A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Responding to the Print-Free School Library

by on January 11, 2013

A suburban Minneapolis school has become the latest to go “print free” in its school library. Benilde-St. Margaret’s, a private Catholic school, removed nearly all the physical books from its junior and senior high school library in favor of a focus on teaching digital literacy.[1] What makes this school library’s decision of interest to public librarians is that it seems to have been made at least partly in consideration not “to duplicate what area public libraries offer.” This means that the school is focused on subscribing to scholarly books and databases, with pleasure reading materials and any supplementary print books needed for research assumed to be available from the local public library.

Benilde-St. Margaret’s made their decision to focus on electronic materials at least in part from financial concerns, unlike the wealthy Cushing Academy, a private school near Boston that stirred up controversy by going print-free three years ago.[2] Benilde-St. Margaret, while spinning their decision as a 21st-century advancement, wouldn’t have been able to make this cost-saving choice without knowing they could rely on the resources of their local public library system. The school does also seem to recognize that students will continue to be interested in print books, noting in the article that “When sophomores had to choose a book to read over winter break, only two out of nearly 60 chose e-books.” They are fortunate that their public system is Hennepin County Library, which is fairly large and outreach-oriented.

As someone who has been researching public library outreach to schools without their own libraries, I’m always on the lookout for innovative public-school library partnerships. I don’t know the inside details of how Benilde-St. Margaret’s made its decision, or whether they consulted with librarians from Hennepin County as they considered how the their collection could complement it. It seems likely, though, that we in public libraries are likely to see more of this sort of decision-making by schools as budgets continue to tighten. We may be inclined to view serving students who have reduced school library services as an additional burden on our own already-stretched budgets. But the best way to approach and address these changes is to take the time to know the schools and school librarians in our areas, so that we can evolve together and see our libraries as puzzle pieces fitting into a seamless whole for our young patrons.

A great place for librarians to start learning about public-school library partnerships is Library Partnerships: Making Connections Between School and Public Libraries by Tasha Squires.[3] A shorter resource is Amy Pelman’s article, “It Takes Two: School and Public Libraries, Partnerships That Can Work,” available online in the Fall 2009 issue of YALS.[4]