The Impressions of Walquiria: Buenos Aires comes to Canada

This article was originally published in Canadian School Libraries Journal Spring 2020. It is the third part of 3 articles on my relationship with the school libraries in Buenos Aires including 1) Donde esta Alanna King? At the Jornada de Bibliotecas Escolares and 2) Getting on the Train: A Decade of Shifting Culture in the School Library

Background

Walquiria and I met in September 2019 when the Buenos Aires government reached out to UNESCO and IFLA (International Federation of Libraries) to locate speakers on the improvement of technology fluency through school libraries.  I was asked to go and Walquiria was one of my first contacts, as we were both on the same panel talking about school librarians as pedagogical agents. Most of the day the audience we presented to politely applauded when each person spoke, but when Walquiria spoke the audience cheered for her.  Walquiria describes herself as sort of a Robin Hood librarian: always being the loudest advocate to the people who have money for the people who need resources. She was also very generous with her time showing me around the city and making sure I was well cared for. I asked each of the Buenos Aires organizers if they would be interested in attending the 2020 Ontario Library Association Superconference as it was also the year of our school library research symposium called Treasure Mountain Canada. Walquiria accepted!

Walquiria came to Canada on her own dime and during her summer holidays because she is very interested in Canadian libraries.  In general, Walquiria’s ambition in her largest project as Director of The Teachers’ Library of Buenos Aires, is to help the education system improve digital fluency of staff and students through the school libraries.  In many ways Canada is similar to Argentina in that it covers a vast area and diversity of people…both are lacking in infrastructure, continuity in digital curriculum, the staffing models for school libraries, and inconsistent funding.  However Buenos Aires is governed as if it is a province in that it is in charge of its own health and education systems as well as all the municipal issues that a city governs. Walquiria is in charge of all school libraries for the city: on 620 sites, and she has only 12 staff to help her. Some of the staff in the schools are library science specialists and some of the staff are teachers. 

Walquiria’s challenges

The school libraries of Buenos Aires run using a Library Information System (LIS) that is about 40 years old, and was originally donated by UNESCO. The libraries are not networked and so each library is like an island running its own catalogue. Part of Walquiria’s mission in her visit to Canada was to use the expertise at the Superconference to narrow down a decision about the future LIS for Buenos Aires.  The choice really is to either find a stable system package, ready-made for Buenos Aires, that includes the capability of running RDA (Resource Description and Access) to handle new media types or to forego the cost of this system for something less robust, like an open-source system, which will allow flexibility but will need to be developed by coders in her staff. Walquiria established by the end of her trip here in Canada that she must first establish this networked system, then train all of the frontline users on it, and then begin to change the school library spaces to be ready for new learning models and technology.  

First Impressions

Walquiria expected to see something in Canada a bit more out of science fiction where robots were running schools.  She said that surprisingly in many ways Canada and Buenos Aires are the same in that they need to either a) redesign existing schools or b) prepare a design for new buildings to allow for new technology and pedagogies.  In total she saw 18 libraries in Ontario (not including the little ones that people have on their front lawns), ranging from academic libraries to public libraries to schools. In order to arrange tours, I just asked and each librarian offered their time, often involving other expertise in their building in the conversation. The matriarch of Canadian School Libraries, Anita Brooks Kirkland, also volunteered to tour with Walquiria so that I could teach.  

Walquiria spent time in each library’s collection to see how it was organized and how the library was made to be user-friendly.  A lot of the books are spine out but almost every library was using book displays to highlight books and improve circulation and to appeal to the diversity of patrons.  Walquiria noticed that each library chose a different way to highlight certain books. “It was new for me to see librarians use a symbol for Canadian author, Indigenous writers, LGBTQ titles”, she said. We had a great discussion about which books get stickered, whether or not to genre-fy, or highlight books of race or faith and we agreed that we were glad that there were professionals who could make and justify their choices for the sake of each library’s unique community.

Programs

In a number of the school libraries, the staff were observed juggling multiple learning centres and demands from multiple classes as well as the teachers or students who came by with a problem.  One librarian, Chelsea Brunette at Ecole Guelph Lake Public School, said “Technology is not my forte” but Walquiria could not believe this as she managed multiple situations involving technology very well.  Walquiria observed: “When you have skills in relationship with your flexibility, you don’t care if you don’t know something. The teacher said “I don’t know what the HEX robots are” but she didn’t get upset about it.  If she needed help she delegated saying “children please help me!”” Walquiria explained that this shift in mindset from being the knowledgeable librarian to asking the children for help would be a major disruption in Buenos Aires library culture which is more hierarchical. 

It was very interesting to see the full continuum of learning then by visiting a post-secondary institution that is accommodating increasingly digitally fluent students and the new media projects that they are completing.  At the University of Guelph, Rebecca Graham and her staff spent time giving us a thorough outline of how they have made decisions to advance digital fluency in their building. In addition to ongoing support for faculty, they have made permanent choices to have a full-time media lab for video recording and a sound lab.  We talked honestly about purchasing both in anticipation of requests and also fulfilling needs. Jacqueline Kreller-Vanderkooy, Learning & Curriculum Support Librarian, said that the greatest challenge is that students need the equipment all at once in a rotating season, whereas at other times the media spaces can be empty.  She expressed conflicting choices over the integrity and security of media spaces but also the safety and privacy of students. Overall, Walquiria noticed that the culture of post-secondary was similar to the one in Buenos Aires: 

University is more intense because the research is unique for each student. The problems are similar in terms of infrastructure but in Canada the solutions are impeccable.  I imagined that the weather would be so harsh that society would stop in Canada but it’s not so. The areas of the library are hospitable. Mental health is a new priority with drop-in counsellors.  This emphasis probably doesn’t exist in Buenos Aires.  

Student wellness was a priority in many of the spaces we toured.

By the end of our visit at the University of Guelph with Pamela Jacobs, Head of Collections & Content and Sandra Ancic, Manager of Acquisitions & Electronic Resources, Walquiria had made a decision about the challenge of securing a LIS for Buenos Aires.  After visiting with each vendor of LIS at the Superconference exhibit hall, she had many contacts to help her get this project underway.

Technology

Students we observed in every school library had a variety of learning activities to choose from and were well-served in both print and digital resources.  Walquiria was particularly impressed by the Upper Grand DSB UG2Go portal for student single sign-on and the robust offerings of digital resources there that were user-friendly at all skill levels.  Walquiria was very interested in how ebooks, audiobooks and maker kits were purchased and centralized at the Terry James Resource Centre. Walquiria asked a student if they could show her how to navigate to the digital portal and the student showed how easy it was to use on their phone. 

Walquiria also spent a lot of time observing people use the LIS and the cataloguing system. Another of her hopes for Buenos Aires is to connect all civic places with one system but the libraries, museums and archive systems are not identical. Walquiria noted that “We are cousins with museums but not twins”.  The challenge is to both archive old materials and be ready for multimedia. Customization, growth and flexibility continue to be issues across library systems that we saw. Many library staff noted that they need to work less and be able to hold more resources/data; they need optimization and flexibility and they need to develop a community to share work.  These concerns are directly in line with Walquiria’s concerns for Buenos Aires. 

During our time together at the Treasure Mountain Canada school library research symposium, Walquiria got to hear a videoconference with Leigh Cassell, the founder of the Digital Human Library.  Leigh’s paper [link to: https://tmcanada.blogspot.com/p/tmc6-cassell.html] reminded Walquiria about the work that she did with the UNED Digital Humanities [link to: https://www.uned.es/universidad/inicio.html] from Madrid, Spain.  This completely digital university is exploring the relationship between humanities and digital environments.  Walquiria says: 

Of course technology is a very important tool, but these machines work for us and no more.  The most important work for technology is to make a difference in medicine, education and for people.  There are limits in the world to how much technology can do. In my case, the technology will be in the school libraries for children to discover how to make it happen.  The most important is that the children were the teachers for the library staff. This is the most innovative thing I saw in Canada. Having technology in the library is a great equalizer to allow all children to have access.

In both new library spaces and old ones that had been renovated, Walquiria noticed a few similarities that she would like to incorporate.  Green screens were everywhere and with the right equipment, they were very easy for students to use independently. As well, the need for charging stations was emphasized.  A variety of media forms are available for use in each library including ebooks and audiobooks that are digital, audiobooks that are self-contained or on a CD and many more resources are available through the digital portal. In contrast, audiobooks with a CD are still available at the public library where they are still using many varieties of audiobooks.  She liked the idea of digital signage because you don’t need many resources to make it impactful. We saw book talk videos, student work, information and art on the digital signage. The digital display in each school library space was used not only for signage but for direct teaching as well.

Each library has the choice to prioritize how much management of technology to have.  However, in Canada and Buenos Aires this ratio of students to staff is very inconsistent.  Walquiria remarked repeatedly that it is imperative that there is always a staff member dedicated to the space. We were amazed to see very young school children perform a self-sign out, as older children supervised.  However, the librarian, Val Foster, had trained the older children and the younger children to collaborate.

Collaboration

The library is a fundamental place for community and the importance of safety, security and community was a recurring theme in Treasure Mountain Canada as well as in our visits to the libraries.  The work to create this harmony involves intense collaboration. All of the libraries were very organized. Having some separation in spaces was beneficial because the teachers or teacher-librarians could instruct a class in this space.  A lot of the libraries are using casters, for example, to make their spaces more flexible.  

There was also an emphasis on community-building and wellness in almost every library.  Each space was trying to appeal to multiple stakeholders so that everyone felt welcome. There was even a special therapy lamp in use at Guelph Collegiate Vocational Institute to help students adjust to the darkness of winter.  Walquiria and I were both moved by the Ontario School Library Association keynote at Superconference by Shakil Choudhury’s presentation on “us” versus “them”. Libraries everywhere are combating these systemically discriminatory attitudes and this is a big part of making each patron and stakeholder feel like their voice is significant.  Walquiria remarked: “It’s a global idea that I could easily have heard in Argentina as well. This issue is a general preoccupation for librarians in both Argentina and Canada.”

In general, while school libraries were each unique in their clientele and in the expertise of their libraries, all of the librarians felt that the most important role was to keep the library open and to make it welcoming to both staff and students.  We heard about a remarkable variety of snack offerings, programs and professional development to entice staff to collaborate. We heard about a full range of collaboration levels from using space to full team-teaching. In every case the teacher-librarian was a true partner of the school’s administration and open to the wild ideas for learning of each teacher. Walquiria commented this way “The dynamic between the teachers and the librarian was interesting too because it’s the same problem all over the world.  People have problems: librarians help. People learn to rely on librarians.” The collaboration we observed at the highest level appeared to be spontaneous or improvisational but this familiarity and confidence occured because their collaboration had taken place beforehand in order to understand each other’s expectations. This solid foundation is something every librarian dreams of achieving.  

Future goals

Walquiria’s mantra is that you can have a library with one book in it, but you can’t have a library if you don’t have a librarian. Walquria said “All of the librarians are happy with their libraries.  Of course they want more things and money, but it doesn’t change the pride of their work.” Access for patrons to libraries and knowledgeable staff continues to be a diverse problem for all of the libraries we visited.  It’s challenging to put a time restriction on the free-flowing innovation and spontaneous use that is constant in libraries. I know that much of the work that we’ve done in my school board is to advocate for educational reform starting with qualified teacher-librarians as leaders of learning, and models of possibility. I was thrilled to boast about Upper Grand’s libraries as we are primed for this work as our board values qualified staff.  It was important to me to demonstrate to Walquiria the need to continue to value library staff and spaces as essential to learning, despite the challenges that we may be facing with funding. School libraries are safe spaces for students to learn, experiment and grow and they are reliable places to innovate or learn in non-traditional ways. Through collaboration and cross-curricular thinking, school libraries can also be the hub of design-thinking transformation for staff and students.  We observed the ripples of change in school libraries through the public and academic library systems as well. 
Walquiria and I both felt an urgency to collect and share our learning as we toured together and continued to unpack each other’s perspectives.  After our time at Treasure Mountain Canada, we collaborated together on how we could try to amplify the work of Canadian School Libraries and library staff to other parts of the world, especially to her school library staff in Buenos Aires.  We talked about expensive translations of English materials but in the end we plan to podcast about school libraries in Canada with the help of Stephen Hurley at VoiceEd radio (https://voiced.ca/) and Canadian School Libraries on a number of literacy and library topics.  One of our first priorities will be to create an audio version of the research in Canadian school libraries published in the Canadian School Libraries journal https://journal.canadianschoollibraries.ca/ and the Treasure Mountain Canada archive https://tmc.canadianschoollibraries.ca/

Special thanks to:

Albert Boutin and Alannah Sawatsky at Centre Wellington District High School

Anita Brooks-Kirkland – Canadian School Libraries

Caroline Freibauer – Editor, The Teaching Librarian

Chelsea Brunette – Guelph Lake Public School

Cheryl Kanters – Westside Secondary School

Dale Dyce – Kitchener Public Library main branch

Jason Swan – John Black Public School

Jennifer Taylor – Sir John A Macdonald Secondary School

Lisa Unger and Anna Nunes – Orangeville District Secondary School

Michelle Campbell – Guelph Public Library Westminster branch

Michelle Westerman – Guelph Collegiate Vocational Institute

Murray McCabe – Wellington County Public Library

Rebecca Graham, Pamela Jacobs, Sandra Ancic, Jacqueline Kreller-Vanderkooy and Sheryl Cantlon – University of Guelph

Robin Feick  – Erin District High School

Samantha Wellhauser-Bells and Deb Hunter – Terry James Resource Library

Sara Bauer – Preston High School

Sarah Wyche – College Heights Secondary School

Stephanie Guse and Elke Baumgartner – Chicopee Hills Public School

Stephen Hurley – Chief catalyst, Voiced.ca

Sue Penfold – Montgomery Village Public School

Val Foster – Princess Elizabeth Public School

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