School libraries and culture | Artribune

Italian school libraries are often a resource lagging behind in a difficult library system. With the aim of transforming today’s small readers into the citizens of tomorrow

Teresiana Library, Mantua
Teresiana Library, Mantua

Needless to say, we live in a very complicated period: it is clear to everyone that the beginning of this decade is marked by small and large upheavals of elements that we were used to taking for granted.
The cultural debate is full of reflections linked to the current scenario: most of them are linked to the contingent, others instead try to develop strategies to try to find solutions for each scenario, which in the light of events become more or less likely.
In this swarm of information, however, there is an element which is often dealt with in the cultural debate only to a lesser extent, even though its urgent nature is universally recognized and above all for all to see: our children’s understanding of the present. It is a reflection that we actually tend to delegate to specialized magazines, or at least treat only from a content, psychological, pedagogical perspective. As if the culture of the little ones was free of organizational reflections, from network logics and more generally had different characteristics than that of adults.

University Library, University of Bologna.  Photo © Registry of Libraries of Italy
University Library, University of Bologna. Photo © Registry of Libraries of Italy


Probably, taken from the goal of stimulating children to participate, we ended up putting more emphasis on services than on infrastructures: the means rather than the goal.
Our children’s present is extremely varied and is at the crossroads between superstimuli, narratives, edutainment and confusion: confusion due to personal experiences (DAD, return, DAD, return) and also some passive confusion, which is partly absorbed by the general climate of uncertainty , and partly (for the elderly) originate from information systems that operate according to dynamics that neither young people nor adults are able to decrypt. It is therefore in this context that it becomes essential to start a systemic reflection on the role of culture in the little ones’ understanding of the present and thus on the organizational aspects of our cultural offerings. First of all, the thought can only go to the role of reading. Not so much, and not only in an absolutist perspective (almost all parents are aware that reading helps the child to grow), but rather in the general organization of the cultural offer given to our children in the form of reading, reference , in particular to what is probably the most important network of cultural institutions present in our national territory: libraries.
Today, the state of our country’s libraries is quite peculiar: on the one hand, there are very innovative topics, interventions and initiatives, in line with the main international institutions; on the other hand, there are resistance pockets from the old stereotype of the dusty library. On the one hand, subjects who have already started experiments related to artificial intelligence or virtual reality for some time; on the other hand, institutions that do not have a digital catalog, but only the archive of the old paper files.

“Achieving these results enables the evolutionary processes in the library sector, which are very important not only for young people but for society as a whole, both now and in the future.”

If this state from a systemic point of view is clearly destined to improve itself, in favor of a systemic logic in our country’s library infrastructure, the state of another category of libraries, namely the school, is more uncertain.
When it comes to school librariesin fact, on the one hand, there are some extremely organized structures that are capable of providing efficient services, and on the other hand, we are faced with conditions that make the very use of the term library inappropriate.
Also in this sector, important steps forward have been registered in the last decade: but the road is still far from being homogeneous.
A few figures are provided by an IEA survey conducted in November 2019.
According to research data, 84.8% of schools in Italy have a central library or a classroom library, but the resources invested in the purchase of books are on average equal to € 410.
Conditions do not improve when we look at the functioning of these services: managed mainly by hybrid solutions (parents, students supported by teachers, volunteer teachers), 78.4% of the libraries of the 7,662 educational institutions that participated in the study did is not embedded in any system (be it a school library system, a public reading library system or a documentation center system). We are talking, to be clear, about a system where total expenditure between 2011 and 2019 fell by a third: € 5,896,000 in 2011 against € 3,888,000 in 2019; in other words, € 1.12 was spent per. student in 2019 at the school library function.
Looking at these studies, data related to use are exemplary: again, according to AIE research, subjects between 0 and 14 who go to school libraries are twice as many as those who go to public libraries (26% vs. 13%). The comparison is even sharper when we focus on frequent users: 6% of those who frequent the school library at least once every 15 days are 6%, against 1% of those who frequent the public library. We are therefore witnessing one a demand that exists despite a very often inadequate supply and this is a fact that is not easy to find, especially in the context of cultural fertility.

The Children's Area in the Martin Luther King Library by Mies van der Rohe Image by Trent Bell
The Children’s Area in the Martin Luther King Library by Mies van der Rohe Image by Trent Bell


Again, the numbers help us better understand the phenomenon: The new BES report, that is, the Istat report on Fair and Sustainable Wellbeing, has recently published readers’ data. According to the report, the supply of children and young people in the general decline recorded in the use of libraries in recent years is in any case the one with the highest attendance rates – it should be noted that the indicator expressed in BES refers to data registered in the “Aspects of Daily Life” study, and that in this study no distinction is made between the public library and the school library.
Let us therefore return to the initial considerations. Let’s go back to the world of our children, accustomed to the availability of information, the integrity of operating systems: their world is not ours. Their world is structured according to a principle of unity, so whether we like it or not, unity, accessibility and integrability are the results of specific strategies in the digital industries. In other words, it is characteristics that are strongly pursued by the big and the small ones in technology. These are factors that are perceived as so significant that one of the most important players in the sector has decided to create the meta-verse, which is nothing more than an integrated or at least integrable digital universe.
It is therefore obvious that reflection on libraries must have a priority character, even more so when the object is the school library, but the need for organizational and managerial reflection appears even more clearly.
At a systemic level, it is necessary to do so carefully and, above all, gradually, without giving in to the temptation to revolutionize everything, launching hyperbolic projects that are useful in promoting this or that institution. It is necessary to take small steps, probably trivial matters: standardize the services of all school libraries, start implementing networking strategies that allow the creation of economies of scale, provide IT systems basic which in any case provides school libraries with an orderly management of purchases, consultations and loans.
At the same time, it is advisable to stimulate and support pilot projects that enable the confirmation of case studies and that act as a stimulus for growth for the entire sector.
Above all, we must not do it just because it is important: we must do it because achieving these results enables the evolutionary processes in the library sector that are very important not only for young people but for society as a whole, present and future. .
Because we increasingly have to read to understand. And above all, we increasingly have to study to have an opinion. To be, in other words, citizens.

Stefano Monti

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