The challenge for school libraries: a theme park parable

Anyone who knows me, or reads what I write will be sick of hearing about my trip to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in November 2010. I promise you this post is the final opportunity I will have to wring out any more mentions of the WWoHP.

The Great Hall

The Great Hall

However, the WWoHP can teach those of us in school libraries a lesson.

I visited a range of theme parks during my trip. It appeared to me that some of the old favourites had not changed one aspect of their park since I last visited in 1999. This even seemed to include a lack of maintenance such as painting. Whereas the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, part of Universal Studios Islands of Adventure in Orlando, opened in June 2010.

Obviously fresh and new, the WWoHP takes advantage of the newest technology to create an interactive experience. No expense has been spared to give the visitor the ultimate Harry Potter experience, from a 3D hologram of Dumbledore, to Moaning Myrtle in the bathroom to the way in which the visitor (or guest as the parks seem to call us) is entertained while queueing for the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride. The ride itself uses sets and 3D technology as well as the innovative KUKA “robocoaster” technology to let the riders’ seats pivot and move throughout the ride.

The queue lets riders (or even those who don’t want to ride) walk through Hogwarts and visit Professor Dumbledore’s office (complete with moving books that shelve themselves, the ultimate for a librarian!), see and hear the moving portraits of the four Hogwarts founders, see the talking Sorting Hat, move through the Herbology greenhouse, walk through the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom while treated to a visit by Harry, Ron and Hermione and visit the Gryffindor common room.

But how does this relate to school libraries?

I believe we face the challenge to use all of the technology available to continue to engage our audience. Things have changed dramatically in the the past 11 years, both for theme parks and for school libraries. One theme park I visited had not changed at all in that period of time. Sure, it was still wonderful, but compared to the WWoHP, it seemed dated, awkward and uninspiring. I am sure what we were doing in school libraries 11 years ago was fantastic and it is still good today. There is no need to get rid of the services we provided in those days if they are still needed today. But we have to grow with our users and with the tools available. We need to offer more. There are so many opportunities to use technology to connect with our students and teachers and many of them are free. We need to add these to our arsenal. This is really no longer an option. If it hasn’t already, it has to start now.

I know that time is always short and budgets are often a problem. But have a look at the following photo:

People can't get enough of the WWoHP

People can't get enough of the WWoHP

This was taken on a weekday that was not a holiday time. Some of the other theme parks I visited were practically empty. Reports have said that on occasions, people had to wait between 2 and 5 hours to enter the WWoHP.

Wouldn’t it be fabulous if our libraries were this busy? Were this attractive to our users? Were this innovative and fun? Connected with users constantly? I realise that mega dollars have been spent on the WWoHP, but I think we can still learn something from it. The theme parks that have not kept up-to-date are being ignored. The ones that are connecting with people and are thinking about making their visit the best possible are thriving.

Thanks to J.K Rowling and Emma Watson for a great role model

Thanks to J.K. Rowling’s creation and Emma Watson’s interpretation, the character of Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series has made it not only okay but quite cool for young girls (and those not so young and boys too) to like and to be good at school.

Recently just before I visited the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, I asked my 8 year old niece what she would like me to bring back. Immediately she announced that a “Hermione wand” would be wonderful as Hermione is “good at school and spells and is a true friend.”

When I returned home with said wand, she was so delighted she disappeared into her room for a few minutes and returned with frizzy “Hermione hair” and a belt to hold her wand. Delighted cries of “expelliarmus”, “stupefy” and “pertrificus totalus” were heard around the house.

Hermione Granger's "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" dress

Hermione Granger's "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" dress

When I think of all of the undesirable influences on young people today, I am so pleased that my clever and talented niece and her friends have an excellent role model to look to when growing up.

When I was her age (and a bit older) it was seriously uncool to be good at school, let alone like school. Teachers and parents have half their battle won in terms of attendance and engagement if students enjoy school. Of course, we still need to challenge our students every day, but having positive children to work with makes learning so much fun and so much more fruitful for everyone involved. Thanks Jo and Emma.