OverDrive: School libraries in the digital age

St John Bosco College Engadine teacher librarians Marilyn Markham and Kylie Williamson discuss books with avid readers Ryan Fokes and Mikaela James. Photo: Kitty Beale

Libraries and technology are inseparable, giving today’s generation more ways than ever to explore books for love and learning.

When Sydney Catholic Schools’ (SCS’) digital borrowing platform OverDrive merged collections with other Catholic diocese in NSW to become the ACEN digital library in August last year, the number of ebooks and digital resources available to students rose to more than 10,000 and circulation soared.

In the past 12 months, borrowing on the platform has almost doubled among SCS students, with books checked out more than 187,000 times and their use now accounts for the fourth highest circulation figures in the world among those who use the platform.

St Joseph’s students (from left) Indigl Flynn, Caolan Brennan, Layla Forrest, Elijah Brennan and Asher Vanderwert have mastered using the OverDrive app and other library resources. Photo: Kitty Beale

Access, all readers

Students and teachers say features that make it easier to access and read text are one reason for the current popularity of ebooks. Readers can adjust screen brightness, enlarge text, change fonts, and search for their next reading adventure based on recommendation, keyword, author, popularity or reading level among other


The ACEN collection also includes read-along books with an audio component that reads to students as they scan the written text. A dictionary function allows students to tap any word to discover its meaning. A behind-the-scenes feature that automatically purchases additional ‘copies’ of a book when it is in demand gives students access to the book they want to read within 24 hours of reserving the title.

We’ve absorbed more change than any other area of the school.

– Marilyn Markham

St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School Como-Oyster Bay’s borrowing figures are among the highest of SCS’ 152 schools. Students borrowed nine times more ebooks in one week this term than the school with the next highest digital borrowing record.

Teacher Librarian Monica Hallinan said though the library’s physical books are borrowed regularly, the ability to borrow digitally has enhanced student reading.

“With popular authors, if the kids are really keen to read the physical copy and we haven’t got it, they jump on and borrow the digital book,” she said.

“Because they are all digital natives, they’ve picked it up so easily. I see huge benefits for the students. If they are a struggling reader, they can chose something at a lower level but nobody has to know because it is a digital book.

“A Year 6 parent came to me recently and said ‘my child has read her first book, because we have an opportunity to change the font on this to what is called open dyslexic’. I’ve recommended it to so many children and parents, not because their child is dyslexic but because it is a font that is generally easier to read.”

Shelving the past

St John Bosco College Engadine was the first Sydney Catholic school to take up OverDrive six years ago. Kylie Williamson and Marilyn Markham share the teacher librarian role at the school. Both advocate for a balance of physical and digital resources, and of information skills and reading for pleasure.

School libraries operated on a card catalogue when Mrs Markham first entered the role.

“We’ve absorbed more change than any other area of the school,” she said. “Once, you’d flick through a draw full of cards that would direct you to where the book was on the shelf. You needed to know the author or title to find what you were looking for. Subject cards were a luxury in school libraries because of the time factor.”

Ebooks are a way to keep up with very fresh, current content. – Catherine Rigg

The ACEN library also catalogues study guides and website links that are useful for research across all curriculum areas. Bosco’s library shelves were reorganised by genre last year.

“Our shelves are set up more like a bookshop so students don’t necessarily need to go to the catalogue to find what they want,” Mrs Markham said. “If they like sport, humour, or fantasy, they know the bookshelf to go to and browse that way. It boosted the borrowing significantly when we first moved everything.”

Mrs Williamson said the OverDrive app restricted some content by age.

“A Year 6 student couldn’t borrow a book with content more suitable for a Year 11 or 12 student,” she said. “It wouldn’t come into their collection as an option. Someone in Kindergarten would not see To Kill a Mockingbird for example, because it’s not relevant to them.

“It doesn’t really matter what platform students use; just to see someone engrossed in a book is a great thing.”

Library lessons for St Brigid’s Marrickville students Eve Prowse and Landon O’Brien include ‘relax and read’ time and research skills sessions with teacher librarian Catherine Rigg. Photo: Kitty Beale

Literacy takes heart

When fire gutted St Brigid’s Catholic Primary School Marrickville’s library in January 2016, more than 24,000 books were lost. Teacher librarian Catherine Rigg said the digital collection has allowed the school to be more prudent in the resources they purchase. Relocating the library to ground level has made it the physical heart of the school, with parents able to visit the space to read with their children or ask questions about homework.

With ebooks, you don’t have to worry about  losing them. I just bring my iPad with me and the books are all there.

– Landon O’Brien

A Year 4 trial saw the class use ebooks for a novel study, instead of physical copies that eventually collect dust. “The curriculum changes, so we might buy a set of novels that suit one year then become redundant,” she said. “The teachers have found the ebooks fantastic because of the features to accommodate different reading abilities.”

Mrs Rigg chairs a professional learning community for teacher librarians at Catholic and independent schools in NSW and the ACT. Her library lessons include ‘relax and read’ time and research skills.

“They say that searching for something on Google is like trying to drink out of a fire hose,” she said. “There is so much information, especially for children trying to differentiate between what is credible and what is not. My lessons have elements of digital citizenship embedded in them – digital safety and evaluating websites.

“For non-fiction, ebooks are a way to keep up with very fresh, current content. In Science, when we found out Pluto wasn’t a planet, it made all of our space section useless.”

“Some students really love using ebooks and some of them don’t. We give them the choice here. They have a great borrowing record and they feel confident.”

Mrs Rigg said libraries were a balance of literature and technology. “I run the library through technology, but I want to instill a love of reading in kids so that they are reading for pleasure,” she said. “That’s one of the great things about ebooks. It lets us meet the children where they are, because they are used to being in a digital world.

“Is there still a place for that physical library? Absolutely. People still like holding onto that physical book and having that kinaesthetic experience.”

Holy Family Menai Year 6 students Koby Mollica and Ebony Morris (pictured with teacher librarian Chantelle Bower) are fans of Katherine Rundell’s novel ‘The Explorer’. Photo: Kitty Beale

Real-time spaces

Holy Family Catholic Primary School Menai’s Teacher Librarian Chantelle Bower said the library has become much more than a book repository. Library lessons include activities for students in the Newman Selective Gifted Education Program. Year 6 library monitors hone their leadership skills and maker space activities allow students to learn and design objects with high- and low-tech resources. Fun events grow a love of books by allowing students to taste new fiction before it reaches the library’s shelves.

Books can take you anywhere, and I love inspiring the students to be creative with their words.

– Chantelle Bower

The school’s Bring Your Own Digital Device (BYODD) policy adopted in 2015 has facilitated ebook loans. Holy Family students have borrowed more than 4,500 ebooks so far this year.

“From Kindergarten to Year 2, physical borrowing is still winning, but because Years 4 to 6 have their own device, the ebook would be nearly equal in popularity.

“I love that we can be so flexible in this space. In a big school, it’s a place where people can come to a quieter environment and relax a little. I love that books can take you anywhere, and I love inspiring the students to be creative with their words.

“On the ebook platform at the moment there’s an autobiography on Roald Dahl, so the children who have been immersed in that are excited about borrowing his books.”

A refurbishment of St Clare’s College Waverley’s library has turned it into a technology-rich and collaborative space. To make way for study, green screen and virtual reality rooms, the school reference collection was culled to just three shelves.

Leader of Information Literacy and Innovation Michael Burden said the technology had added another level of creativity to student’s work. “We kept the fiction collection and added to that,” he said. “To supplement the reference collection we have subscribed to the EBSCO database and Britannica online.”

Senior students hone their research skills with library lessons on how to use the EBSCO database effectively. A section becomes a dedicated study zone for them during HSC assessment times.

“Students did a virtual tour of Pompeii using Google Earth [virtual reality],” Mr Burden said. “There is a lot of peer learning taking place and much more collaboration. That couldn’t happen without these spaces.”

Reading by numbers

In February, Sydney Catholic Schools’ ACEN digital library became the fourth highest circulating digital library* in the world with more than:

  • 187,656 total ebooks circulated
  • 40,084 ebooks circulated by SCS
  • 35,759 ebooks circulated to date by SCS in 2018
  • 533 ebooks books borrowed during Term 2 school holidays
  • 3022 ebooks borrowed during Week 8, Term 2 this year (a new record)


*Figures are for the year to 17 August 2018


What teacher librarians do

  • Find, navigate and manage information
  • Evaluate and recommend resources to support teaching of Australian and NSW curricula
  • Teach students to find information, assess its quality, and attribute sources correctly
  • Teach digital literacy
  • Promote ethical use of information and academic integrity
  • Promote literacy skills and a love of reading
  • Make quality literature available across a range of genres for students to read


What the students say

Students told us what they are reading and why they love the ACEN digital library.

Mikaela James, Year 8, St John Bosco College Engadine:

“It’s really good because it has a lot of titles that the public library doesn’t have. Most of my friendship group are in the Newman Selective Gifted Education classes, so we’re always reading and swapping notes. We’ve just started Lord of the Flies. I read a lot of young adult novels. Most are realistic. I’m not a big fan of fantasy.”



Ryan Fokes, Year 7, St John Bosco College Engadine:

 “You can bring your multi-purpose laptop and read a book on it as well. It’s good for studying because you don’t have to hold open a book as you write or type. For English we’ve just read Parvana, a book about life in Afghanistan and the Taliban. It was based on a true story.”



Elijah Brennan, Year 1, St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School Como-Oyster Bay:

 “I look up some chapter books – the WeirDo series by Ahn Do and Zac Power Extreme Missions. I like that it has most books and you can search for them instead of having to look through every single book to find one. You can search for titles, and authors or series.”



Layla Forrest, Year 5, St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School Como-Oyster Bay:

“I can change the font and take an ebook wherever I go to read even when I don’t have WiFi. I downloaded some books before I went on holidays so that I could read them when I was on the plane.”




Caolan Brennan, Year 5, St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School Como-Oyster Bay:

 “The good thing about the digital library is that you can go wherever you want with it because there is an offline mode. The dyslexic font makes the words in the text bold at the bottom so it is easier to read.”



Indigl Flynn, Year 5, St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School Como-Oyster Bay:

 “You can download the digital library on other devices and all of the books you have on your laptop will carry through. You can use them anywhere and they’re free. I usually look at the different text difficulties to see what other people of my age have liked.”




Eve Prowse, Year 4, St Brigid’s Catholic Primary School Marrickville:

“Each term we read a book together as a class. You can change the font and the contrast. I like the Dork Diaries series, Roald Dahl books and the Ahn Do series. If you have a series to read, you can find out more about the character and the adventures they have.”



Landon O’Brien, Year 5, St Brigid’s Catholic Primary School Marrickville:

 “With ebooks you don’t have to worry about borrowing them and then losing them. I just bring my iPad with me and the books are all there. I have a variety and read them quickly. Each book automatically returns itself. I like reading the Goosebumps series, and Andy Griffiths’ Treehouse books.”


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