#Ylibrary : Making the Case for the Library as Space for Infinite Learning by Michael Stephens

“The time was when a library was very like a museum and the librarian was a mouser in musty books. The time is when the library is a school and the librarian is in the highest sense a teacher…” Melvil Dewey, 1876

When you look at recent media about librarians you see a typical pattern. Librarians are hip, tattooed, happening, and networked—this is not your grandparents’ library. The public may react with “I thought librarians were just shushers, hired to keep the place quiet and manage the books.” The librarians’ reaction, on the other hand, is usually “Oh, another article where someone shows their “read” tattoo and reveals their favorite apps.”

What I would argue is that librarians have been constantly evolving. Sure, the tattoos, the hip funky clothing, and the 24/7 connections are one part of the evolution. But, what's most interesting to me is how we, as librarians, have adapted our roles over time in relation to our core values and mission. One of these intrinsic values is that of library as the “people’s university” - an open education resource or commons - or center for lifelong learning. The role of teacher then, is not out of the question for one of the evolving duties of library professionals.

I just finished teaching the Hyperlinked Library MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), with co-instructor Kyle Jones, at San Jose State University’s School of Library and Information Science. The course brought together practitioners from all over the world to explore the hyperlinked library model and participatory service in an open, online platform. It was intended as a way to enhance the professional development opportunities for our participants. From my point of view on the receiving end of this experience, teaching and learning from 300+ participants, I see great value in this type of self-directed, continuous learning. The value is enhanced further when we consider that the librarians, who participated in this pilot MOOC, communicated and interacted with their colleagues from remote and isolated areas of the world via blogging, videos, and more. This is also a step on the evolution of a librarian’s own learning journey: large scale courses devoted to emerging thinking and emerging technologies.

Looking In: Learning to Learn 

The always-in-beta librarian is part of the evolution that I describe above. I think we've done a good job of late developing professional learning opportunities. For example, Learning 2.0 or “23 Things” has been a keystone for library learning since 2006. I was very lucky in 2009 to have researched this phenomenon in Australia and discovered that the libraries that offered these inclusive, exploration-driven, and technology-focused learning experiences, reaped the benefits of a more confident and technology-competent staff. Similar programs have offered other avenues for librarians to improve and add skills, including a program focused on mobile applications and mobile devices.

This is evidence to me that we, as librarians, are evolving. We are curious about our changing information and media environments. We are immersing ourselves into the technologies and social spaces that our patrons experiment with and use. These are just some ways I see librarians changing beyond noticing their fashion choices and skin art. The evolutions, however, are not just online, we are also seeing some wonderful developments in library physical spaces.

Looking Out: Evolving Spaces

It's much more interesting to me when we look outside the physical library space and study the people that we serve. What type of learning opportunities are we providing for them? In a time when most people turn to Google on their mobile devices for quick answers, what type of learning experiences can libraries provide? Sure, libraries have provided all sorts of classes over the years for their patrons, including how-to and DIY presentations and sessions devoted to technology and navigating the World Wide Web. I’d argue that as part of our evolution as an educational and teaching space, expanding and updating these offerings for the 21st century is mandatory. These offerings should be available within physical library spaces as well as virtually hosted by libraries.

There are some notable examples of this.

I'm impressed that the Queensland State Library adapted Learning 2.0 a few years ago as a way to offer the immersive, online learning that the library staff had received to the public. I'm also impressed when I read about the innovation happening in physical library spaces.  SLQ’s “The Edge” and other libraries, such as the Chattanooga Public Library “fourth floor,” are expanding what’s possible within library walls. Participation and collaboration reign. The Edge tagline sums it up well: “Empowering creative experimentation.” The Chattanooga Public Library “fourth floor” is a space for creation and production of new knowledge and new things. Prototyping, experimenting, and dreaming are all part of the experience in these spaces, which includes 3-D printers, high-end experimental technologies, and open, welcoming vibes.

Infinite Learning

Looking forward, I want these spaces and services to grow. I imagine libraries of the future as spaces for infinite learning. People will visit the library, both in person or virtually, and discover something new and outside-the-box to satisfy their curiosity. I would suggest libraries explore how they might serve students taking massive open online courses, and how they might offer their own large-scale, localized learning opportunities. How we help people make sense of a very confusing technological world filled with information streams will be one of our primary duties

This isn't a new idea. The Melvil Dewey quote that I used to open this essay resonates with me. “The time is when the library is a school and the librarian is in the highest sense a teacher…” He wrote that in 1876, and as librarians, we are evolving, and it is still true. Librarians should seek every opportunity to be teachers in their communities. Library users should look to the library for opportunities to experience new things, new ideas, and new technologies

How do we do this? I imagine one of many potential scenarios in which stakeholders, library staff, community technology leaders, the public, the curious, and everyone in between might come together to experience all the possible avenues to creativity and discovery available in within our virtual and physical library spaces. I would advocate for encouraging creativity in as many ways as possible, from art, performance and intellectual exchange to DIY programs, hack-a-thons, and access and instruction on making things.

To the librarians who read this: keep learning! Commit to your own professional development strategies. Try a MOOC or 23 Things. Learn always.

To the library users who read this: Why the library? you may ask. Think beyond the library as a “book warehouse.” Think instead about the engaged evolving professionals and staff inside and virtually who are eager to help you find your passion, find your voice and find your way.

#ylibrary some wonder? To promote all types of learning  -- anywhere & everywhere that those we serve happen to be & to enourage the heart.

Dr. Michael Stephens is an Assistant Professor in the School of Library and Information Science at San Jose State University.  His research focuses on use of emerging technologies in libraries and technology learning programs.  He currently writes the monthly column “Office Hours” in Library Journal exploring issues, ideas and emerging trends in library and information science education.  Stephens has spoken about emerging technologies, innovation, and libraries to national and international audiences. He is fascinated by library buildings and virtual spaces that center around users, participation, creating content, and encouraging the heart. Michael’s Tame the Web blog is here: http://tametheweb.com.


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Loving the always-in-beta librarianI think it will be a while before we change the concept of libraries being a "book warehouse" however the more libraries talk about what they do the more likely we can change perceptions.Great article, thanks Michael

Thanks Linda! I'd add: the more librarians get out into the places and spaces where the public gathers (physically and virtually) the better off we will be. Regards, M.

Hey, thanks for the blog post. Want more.