The Changing Library

One of the things which has always frustrated me about libraries has been their formality. This is most easily identified in the typical image of the librarian. A mousy woman in a cardigan with a sour expression “shushing” library patrons. Forget that this woman easily surfed the complexities of huge reference collections and was conversant in a multitude of technologies and classification schemes making her the supreme ruler of the information fiefdom, this image comes from an era where librarians (predominately a female profession) paid tribute to pedagogical enquiry (conducted largely by men) and a specific theory of learning. We privileged books and reading as the most effective way to share knowledge and create an environment for the critical discussion of ideas. In an era when a single medium monopolized the storage and distribution of information this made sense.

In the analog world learning by “rote” was considered the best way to transfer knowledge into young and impression minds. It was still a thing when I started school (that and “penmanship”!). In the late twentieth century this had created a culture in most North American schools which could be described as “Test Based Learning”. This was a refinement of learning by rote where a curriculum from an standards imposing organization (government) allegedly created standardized education and results (outcomes) were proven through testing. So generations of students became adept at passing tests.

The problem with “learning by rote” or “learning by test” is that it doesn’t actually guarantee that the student understands the material studied. Knowing the Quadratic Equation does not necessarily mean that you will be able to apply the knowledge to a “real life situation”.

In the digital age (Welcome to the WORLD OF TOMORROW!!) information technologies and the Internet allows almost everyone who is literate to access information whenever they want. What is the point of memorization in a world where information is instantly available? If we no longer need to assiduously study a text or texts to learn their contents by heart how will learning evolve and what role will libraries play in that evolution? The concept of local information storage in any form has largely been overtaken by the Internet and the ubiquitous “Cloud”.

Information technologies open up opportunities for learning which can be much more closely linked to personal experience. Through computer driven simulations it is possible to expose people to a variety of different situations and environments. At the same time the loss of human input in the pedagogical process might mean that some of the impact of knowledge acquisition is lost. But we might also gain from greater realization that knowledge is not of itself “objective” but is reliant on human context.

We might also start to realize that “learning” is not a competition but a pursuit which has its own reward of greater comprehension and “grasp”. Thus, it is a lifelong process of inquiry and experimentation.

This is the human condition, to be always learning. To be deriving new laws and theorems from observations and experience. And this is where libraries can be a valuable tool for the public by providing access to accurate and authoritative information, and providing a forum where individuals can meet to discuss what they think they might know.

Looking at public libraries today the importance of the space has changed. Where previously libraries were warehouses of books, now increasingly they are social centres. Locations where individuals and groups meet to discuss and learn. While we can learn from books or from computers the information which comes to us from face to face interaction is that which has the most impact and which is likely to most influence our thoughts and decisions.

Knowledge is contextual and increasingly that means it needs to be discussed and shared with others to establish its value. As much as knowledge is about defining a truth knowledge is also social and if we don’t acknowledge that as professionals and in our institutions then we are not fulfilling our potential.

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