Bryan Caplan  

Unlock the School Library

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If you could change the K-12 curriculum in one small way, what would you change?  My pick: Unlock the school library.  By this I mean...

1. Give kids the option of hanging out at the library during every break period. 

2. Give kids the option of hanging out the library in lieu of electives.

My elementary, junior high, and high schools all had marvelous libraries.  But they were virtually always closed to the student body.  You couldn't go during recess or lunch.  And you certainly couldn't say, "Instead of taking music/dance/art/P.E./woodshop, I'll read in the library."  Virtually the only time I entered a school library was when an entire class went as part of an assignment.

Unlocking the school library requires almost no resources.  Simply:

1. Send one or two unskilled but mature workers to watch over the students.

2. Exile students who bother other students from the library.  If you can't treat your fellow bookworms decently, you're sentenced to regular classes.

The benefits are twofold. 

Intellectually, unlocking the library gives students much-needed time to explore their interests and satisfy their curiosity.  You really learn a lot by reading

Socially, unlocking the library allows students to escape pointless classes, boring teachers, and obnoxious peers.  It also gives kids a chance to exercise independence and self-control.

After the novelty wears off, I expect many kids will get bored at the library.  That's fine: Send them back to regular classes.  But many other kids - especially nerdy kids - will seize the day.  They'll finally have a sanctuary from the daily indignities of K-12 education - and a chance to learn what they want when they want.  When I was a kid, unlocking the school library would have been heaven on earth.

Most educators and parents will scoff at my proposal.  Why?  At root, they like the idea of bossing kids around.  They're so determined to make every child dance - yes, literally dance - that they're afraid to even give them the option of quietly reading in the library instead.  Adults claim they're controlling children for their own good.  I doubt it.  As a child, I noticed that adults seemed more focused on their own egos than students' well-being - and my experiences as an adult and a parent strongly support my youthful cynicism. 

Challenge to educators and parent: Prove me wrong.  If you care about the children as much as you claim, you should at least experiment with my proposal.  Instead of dismissing it out of hand, try unlocking the library on a small scale and see what happens. 

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (25 to date)
Kaushal Desai writes:


I'm quite surprised to learn that school libraries aren't open to students.

That very likely shows the true extent of my ignorance about US schools, but because I was fortunate to have a school library that functioned exactly the way you hope, I have naturally assumed that schools in "developed" countries would naturally do as much.

Or better.

And I consider myself fortunate - now more so! - that I had access to those books which I did.

E. Harding writes:

Hm. My high school definitely had a library open (which looked almost exactly as in the picture) every part of the day, morning to school dismissal. I'm sure this was the same with my middle school. This was not so with my elementary school. I think this was reasonable. I also didn't know that many high&middle school libraries were closed during lunch&recess.

By "unlocking the library", I think you're going to see improvement on the grammar portions of standardized tests, and quite possibly the non-fiction and data analysis portions. But how much? Those students smart enough already read two dozen blogs written by academics.

Sergeant Popwell writes:

Stop trying to increase inequality, Byran!

Matt Moore writes:


My school in the UK had three libraries - Junior forms, Middle forms and Sixth form (don't ask). Older kids couldn't get into libraries reserved for younger children and vice versa, which I thought was good.

They were always open in breaks and lunchtime, as well as for an hour before and after school. Each had a dedicated librarian. The sixth library was open all day. Most of the books were available to borrow.

The use of the library as part of a timetabled class was almost always a total waste of time, license to skive. But otherwise, it was good. Esp the sixth, where people liked to do coursework and pretend they were at university.

Cornflour writes:

Maybe it's not worth the time to clarify your headline, but most American school libraries are already unlocked. You're talking about unlocking classrooms, but teachers would not want to lose the time they already have scheduled with their students, so I can't picture those doors opening.

If you're skeptical about unlocked libraries, I'm sure that the American Library Association has some relevant data. For example, you can read page six of the survey here.

Miguel Madeira writes:

"1. Give kids the option of hanging out at the library during every break period."

This is the rule in portuguese schools (and, by the previous comments, it seems not rare even in US schools)

About "2. Give kids the option of hanging out the library in lieu of electives" and "Socially, unlocking the library allows students to escape pointless classes, boring teachers, and obnoxious peers" - many people probably think that "pointless classes, boring teachers, and obnoxious peers" will "build character" or "teach soft skills" (the definition of "soft skills" is largely "know how to deal with pointless, boring or obnoxious things")

Steve Bacharach writes:

At the secondary school at which I teach, libraries are unlocked to almost the degree that you would wish for. However, Bryan, you are being naive. Today's students generally go to the library to watch videos and play games on their smartphones and to chat with friends. Reading? - not much of that going on. So then the librarian gets to be the disciplinarian?

Brian writes:

Just to echo what others have said, the libraries at my kids' schools are all open and available for use at any time of day. And yes, kids use it. What is not open, and what Bryan really wants, is for CLASSROOMS to be open, for students to be free to come and go as they please. I think some students would thrive under that environment--my son is one example--but most would use the opportunity for "not learning," which would be counterproductive. There would be lot of computer and smartphone time, and not for anything useful. Most kids really need the structure provided by the school day to use their time in productive ways.

Michael Stack writes:

I love this idea. When I was growing up, one of my favorite parts of the day was the 15 minutes after I'd arrive at school, but before the day actually started. I'd sit in the library and pick up a book and read part of it. Over the course of a few weeks, I'd finish a book and then be on to something else.

Hazel Meade writes:

Since when have school libraries been locked?

When I was in high school, I literally spent every lunch period in the library reading the newspapers and magazines.

That's how Foreign Affairs poisoned my mind....

Michael B. writes:

Alternatively, you could both open the libraries and save money by making the libraries electronic.

Roger Sweeny writes:

At my high school, any student with a study hall can go to the library instead, up to the point where the number of students equals the number of chairs.

Most kids who go there do homework or use the internet. They're supposed to only go to learning sites but that's not monitored.

The students who go there don't seem especially nerdy, nor do they seem to view it as a sanctuary.

gwern writes:

Going to chime in that my schools didn't 'lock' their libraries either. Usually the problem was more that schedules didn't allow for it. I still got a lot out of my highschool library (and still wonder which librarian stocked it with all its unusual books like McCoy's Politics of Heroin, which can hardly have been required for any classes).

G. Higgson writes:

My large public high school locked the libraries. I found it bizarre and unfair then and even more so now.

IVV writes:

My American high school was unlocked just like this, too. Is it locked in your area? That is odd.

Heck, I met my first girlfriend at the high school library. It was a hangout for those so inclined.

(Although the most popular hangout for smart, handy kids at my school was the Electronics Lab, where we all earned our amateur radio licenses and built circuits for ourselves.)

mickey writes:

My high school library was open during lunch. I spent most in there.

Ken P writes:

I totally agree, Bryan! My experience was that we had one day a week during English class to go to the library. The class was divided into thirds with each group getting 15 minutes in the library. There was a rush attitude towards students, especially those who were less studious. It was possible to go during other classes or during study hall but you had to have permission, a pass and it certainly helped to be in the top 10% of your class academically.

It wasn't technically locked, but functionally it was.

Mark S writes:

Elon Musk would fully agree with you:

"The data rate of reading is much greater than when somebody's talking.

What's the output rate of speech? It's like, a couple hundred bits per second, maybe a few thousand bits per second, if you're really going full-tilt.

You can do several times that, reading. The main reason I didn't go to lectures in college was because the data rate was too slow.

It's like, why are they reading the textbook to me? Is this like a bedtime story or something? Ridiculous!"

Barry Cotter writes:

Do you homeschool your kids or plan to do so Bryan?

Michael Strong writes:

I've often proposed a low-cost chain of schools in which grades 3-8 consisted of nothing but reading and playing chess (or similar self-guided, cognitively rich activities that develop intellectual focus) - with no teaching of any subjects at all. It would cost almost nothing at all to supervise because the adults need to play no active role other than keep things quiet. I predict students in such a program would, after a year or two of updating their math and writing skills in grade 9, dramatically outperform most students from conventional educational programs. We are forcing students through expensive, boring, humiliating rituals for no reason at all.

Anthony writes:

I live in Brazil and I attended 2 schools. Both of them had open libraries.

K-12 I attended a school of roughly 2000 students, around 1000 in the morning and 1000 in the afternoon. It had a huge library and, even so, I was one of the only students that did hang out there.

It was stigmatized as "uncool"

Michelangelo writes:

For what it is worth, in the Valley most libraries are open during break times nowadays. Unfortunately you can't opt out of electives to spend time in the library. As a close second, at least in Northridge and Monroe, you can choose library service as an elective. You have to help organize the bookshelves, but are otherwise free to use the facilities. I'm surprised this isn't the case in Granada. Maybe they're recent developments?

Lee Whiting writes:

Park City High School, Utah is proposing doing away with the library, or most parts of it and putting an experiential learning class for about 70 students, PCCAPS, in its place. The plan is backfiring among the library faithful and the school board now must reconsider.

[broken html removed--Econlib Ed.]

Lee Whiting writes:

Here's an interesting case study>> A few years ago in Nashville, TN, the public schools' library system was in such a poor state that they were considering shutting it down. It's collections were stale, out-of-date and irrelevant, help inaccessible, furniture shabby, fixtures and lighting outdated and technologically irrelevant. A partnership with the Nashville Public Library System resulted in a complete overhaul and great synergies in all kinds of "back-end" functions were gained while improving the customer facing experience. School library utilization is at an all-time high and students are able to borrow/visit all public library branches and services across the system with a single-access account.

Douglas Knight writes:

You got the electives backwards. Nerds should be forced to do music, dance, art, PE, and woodshop. But they should go to the library in place of core classes.

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