The key role of Digital Libraries in a blended learning environment

In the ongoing pandemic, alternating in-person and online lessons has become less of a novel approach and more of an everyday reality for students and teachers all around the world.
Whether your school favours the online or the brick-and-mortar component, however, educational institutions in the time of COVID-19 would do well to consider the benefits of a digital library as a blended learning tool.

Digital libraries: the joy of discovery

All public spaces have been affected by the measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and libraries are no exception: most of them have either closed down or changed their policy from an open-shelf to a closed-shelf mode of fruition.
An open-shelf library is a place where users are free to interact with one another and with the items in the collection, handling and looking for their own books; in a closed-shelf library, only the employees have direct access to the collection and the user’s role is reduced to requesting specific titles that may or may not be allowed to leave the building at all.
The greatest difference is not that the latter is safer in a pandemic, but the fundamental change in how users choose what books to read. An open-shelf library is more suited to a wide search: it is possible to walk in with only a general idea of the subject or genre you are interested in and perhaps walk out with something you did not expect to find. Conversely, a closed-shelf library requires a narrow mode of searching in which the user is expected to request exact titles.
The beauty of a digital library is that it can be either an open-shelf or a closed-shelf collection depending on how the individual user chooses to treat it and brings back the joy of discovery to these confusing times. If your school has access to a collection of digital titles, be they e-books, audiobooks, or any other suitable format, and that collection is equipped with an internal search engine, you are effectively giving your students an updated version of the open-shelf experience that would otherwise be lost: they can search by keywords or genres if they are not sure which title they want, or they can feed the engine an author’s name and potentially find not only their complete works, but also a number of critical essays.
Whether you are doing most of the work online or you are investing in a digital collection as a small online addition to a largely physical learning environment, a digital library is the perfect blended learning tool: digital books cannot run out when the whole class is reading the same one, reduce the risk of losing or damaging school property, eliminate the danger of transmitting diseases by interacting with one another or with shared items, give students access to material they may not otherwise find, and bring back a little bit of serendipity to the process of research.

Lost in a sea of books

The bigger the selection, the higher the risk that students may feel intimidated or lost: the downside of having a vast digital collection and only a search engine to navigate it is that students, especially the younger ones who are not yet well-versed in how to conduct a proper research, may not even know where to begin. Digital libraries do not always come with a librarian, and that is where teachers should step in.
Blended learning, if done well, does not consist of providing online resources and leaving students to their own devices: teachers still have a fundamental role as mentors and guides who can teach them how to discern reputable places to find information, use the most effective keywords to expedite their search, pick titles that are appropriate to their reading level, and cite sources correctly in their finished work, a skill that will stay with them until college and possibly beyond.
Blended learning comes in many forms and proportions, some leaning more towards online lessons, others remaining mostly in person, but whether a digital library is the only online tool in your teaching toolbox or one of many, it is certainly a valuable addition to your school’s resources that will open your students’ world a little wider.

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