Naming Opportunities: Reflections on Library and Non-library Learning Spaces

We used to have wonderful, clearly-defined words like “library,” “librarian,” “classroom,” and “teacher.” And some of you may still have crystal-clear visions of what those words mean. But reading two very thoughtful pieces today makes me wonder, once again, whether our nomenclature is failing to reflect the evolving world of educational technology and learning resources in which we work, play, and live—the world so well-explored and documented by New Media Consortium Horizon Project reports.

YOUmedia Center, Chicago Public Library

YOUmedia Center, Chicago Public Library

Reading—and equally importantly, looking at the great set of photographs included in—Buffy Hamilton’s “A Visit to Discovery High School: Rethinking Learning Spaces and Learner Experiences” on her “Unquiet Librarian” blog this evening initially made me think about many of the fabulously creative learning spaces I’ve been lucky enough to visit, photograph, and describe in presentations this year. I see them in libraries. I see them in academic settings. I see them in corporate buildings and “training centers” where management, staff, and learners are committed to (as the Association for Talent Development so aptly puts it) creating “a world that works better.” And seeing them so explicitly displayed in Buffy’s article makes me see how similar those spaces are becoming—and have become. Which raises a question I posted in response to Buffy’s thoughts:

When does a library become interchangeable with other learning spaces rather than being unique?

The knee-jerk reaction to that question, for many of us, is “when it no longer has books.” But that ignores the changing—and very-much changed—nature of libraries and, in particular, library collections, as Rick Anderson writes in “The Death of the Collection and the Necessity of Library-Publisher Collaboration: Young Librarians on the Future of Libraries,” which he posted earlier today on the “Scholarly Kitchen” blog. Among the many very thoughtful points he makes is that a review of a group of young librarians’ work strongly suggests that “…the library collection, as traditionally understood, is dead.

“It’s worth noting,” he continues, “that these writers weren’t saying the print collection is dead, but rather that the very concept of a librarian-built, prediction-based collection, in whatever format, is moribund. Furthermore, none of them seemed to be particularly upset about this; on the contrary, they generally mentioned it more or less in passing and as if it were a self-evident reality and nothing to get worked up about.”

Library Media Lab, University of Texas at Austin

Library Media Lab, University of Texas at Austin

Let’s be clear about one thing at this point: neither writer is suggesting that libraries are dead or in danger of extinction. Their writing is very much grounded in documenting the positive, exciting evolution of libraries, librarianship, and learning. Buffy implicitly sees what so many of us are seeing: physical changes within libraries that reflect the increasingly strong roles libraries are playing in lifelong learning (including providing onsite and online formal and informal learning opportunities for the increasingly extended communities they serve). Rick’s article focuses more on how the mindset of the young librarians he is discussing affects the organizations in which they work—a mindset that means the change has already occurred in some libraries and will continue to expand as these young librarians replace more and more of their predecessors who had different visions of what the words “library” and “librarianship” implied.

And to carry this more explicitly to my question about when a library becomes interchangeable with other learning spaces, let’s acknowledge something I’ve maintained for several years now: librarians increasingly are trainer-teacher-learners (or, to use more common terminology, “learning facilitators”). But not all trainer-teacher-learners are librarians—a distinction that, up to now, has provided us with a way to clearly differentiate between the two groups. But as more libraries evolve to include those wide-open spaces that Buffy so wonderfully documents through the photographs in her article, and as more libraries take an entirely different approach to what a collection is, and as more first-rate trainer-teacher-learners become better at information management and the sort of educational technology that is increasingly common to libraries and other learning spaces, will we see library spaces (onsite as well as online) remain easily differentiated from other learning spaces, or are we beginning to see a merging of learning and librarianship that will bring us all closer together and provide exciting new opportunities for everyone willing to collaborate in this potential endeavor?

Altas_New_Librarianship--CoverVery much an admirer of R. David Lankes’ work (including Expect More and The Atlas of New Librarianship), I have always been intrigued by his suggestion that “a room full of books is simply a closet but that an empty room with a librarian in it is a library” (Atlas, p. 16); he also has some wonderfully nuanced thoughts on the nature of collections within libraries. His ideas help us, at least in part, to define libraries by the presence of librarians; by extension, they also help us recognize how much we define classrooms by the presence of teachers/instructors/trainers. But the equation frays a little at the edges when we see increasing numbers of great librarians doing what other great trainer-teacher-learners do, in ways that don’t clearly differentiate them from those other trainer-teacher-learners. It frays much further when we see the library spaces in which they weave their magic becoming increasingly similar to non-library learning spaces (and vice versa) , as some of those spaces documented via Buffy’s photographs confirm.

These are learning spaces with lots of open space as opposed to spaces dominated by print collections. These are learning spaces that are learner-centric—spaces featuring moveable furniture and moveable (including bring-your-own-device) technology that can quickly be reset to meet varying learning needs that can come up even within a single learning session. These are spaces where short-term as well as lifelong learning is supported. And, increasingly, these are spaces that look the same in a variety of settings—Buffy includes photographs of a corporate learning center—something we clearly have not yet addressed with the language we use to describe our libraries and other learning spaces, and something that, as we address it, may lead us to even more exciting learning possibilities and collaborations than we’ve have ever seen or imagined.

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