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

November 17, 2015

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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ALA 2015 Midwinter Meeting: Radical Meeting, Learning, and Collaboration

February 5, 2015

You didn’t have to be in Chicago from Friday, January 30 to Tuesday, February 3 to avoid being left behind. American Library Association (ALA) staff, members, and presenters, during the Association’s 2015 Midwinter Meeting, displayed an amazing, noteworthy commitment to bringing colleagues together regardless of geographic, economic, and temporal barriers—and, in the process, provided an example every trainer-teacher-learner can benefit from exploring.

alamw15--LogoAssociation staff began the process, in the days before the conference began, by reaching out to members with a set of tips on how to be part of the conference whether onsite or offsite; they also carried the popular ALA Youth Media Awards ceremony to offsite members through a live webcast of the event. This is clearly not an association that cares only for those paying registration fees and booking rooms in conference hotels.

Onsite individual Association members helped augment these efforts connecting offsite colleagues to the conference in a variety of ways, including the use of a Google Hangout and an extremely active Twitter feed that fostered plenty of back and forth. The Hangout, designed to serve as an episode of Maurice Coleman’s T is for Training podcast series for those involved in training-teaching-learning within libraries, was a successful experiment in creating a gathering that, through the discussion of “bringing offsite colleagues into the room,” engaged colleagues in the moment and produced a 30-minute archived recording demonstrating how Hangouts work (and, in their weaker moments, don’t work) to extend live conversations beyond the barriers of physical rooms and to further extend them beyond their initial synchronous interactions. And the multi-day #alamw15 flow of tweets from onsite and offsite Association members was so heavy during the ALA Youth Media Awards ceremony Monday morning (February 2) that it completely overwhelmed the feed from the social media tool (Twubs) I was using to monitor the exchanges; new tweets appeared to pop up at one-second intervals, and a notification at the top of the Twubs page confirmed, at one point, that more than 480 tweets were waiting to move from a queue into the actual Twubs feed I was observing on my mobile device—which means the feed was, at that point, a full eight minutes behind what all of us were producing. The fast, steady pulse of tweets flowing into the feed made me feel as if I were watching a heart monitor somehow attached to an Olympic athlete engaged in a sprint.

Lankes--Radical_Guide_to_New_LibrarianshipIt seemed that the ALA community’s commitment to inclusivity never faltered. When Atlas of New Librarianship author R. David Lankes began setting up for his hour-long “Radical Conversations on New Librarianship” session Monday morning, for example, he obviously was fully immersed in extending the conversation (and the size of his room) through the same efforts others had pursued. Using Adobe Connect to reach out to offsite participants and using a projector to display the chat feed so those of us inside the physical space at McCormick Place in Chicago could see what our offsite colleagues were saying, Lankes made it possible for us to at least be aware of both sides (onsite and offsite) of an ongoing, intriguing conversation about how librarianship is continuing to evolve to the benefit of all whom it serves. It was clear—as was the case with that Google Hangout Sunday afternoon—that the conversation would continue after the formal session ended: several entry portals to the conversation remain on Lankes’ blog, and the book that will come out of those conversations is sure to inspire additional exchanges long after the ALA 2015 Midwinter Meeting begins fading in our memories.

ALA_LogoAnother extended no-one-left-behind conversation that was easy to join during the conference was the Association’s current efforts to update its strategic plan. We often hear, from ALA staff, that “the conversation starts here” at the Midwinter Meeting and the Annual (summer) Conference, but the current strategic planning process shows the conversations are also continuous—beginning before we arrive onsite, continuing (rather than starting) while we are face to face, and extending far beyond the few days we have together during those meetings and conferences. Three town hall meetings had been held online from November through December 2014, and archived recordings remain available for those who don’t want to be left behind; several 90-minute onsite “kitchen table conversation” sessions facilitated by Association members during the 2015 Midwinter Conference were open to anyone interested in helping shape the strategic planning process and, by extension, the near-term future of the Association itself. Conversations are scheduled to continue as the planning process proceeds, and anyone paying attention knows that this is yet another example of an association keenly aware of a foundational tenet: without membership engagement, there is no real association in any sense of that word.

Those of us involved in training-teaching-learning—and nearly everyone in libraries falls into that category at some time during day-to-day library work—are far from unfamiliar with what was on display at the Midwinter Conference. The nurturing of community that took place there (as well as before and after the event) is what we strive to nurture as we develop and maintain the valuable communities of learning that provide meaningful experiences for those we serve. It’s what connects conferences. Workshops. Webinars. Courses. And every other learning opportunity part of our overall dynamic learning landscape. And I, for one, am glad to be part of associations that do more than understand that idea—they transform the concept from idea to reality in ways that make a difference to everyone they/we touch.


The Boring Patient: Continuing to Learn With R. David Lankes

December 12, 2014

R. David Lankes, A.K.A. author of the recently-released The Boring Patient, is a very dangerous man.

Lankes--Boring_PatientIn everything he does, he casts out his line. Hooks us. Slowly reels us in without at all making us aware of what he’s doing while he is doing it. And then he does what he always does so well: he makes us learn in ways that transform the way we see the world we all inhabit. He is, in other words, the consummate scholar, speaker, writer, teacher, storyteller, library advocate, and so much more. But above all, he’s the sort of character Anne Lamott describes in Bird by Bird, her wonderful book about writing and the creative process: the type of character we would follow anywhere—even to the county dump. Or, in The Boring Patient, to doctors’ offices, hospitals, cancer treatment centers, and, at one point, to Disney World.

Written to share the experiences he had after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the book “is not about cancer. It is about my response to being diagnosed, living with, and being treated for cancer,” he tells us in the first few pages. “That is an important distinction because cancer is not funny. Cancer sucks. Cancer does not teach, cancer does not preach, cancer does not comfort, or inspire, or inform. Cancer kills.”

From beginning to end, this brief (138-page) book is a finely-crafted story that displays humor in deep moments of despair without in any way diminishing the seriousness of Lankes’s situation. He never loses sight of his well-honed ability to teach. He occasionally does (very effectively) preach—as is the case in the first sections of the book, when he addresses poignant yet no-holds-barred letters addressed “Dear Doctors,” “Dear Medical Students,” “Dear Heroic Noble Inspiring Cancer Survivor,” and “Dear Everyone Else” in a way that makes us want to buy multiple copies of the book and send them to every doctor and medical student we know. He invokes his wonderfully wicked sense of humor to recall how he and his wife had to comfort others who were finding it very difficult to deal with the life-threatening situations Lankes so often faced in spite of having been assured that those with Hodgkin’s had an extremely high recovery rate. And he continually finds ways to inspire us to find the reserves of emotional strength he found within himself through the support of his family, friends, and colleagues.

Lankes--Virtual_DaveThe cast of characters is far-reaching and well-drawn. We meet “The Bringer of Doom,” an oncology fellow so lacking in social skills that she coldly tells Lankes and his wife that he has Hodgkin’s, then immediately separates the couple so she can whisk him away for a bone marrow biopsy “as the lab was about to close.” The Bringer resurfaces much later in the book with an equally abrupt report on the state of his health that turns out to be emotionally devastating—and completely inaccurate. There are, on the other side of the spectrum of people we meet, the nurses and doctors who seem to understand that “[b]eing a good doctor means being concerned with my life, not what might end it.” Through brief, poignant passages, we meet his wife (Anne Marie) who becomes “Xena the Patient Advocate”—a reminder that the advocates in our lives are among the most valuable assets and resources we have, as anyone familiar with the American medical system knows before reading even a few pages of The Boring Patient. And we even meet Bambi the pole dancer, who accompanies him through some of the most trying phases of his treatment—but let’s not ruin the punchline here: you’ll have to read the book to learn more about Bambi.

Most impressively and importantly for those of us involved in training-teaching-learning, Lankes never loses sight of the important role he plays for his readers—the role of someone who makes information (i.e., information about what he has experienced) meaningful to those of us receiving it through the book: “Doctor, professor, teacher, librarian all can no longer believe that simply pushing information at someone and if necessary fixing it later is acceptable,” he says both as someone who received plenty of information about cancer and as someone who consistently encourages and inspires us to think about the role of information providers in society. “When I learn, when I am ‘informed,’ it is more than my memory and reason you affect. It is my emotions, my needs, my image of self” (p. 111).

And if we can carry that learner-centric view of what we do as information providers and facilitators of learning, we will have emerged from our journey with this not-so-boring patient the better for having joined him.


Training-Teaching-Learning and Librarians: Describing What We Aren’t

July 15, 2014

Having recently written about the wicked problem of trying to find words that adequately describe what we do in our ever-changing work environment, I found myself completely drawn into a question forwarded by a colleague (Jill Hurst-Wahl) via Twitter this morning: “What are some things a librarian isn’t?”

ASTD_to_ATDThe basic question about what any of us isn’t is one that far transcends librarianship and obviously extends into the entire field of training-teaching-learning (of which I clearly believe librarianship is a part) and many other fields. One current example is provided by the way the American Society for Training & Development recently completed a 2.5-year-long effort to find language other than “training” and “development” or “workplace learning and performance” to represent the work its members do; the solution was adoption of a new name (Association for Talent Development) that is far from the obvious solution Association managers were seeking.

Tackling the question of what librarians (and other trainer-teacher-learners) are not, I quickly found myself sinking deeper and deeper into quicksand. Trying to be absolutely ridiculous, I started with the idea that we’re not ditch-diggers—but then realized I know of librarians who occasionally become involved in digging into the soil within library gardens. Then I mulled over the idea that we’re not plumbers—but recalled working with colleagues who had to unclog plugged drains and toilets in library facilities. I even briefly thought about the idea that we’re not chauffeurs—but was quickly able to recall colleagues picking me up at airports or hotels and delivering me to sites where I’ve been involved in facilitating library events. So I puckishly fell into the only response that made sense to me in the moment: a librarian is not a cab driver; nearly everything else is on the table.

And that, I believe, captures part of the beauty, wonder, challenge, and difficulty of looking at librarianship, training-teaching-learning, and so many other professions that exist or are about to exist. (For more on the theme of trying to imagine what sort of work we’ll be doing just a few years from now, please see Michael Wesch’s moving video “A Vision of Students Today” and one of the students’ comments about preparing for jobs that don’t yet exist.)

The context for the question about what librarians are not is the University of Syracuse iSchool (the School of Information Studies) IST 511 “Introduction to the Library and Information Profession” course currently being taught by R. David Lankes. In the draft course syllabus, Lankes encourages his learners to engage in “content exploration” through participation  in poster sessions centered on the question of what a librarian is. Some of his learners have obviously taken the challenge a step further by asking what librarians are not—themselves inspired by the Magritte image of a pipe, accompanied by the words “Leci n’est pas une pipe”—and  it makes me wonder how training-teaching-learning colleagues would answer a similar question about our own profession.

ALA2014--LogoWhat struck me, during recent conversations on this topic with numerous colleagues at the American Library Association Annual Conference in Las Vegas, was how much we are all struggling with finding exactly the right, concise word or combination of words to describe what we do. “Librarian,” for the average library user (or former user), is still a term firmly connected to the use of books—which completely ignores the numerous other roles library staff members play (e.g., subject-matter expert, often in more than one field of study; learning facilitator; innovation facilitator, through makerspaces, innovation centers, and other learning centers; community partner; grant-writer/fundraiser; manager/supervisor; writer;  and so much more). In the same way, “talent developer” and “trainer” are equally and woefully inadequate to reflect our roles as learning facilitators; change managers/change facilitators; coaches and mentors; instructional designers; evaluators; writers; presenters; and so much more.

As the learners interacted with each other via Twitter today—and thanks to Jill Hurst-Wahl and others, with many of us not previously affiliated with the IST 511 course—they were clearly having fun with the topic. One student suggested “a librarian is not an obstacle on the path to equality,” “a librarian is not a building or a shelf of books or a search engine OR a computer,” and “a librarian is not a follower.” Another learner suggested that “a librarian is not a book-sitter but is a community advocate.” And Jill herself suggested that “a librarian is not timid.”

What is clear from the exchanges so far is that librarians (and other trainer-teacher-learners) are also not the kind of people who limit their exchanges to well-defined insular spaces; the extension of this class project into a larger virtual classroom that includes many of us not formally enrolled in the course is just one of numerous examples that librarians and many others are defined and driven by their ability to function within a variety of settings that quickly shift without warning.

From "Virtual Dave...Real Blog"

From “Virtual Dave…Real Blog”

I don’t envy Lankes’s learners as they struggle with the overall question of defining what they aren’t and what they are: Trying to define what librarians aren’t (or are) in just a few words appears to be an impossible task—one that is equally daunting for trainer-teacher-learners (a term I’ve consistently used for lack of anything better to suggest the scope of the work many of us do). But I do envy them for the possibilities that are before them as they build upon the work of those who preceded them; find ways to partner with colleagues in the larger training-teaching-learning sandbox; and continue to define and create labels, policies, and practices that will help them maintain the key roles they play in the communities they/we serve.


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