IFLA SL Newsletter

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With my feet in the mud…

By Helen Boelens


Kalsbeek College


In Australia we are very aware of the need to conserve water. As a child in Australia, I knew that drinking water came from a tank on the roof and that bath water was pumped from an artesian well, deep under the ground. Water was never wasted. Dirty water was never allowed to run down the drainpipe. It was thrown onto the thirsty plants in the garden.

When I was in my twenties, I met a kind, friendly Dutchman. We fell in love and decided to “give it a go”. After our marriage, we moved to Holland. This is a country which has too much water. I will never forget the day we moved into our new house. It was raining. There was mud everywhere. Further along the street, grubby little children, wearing warm coats and rubber boots, were playing in the mud, building dykes. They were having a lovely time.

Yes, Holland is a country which has too much water, and lots of mud. There is a wonderful Dutch expression, which roughly translated into English is “with your feet in the mud”. It means that you are involved in the daily grind, putting one foot in front of the other, making squelching footsteps through the mud, to get to the dry ground – doing the ordinary day to day tasks in order to achieve a goal.

In this article, I want to tell you about “my feet in the mud” in the School Library and Information Centre at the Kalsbeek College in Woerden, the Netherlands. After my arrival in the Netherlands, it took me quite a while to learn the language, become familiar with the Dutch children’s and adult literature, revalidate my diploma’s and find a job as a school librarian in a local secondary school. For the record, the job of teaching librarian does not (as yet) exist in the Netherlands.
During my job interview in 1998, the director of the school explained to me that the Kalsbeek College is an “ordinary” school. It is not a private school – it is government funded and has no special sources of extra income. It is not a selective school. In 2007, it has a total of 2,600 pupils and is what is known as a comprehensive high school. The director told me that I was being hired to bring the school’s library into the 21st century. So this is when I had to put on my boots and began plodding through the mud…

I began by trying to define the goals of the school library (which has now become known as the school library and information center (SLIC) ). Whilst maintaining the wonderful, traditional goals of the school library, an attempt was made to introduce computer technology, new concepts of learning and digital forms of information into the SLIC. My recent paper:

“Imagine …You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one,” [1] : The school library and information center at the heart of the learning process and as an integral part of the learning environment

describes how we approached this problem. This paper was presented in Dutch and English at the Kalsbeek College on 31 January 2007 and was also presented, in Italian, at the triennial national project “Biblioteche nelle Scuole” in Milan, Italy on 15 March 2007. It can be found (in English) on the ENSIL (European Network for School Libraries and Information Literacy) website www.ensil.eu .

The paper describes how the school, as a whole, has recognized the important role which the school library plays at the heart of the learning process and as an integral part of the learning environment. Step by step, in co-operation with directors and teachers throughout the school, we have been moving towards this goal. The various steps which have taken place in this process were discussed at democratic meetings within the school, and decisions were made.

The educational objectives of the school are clearly stated in the school policy statement and in all information booklets which are handed out to (prospective) pupils. Information evenings have been held for parents of pupils, in order to explain to them what we are doing and what we are hoping to achieve.

In 2002, a decision was made to build a new SLIC (400 square meters), which would incorporate the traditional values of the school library, while making provisions for new facilities for the 21st century. This was a costly decision, but the results are spectacular. We now have a facility where more than 100 pupils from all different levels within the school can read, do their homework, or make use of new forms of learning, thanks to ICT software and hardware. The SLIC is comfortable, attractive and colorful. It has an excellent collection (in traditional and digital form) in five different languages. There is an ELO (Electronic Learning Environment) and a fully automated web-based library catalogue. At the moment, federated searches are being instigated, for the storage and retrieval of information throughout the entire school. We also have special facilities for gifted pupils and pupils with learning difficulties. Last but not least, the SLIC gives compulsory, interdisciplinary instruction in information literacy to teachers and pupils.

Our success up until now can be verified by:

· Improvement in academic achievement of pupils;

· An awareness throughout the school of the advantages (and disadvantages) of new forms of learning and how these can be implemented in the SLIC (when necessary);

· An awareness that learning should be interdisciplinary and that co-operation within the school is essential;

· An awareness of the effects that the information society has had on the “ordinary” school;

· A SLIC which is nearly always full with pupils making use of the facilities. It has come to the point that we almost need a second SLIC.

· An increase in reading throughout the school. The statistics for borrowing of traditional information, by pupils and staff, have risen more than 17% in one calendar year.

The success of the KILM (Kalsbeek Information Literacy Matrix), mentioned in my paper:

“Imagine …You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one,” [2] : The school library and information center at the heart of the learning process and as an integral part of the learning environment

is due to a combination of:

1. Organisation and

2. Methodology

3. The integrity and vision of the school leadership.

The changes in organization include meetings between all groups within the school (establishing a democratic process) and the coordination of projects between subject areas. The methods include the interdisciplinary teaching of information literacy skills in the SLIC. The integrity and vision of the school leadership speaks for itself.

No, we have not yet reached the other side of the pool of mud. The information society in which we live is changing so rapidly. The SLIC needs to take these changes into account and, if necessary, implement them into the policy of the SLIC. The situation within the SLIC at the Kalsbeek College is not perfect. Every day we come up against problems which still have to be solved. Nevertheless, the democratic process throughout the school plays an important role in resolving these problems and implementing new ideas. Without the educational vision of the director, Dr. Jaco Schouwenaar, none of this would have been possible. This is clearly described in the paper mentioned above.

In 2003, I decided to look more closely into the problems faced by the school librarian (or teaching librarian) in the 21st century. I have become a Ph.D. research student at Middlesex University, School of Education and Lifelong Learning in London, in co-operation with the University of Amsterdam and the Vrije Universiteit (VU) in Amsterdam. My contact with the university in London is usually through E-learning. My recent papers include:

“A new kind of information specialist for a new kind of learning”

which I presented at World Library and Information Congress, 72nd IFLA General Conference and Council, in Seoul (South Korea), August 2006, can also be found on www.ensil.eu . The ideas presented in this paper are very relevant to a walk through the mud.

During my research, I have been fortunate to meet people from many different countries who are interested in school library work – librarians from different kinds of libraries, academics, researchers, politicians, and also people with commercial or economic interests. I have also met those who think that school library work is at an end –it has seen better days and is no longer necessary. It can be replaced by other kinds of services.

But these people do not plod through the mud. They are not involved in the daily life of the school or the school library. They visit the school library occasionally, carry out research, and come up with ideas and suggestions. Sometimes politics or self-interest play a role.

Their work is different from mine. I get up in the morning and am faced with the day to day realities of school library work, in positive or negative ways. I see what happens each day in the SLIC. I see the little drama’s which occur, and also see the reactions of children, on a daily basis, to new innovations in the SLIC. I put on the gumboots every morning and plod on through the mud. It may be time for a new sturdy pair of gumboots. They sell very pretty, colourful ones here in Holland!

July 2, 2007 - Posted by | 6. Issue 44, 7. Theme 44, Nederland


  1. As a long-time teacher librarian I can certainly empathize with your post, Helen. I am in the US–California to be specific–where support for school libraries is very minimal–hardly any at the national or state level and a very low priority at the district level. I am fortunate to be in an affluent area but realize every day that it is an on-going, never-ending challenge to make sure that my students are prepared for their future.
    Two thing stuck out in your post. You repeatedly mentioned democracy as your method of putting forth new ideas and programs. I find it a challenge keeping engaged with the entire school community and not just doing things which I “hope” will work. Cooperation and collaboration are definitely the way to go–they just seem so slow at times!
    The other thing I noticed was your mention of materials in five(!) languages. I’m challenged by one language. It must be amazing to have to provide good materials in five. I’d be very interested in seeing your catalog if it’s available online.
    Keep up the good work!

    Comment by Tom Kaun | December 30, 2007 | Reply

  2. Thanks, Tom, for your comments. The democracy which I spoke about may need some clarification. The Dutch believe very strongly in democracy and democary plays an important part in our schools. The school leadership arranged for a democratic vote with regard to the role which the school library and information centre would play in the introduction of interdisciplinary information literacy instruction, for teachers and pupils, throughout the entire school. The teachers voted for the instruction. This is how it has been possible for us to give the instruction – we have the co-operation of the teaching staff. There are regular meetings regarding the work of the school library and information centre.

    About the language matter … I have to say it is a real challenge for me too. Dutch is only spoken by approximately 19 million people. Dutch children need to be able to communicate with people throughout Europe. This means that they need to learn other languages as well.

    I have to admit that I am severely challenged by five languages, nevertheless we have a good collection in these languages. The Dutch library system provides ordering information for schools in these languages via NBDBiblion.

    Our catalogue should be available on-line in the near future.

    As we say in Dutch,
    Vriendelijke groet (friendly greetings)
    Helen Boelens.

    Comment by Helen Boelens | January 3, 2008 | Reply

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