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Student Agency: A Paradigm Shift in the Role of the Library in Learning

(1779 words)

A core belief in my approach to the role of the library in learning is that it involves empowering student and teacher agency. In many respects, libraries still retain the traditional pillars of library service, expertise and resources (see the IFLA School Library Guidelines) and continue to stand strongly behind ideals such as freedom of information and freedom of human expression. The required paradigm shift in the role of the library comes when we consider how the learning community is empowered to engage with the library. The basis for this paradigm shift embodies the very meaning of learning. That is, simply learning the content and ideas that the library hosts is not enough but learning how to access these ideas is critical. Many traditional approaches to learning in the library do aim to support this process of learning however in reality, many patrons feel that the library is a closely controlled and a fiercely protected space that is

VIS librairy
Putting the technology in the hands of the students to search the library catalogue enables them to control what they access in the library. The catalogue app displays book covers making choice intuitive.

dominated by librarian-mediated access. Often, as a revered space, there can be a heavy sense that the administration of an ordered library is the most important feature of the library experience. These traditional features of the library remain important but we need to ask which of these features dominate the culture within the library itself and the culture surrounding the library. I wrote a post a while ago about the perfect library and posed the idea that it is about focus and getting the balance right to ensure the library is achieving the key outcomes it is striving for. Student agency is one of those critical outcomes that must define how we go about running our libraries.

Student agency refers to a sense of ownership, independence and self determination that leads a student to feel empowered to take action. In the learning context this looks like a student who feels supported and secure enough to take risks, to ask questions, to fail, to apply critical analysis and take action based on their understandings and beliefs. Choice is crucial to a sense of agency. In contrast, narrow, authoritarian and predefining contexts curtail this sense of independence and limit student influence over the process of learning. Building a sense of agency in our students is integral to developing an inquiry learning context based on questioning, critical analysis, meta-cognition, reasoning, problem solving and creativity.
Coming back to the role of the library in learning, student agency clearly becomes a necessary focus that defines how we run a library. Where job descriptions for librarians can look more like a manifesto of the modern cosmopolitan superhuman the key to unlocking these documents is to discern which of this list of positive attributes, skills and tasks will have the most profound impact on student agency and therefore learning.

Each element of the role of the library is important and should define the role of the librarian however not in equal proportions.

Trying to achieve all of these guidelines and expectations in equal measure is neither realistic nor desirable. An example may help to illustrate what I mean. These may be controversial for some readers so if you feel I am being unbalanced here, please respond and enter the discussion.

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