. The use of various technology in school libraries can ensure that learning engagement activities are carried out efficiently, such as book reviews, quizzes, book talks, author portfolio projects, book-based skits and others. The use of Artificial Intelligence in academic libraries is now unavoidable and can aid in lowering inefficiencies and delays in the conventional approach. 

It is crucial that librarians keep themselves updated on current global changes and students’ informational needs. Participating in international conferences and seminars is a great way to keep themselves updated and make an impact. By providing educational and pedagogical leadership, librarians can work as investigators and creative leaders, providing the most recent information and tools to serve their communities effectively and efficiently. 

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