Should We Really Be Switching to Digital School Libraries?


I became an avid reader towards the end of primary school and sometimes got in trouble for smuggling books outside so that I could read in a corner instead of running around and playing. In middle school, I spent every lunchtime and break tucked away in the library. Nowadays, I rarely read more than one book a month. 

So what happened to me? At first, I thought I was just too busy with coursework now, but that’s not quite right. I spent at least as many hours studying in my last year of high school, but somehow still found the time to read every lunch break. What really made the difference was having a library I could go to. On my first day at IE, I went from floor to floor, hoping to find a sprawling library somewhere. However, while IE has a truly impressive digital collection of books and articles, I would have to travel to another campus if I wanted to get that physical book experience. This has made it difficult for me to spend my free time reading.

I’m not the only one. Studies have found a relationship between having well-equipped school libraries and reading habits. One Nigerian study even found a correlation of almost 0.6 with a p-value less than 0.05, which suggests that there is a strong relationship between the two variables. This is particularly important because reading isn’t just a good leisure activity. There is also evidence of an association between time spent reading and literacy rates as measured by the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study data. Although this does not prove a causal relation, it does make sense that reading more can make you better at reading, just like you can get better at other skill-related hobbies by spending more time on them. 

The positive effects of reading on literacy rates cannot be ignored in the current educational context. In Canada, literacy rates have declined by 29% over the past decade. The global picture is very similar. According to the World Bank, literacy skills have fallen in 71% of surveyed countries, a process which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Encouraging reading in this context could help mitigate falling global literacy rates. Discouraging it, on the other hand, could make an already bad situation even worse. Unfortunately, the data suggests that the number of young people who read for pleasure is also falling. This must be remedied if we want to prevent what the World Bank has called a looming learning crisis. 

At this point, some of you might be wondering why a digital library isn’t enough to solve this crisis. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, the sensation of reading paper books seems to have positive effects on recall. Research has found that people reading a short mystery story on paper were better at recalling when and what order plot events happened in than people reading the same story on Kindle. Similarly, students reading texts online had lower reading comprehension than those using physical books. Reading on paper doesn’t just improve comprehension. It also makes the experience more pleasant, with a study finding that 65% of people preferred physical books, 21% preferred e-books, and 14% preferred audiobooks. Even 70% of Gen Z readers, who have grown up as digital natives, preferred physical books. We can reasonably conclude that a better experience will encourage more reading. The improved reading comprehension associated with paper texts also suggests that these might be better at improving literacy skills while aiding information recall. 

Of course, digital libraries also have significant advantages. Firstly, digital libraries can save a lot of space, leaving more room for other facilities like classrooms or workrooms. The amount of information that can be stored online also can’t be compared to the most well-stocked physical library, giving people quick access to a lot more content. Environmental sustainability is another benefit. By reducing reliance on printed materials, these digital repositories contribute to conservation efforts and diminish the environmental impact associated with traditional publishing practices. This is certainly one of the reasons IE has adopted a paperless policy and relied on its online collection. However, it might not be the time for full digitalization yet.

In conclusion, both digital and physical libraries are valuable. I definitely welcome the use and promotion of online collections of books and have often relied on them for both personal and professional reading. However, there are benefits of physical libraries that can’t be replicated by a screen and a database. Most notably, they allow people to wander and pick out interesting books they find by chance. As a result, the presence of physical libraries in schools has been found to be associated with reading time and also improvements in literacy skills. This service is extremely valuable in a world where literacy skills have been steadily declining for years. As such, we shouldn’t be in such a rush to replace physical libraries with digital collections, especially in schools. 

Featured image: Pexels.

Sabina Narvaez
Sabina Narvaez
Originally from Mexico, but mostly grew up abroad and has Spanish nationality. Studies Philosophy, Politics, Law and Economics and mostly writes about these topics. Also interested in sustainability.

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