Rebranding libraries

(1651 words)

There are many aspects of modern libraries that are agreeable elements incorporating the more traditional aspects of libraries that to a greater or lesser extent are well accepted. What we need in libraries is a vision that not only encompasses these elements but extends and challenges the current paradigms that have defined libraries. Changing the name to a “learning commons” or “hub” is an attempt to do this but the change needs to come in the culture around libraries and the dialogues that happen around libraries (and often exclude libraries). Libraries are already the most trusted institution ahead of the military, the police, small businesses, and religious institutions (Pew Research Center ) so we mess with this brand at our own peril. We need to rebrand the library by redefining our relevance in the modern information landscape. Here are some ideas that can help libraries to do this.

Information Science : are we really information specialists?

Many librarians have qualifications in “Library and Information Science”. My own official qualification is a “Master of Library and Information Management” however the information management aspect of our profession is one that rarely comes into discussions. We all talk about research strategies, accessing information, analysing information, synthesising information and communicating our new understandings which is definitely fundamental to what we teach as librarians but information science is far more than that. If we truly are information specialists then we need to prove it by being active in our communities beyond lessons on Google search strategies and build our expertise in the rapidly changing global information landscape. For example, in his book “Rewire”, Ethan Zuckerman challenges the notion of globalisation and the “flat world” arguing that it is largely a myth driven by what is possible in our connected world but is not actually reflected in human actions and interactions. As information specialists, we should be on the cutting edge of developments in information science. Another example is the concept of “Participatory Culture” described by Henry Jenkins . The key feature of participatory culture is that information is not static, it is a flow of ideas where the modern learner can expect to participate in the dialogue around that knowledge, critique it, share it and collaborate to build new knowledge. Wikipedia is a powerful example in it’s contrast to print encyclopaedias. An outcome of this for librarians could be that rather than educating students about how to access and use information found on Wikipedia, we teach them how to become Wikipedia editors and participate constructively in this forum. If we do not take on this role as information specialists, who will lead this in education?

Librarians: The insider-outsider paradox

This idea came to my attention through a blog post on where the author described the insider-outsider paradox for libraries in the tertiary setting. This article resonated powerfully with my own experience. The library “outsider paradox”, as Nora Almeida wrote in her article “Librarian as Outsider”, describes the liminal space in which 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 where the Approaches to Learning sit. The library is a much more natural fit in the interdisciplinary education settings as compared to 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 environment of the library fostering a climate for discovery 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.

Approaches to Learning : the library is not just about “research” or “information literacy”

A common narrative in the school setting is this. Students hum along in their classes with the usual progression through the curriculum then a unit of study comes up when the students are required to do some research. This becomes the time that they head off to the library and maybe have a lesson on search strategies to get them going in their research. There is nothing wrong with this however pigeon holing the role of the library as the place solely for “research” is unbalanced and greatly limits the role of the library. The library must be seen as a place where all aspects of the Approaches to Learning are inspired in new ways.

For example:

  • Communication: as information specialists, librarians should enable access to new ways for students to share their learning (e.g. by editing a Wikipedia article) or helping them to understand the conventions of various online forums/formats (e.g. gaming sites).
  • Collaboration: as information specialists we can collaborate with students to find new ways to work effectively with others beyond the walls of our schools.
  • Organisation skills: as information specialists we can collaborate with students in their inquiries to enable them to organise their data collection and presentations (this ATL is not just about meeting deadlines!).
  • Affective skills: through flexible scheduling libraries can provide a valuable space and time within the busy school environment for students to self regulate and manage their many demands. The library has a vital role in providing a supportive learning environment.
  • Reflection: The library is a public space – the entire school community (parents, students, teachers and visitors) all pass through the library at one time or another. This means the library is an ideal place for student to display their learning allowing the them to reflect on their process and the summative elements while the school community as a whole has the opportunity to reflect on the learning that is happening across the continuum.
  • Information literacy skills: well … we already agree on this ATL for libraries so I am arguing that the library needs to move beyond this one dimensional conception.
  • Critical thinking: the library is a place of serendipity and discovery, where the shelves represent a collection of ideas and inspirations from all over the world. The library is therefore an ideal space to challenge thinking, find contrary arguments, challenge assumptions and discover new perspectives.
  • Creative-thinking: creativity does not happen in a vacuum of thought generation. Creativity is the process of taking what we know and imagining a new unforeseen reality. What we know can be challenged and expanded by digging into the multidisciplinary space of the library where ideas and inspirations from all corners of the planet (and beyond) can provide the trigger for new imaginings.
  • Transfer skills: what is this ATL if it is not providing a context for students and enabling students to connect their learning and skills across the IB continuum and across disciplines. As a prominent public space, the library provides an ideal setting for this transfer of skills.

These are just a few basic examples that demonstrate the need for libraries to represent far more than information literacy.

Future libraries need to be defined by some key concepts.

Many, if not most, of the traditional roles of the library in the education setting remain strong, relevant and powerful however how these roles are reflected in our spaces and practice needs to change. Future libraries need key concepts to guide the decisions we make now that will have a profound impact on the role of our libraries in the future. Student learning must be number one. I know this sounds obvious but in practice, during meetings it is often an element that gets buried under administrative needs or egos. With student learning at the centre, here are a few concepts to make a start:

Student agency: a focus on enabling a sense of ownership and autonomy that sees the students empowered to access, inhabit, collaborate and leave the library as they need to. Our physical infrastructure (eg. self checkout counters), our administration processes, our curriculum integration and our resources must be in the service of building student agency.

Responsive: our teaching and our spaces must be differentiated in response to diversity in our school community. There is little excuse in the modern environment for resource acquisition not to be responsive and nimble. Our resources should be able to respond in a timely manner to the needs of our students. No more static stacks of print or outdated databases. Our print and electronic resources should be nimble and relevant.

Flexible and adaptive: static schedules, rigid lesson structures and predefined procedures need to give way to processes and teaching that allow us to meet the needs of our students. A basic detail could be shelving on wheels, furniture that can be readily reconfigured by the students, library bookings that change from week to week, and a librarian who can always be interrupted.

These are just a start but they are fundamental if a library is to remain progressive, relevant and future proof.

Back to Rebranding Libraries

As a result, the rebranding of our libraries comes not in the trusted name of the “library” but in the evolution of traditional practices into new and dynamic approaches that then come to define what the “library” represents in a community.

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