The subversion of serendipity, discovery and learning in the library

(1560 Words)

When it comes down to it, while I entirely support & endorse the careful planning of the curriculum & all the work we do to ensure our students learn & understand what is important in today’s world, the most powerful learning  are  often unpredicted moments of discovery. The moments of serendipity that come about within rich, stimulating, safe & nurturing environments within but often outside school. For example, in all our attempts to craft the ultimate guide to mastery in literacy, it is most likely the discovery of an author that is able to unlock the power of narrative for a student. Similarly, while we seek to scaffold the ultimate research environment, it is most likely to be a quiet moment of discovery that a child experiences in reading their favourite shark book that brings an enlightenment that triggers a life long pursuit.
I can’t remember when it was but I think I was in grade 1 or 2 when a police brass band came to visit our small country school in Australia. They performed a few fun tunes then each instrument was introduced in turn, they played some more tunes, then left. Nothing too spectacular however for one young wide eyed student, me, when the saxophonist stood up to play a few notes, I was enraptured. He could have been the worst saxophonist in the world for all I knew but for this young student, from that moment on I desperately wanted to hold that cool looking contraption & make that magical sound. That event taught me nothing about playing the saxophone, no theory & no technique but when I heard that saxophone, I loved it. The school, at that moment, taught me nothing but it provided the context, the setting, the access, the inspiration that was the beginning of a lifelong pursuit that continues to be an inspiration & source of great fun for me now.

Discovery in the library

The place of the library is to provide a stage for a wide range of human expression, both popular & dissenting, challenging & comforting, confronting & reassuring, unpleasant & attractive, to provide the most rich environment possible where those moments of serendipity, of personal and collaborative discovery can emerge.

I grew up on a sheep & wheat farm in Australia where I learnt many life lessons that I still connect with now. The process of growing wheat required that we isolate pure varieties & nurture crops to produce the most homogeneous, high quality product we could achieve. Right next to our carefully controlled & managed paddocks of wheat were wild areas of native scrub land where wildlife & plant life was abundant, diverse, mystical & thriving. The library should be more like the wild scrub land than the tightly controlled wheat paddocks. Instead of sowing a crop of wheat & carefully tending it to yield our crop of wheat, the library should instead create a nature reserve where wild flowers & all variety of wildlife can flourish. The place of the library is to give every opportunity for those moments of inspiration & learning to emerge for all our students. These moments can be quiet solitary discoveries or in noisy collaborative bursts of activity.

The Subversive Nature of the Library

The library “outsider paradox”, as Nora Almeida wrote in her article “Librarian as Outsider”, describes the liminal space that the library sits that is simultaneously outside & within the curriculum. Outside because areas such as information literacy & library resources are not bound to one subject area. This is an interdisciplinary position that spans the curriculum and positions the library as a larger “metaliteracy” discipline. In interdisciplinary education settings the library is a much more natural fit than in settings where disciplines largely work independently of each other. Similarly, as Nora Almeida points out, when the “banking concept of education” defines pedagogical practice the subversive discovery environment of the library is rendered irrelevant especially if textbooks are a part of this learning environment. Further, librarians also often work across the whole school (or large sections of the school) making deep involvement in every aspect of the curriculum for every programme, or grade level, or classroom or for every student, unfeasible. Yet, the paradox remains that when the library is used effectively & teachers are adept at providing access to the library, the library very naturally merges into the life of the class & retains a central role in learning. Hence the paradox, at one moment sitting outside the curriculum but simultaneously also potentially deeply embedded within it (please refer to Nora Almeida’s eloquent article to explore this idea in far more depth). In the spirit of this paradox, the library tries at once to support the curriculum but to also subvert our planned outcomes to provide the opportunity for the emergent curriculum – the moment of discovery (“The Unscripted Classroom” , “Emergent Curriculum in the Primary ClassroomInterpreting the Reggio Emilia Approach in Schools”).

The Practice : how do we set the stage for discovery in the library?

Let’s consider how we can take advantage of this fertile environment, this nature reserve of diversity in the library. Certainly the traditional model of silent students in study cubicles amongst stacks of books is too narrow for the modern school library. The quiet contemplative library remains important, however, it is too limiting in the school context. Rigid library rules & tight control is only effective for a small range of compliant students & teachers. Such an environment is discriminatory & certainly not differentiated. To create this wild nature reserve of inspiration, school libraries need to be far more adaptive & responsive.
To come back to the wheat crop versus the nature reserve analogy, we must build & evolve a fertile library environment that is not based on one approach or conception of the library but is as diverse as possible without losing the core focus of what the library is about. This is not an easy task. Taking the analogy further, on the farm where I grew up, we used a range of different fertilisers that did improved the health of our crops & lift yields but by far the most powerful factors that improved the general health of our crops were more broad & environmentally sensitive methods of crop rotation & careful methods of soil management. Similarly, in the library, rather than relying on one single approach to literacy for example, we should aim to provide a broad range of methods to nurture a fertile environment for discovery. At the core of this is a diverse & high quality range of literature because it is hard to argue for the power of books when we are not providing access for our students to real authors, real stories, real artists and creators, or real and relevant information.

In the digital connected world, how this looks & works has dramatically changed however what has not changed is the power of story (both nonfiction and fiction), the power of human creativity as authors, artists and publishers apply their craft. This has not changed & this is why the book in print is certainly not dead despite ominous ill-informed predictions. In fact, book sales continue to rise, international book fairs in London & in the U.S. continue to grow. Digital has certainly changed the playing field but that is all that has happened, change, not loss or a supplanting of print.
These are some of the key features of the library that we feel help to create this fertile context for discovery:

Quality, diverse and relevant resources (both electronic and physical). There is very little point in creating a welcoming environment if a student’s visit to the shelves is not a rewarding experience.

Flexible Schedules & an Open Door Policy. Rather than rigid booking systems, students are able to visit the library any time without a booking. This is a basic & seemingly simple element is not a given in many libraries & requires careful behind the scenes library management for it to run smoothly.

A design mindset to create spaces & select furniture that offers a unique experience, different to that of the classroom. This can be as simple as providing age appropriate shelving & front facing books.

Deep curriculum integration by making literature & library resources a natural part of the class life rather than the library entailing a separate “library lesson”. In fact, with a flexible schedule and open door policy, the whole day is one big library lesson with a constant stream of students & teachers coming & going in ebbs & flows (sometimes waves).

Fostering student agency. This is a stance that infuses all aspects of library management. For example, through student control of the library spaces & using mobile devices to place the library in the hands of students (Destiny Quest). A self-checkout counter also helps to reduce the sense that access to the library resources must be mediated by an adult but rests in the hands of the student.

Fostering student ownership of the spaces & the collection itself by allowing students to direct library acquisitions. This requires letting go of a level of control & often leads to outcomes that are not my preference. Yet, what I like personally is irrelevant. Students are also encouraged to reconfigure spaces to suit their needs (yes, it gets messy).

Creating a safe environment. A core role as an adult professional is to curate this space carefully to maximise agency, foster inclusion & maintain safety for all students.
These & other approaches to library management are all in the service of discovery that recognises the fundamental power of student led inquiry in learning.

3 thoughts on “The subversion of serendipity, discovery and learning in the library”

  1. Hi Phillip,

    I am the librarian at Cayman International School and am interested in the way you manage the flex scheduling at your school. I am new to the library this year (currently working on my MLIS) and our school is new to flex scheduling. It’s been a bit bumpy and I am looking for ideas to help smooth it out. I would love to email with you some.


    1. Hi Joanie
      We use Google Calendar so teachers can book times in the library although a booking is not necessary. Each primary class has a regular time to come to the library for students to check books in/out however this time is led by the teacher. Students can also come to the library at anytime during the day. This is often negotiated with the teacher however this is not necessary. This function is based on the understanding that students who enter the library are mindful of other students who are already in the space. If there is a clash in the scheduling (which is rare) classes with a booking take priority. I hope this helps.


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