Just as a room full of books is not a library, a room full of books, comfy chairs and technology is not a learning commons.
I’ve been thinking about what it takes to make a learning commons. What is that special something that takes a room with comfortable furniture and useful resources and transforms it into a quality learning environment? A space that supports the community in a multitude of ways?
I recently attended the VTLA Winter Tonic, a gathering of teacher-librarians in Vancouver. Whenever I am around teacher-librarians, I am energized by their enthusiasm for learning and sharing their practices and knowledge. Their intellectual discourse into the role of the teacher-librarian and collective inquiry into the transformation of educational practices through the third space of the school library is inspiring. I witnessed rich conversations that reflect a professional community with strong pedagogical principles. I listened to people who work in an education context where they have a hybrid role for enhanced service and support of all learners.
And like all libraries, school libraries are transforming to stay relevant in this global information economy and support the growing and changing needs of the learners. In addition to traditional roles of information literacy and providing the best resources to support curriculum, teacher-librarians support digital literacy and innovative learning practices – inquiry-based, project-based – for students and teachers. They actively connect learning to technology and resources, and facilitate knowledge creation for the school community. They are on a continuing quest to find new ways of supporting students in their learning. The role is multi-faceted, challenging, ever-evolving, and ultimately highly rewarding because the impact can be so significant.
As librarians, we have learned a lot about the effect of the physical environment in supporting community. Many school libraries are transforming to a learning commons model. (See the video, Learning Commons in BC.) And as they seek to improve the facilities by bringing in the comfy chairs, collaborative work spaces, quiet study spaces, and providing zones for different types of activities, the role of teacher-librarians is changing. They are becoming facilitators of what happens in that new space.
This brings us back to the whole issue of the shifting role of the librarian. I called up Simon Neame, director of the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre at UBC, to ask how these role issues have played out in the post-secondary libraries. After all, the learning commons movement developed originally and rapidly in the academic library realm when electronic collections became the mainstay.
There is a fair amount of coverage in professional literature about the shifting role of academic librarians. Simon told me that the idea of bringing in professionals from other backgrounds has been a big issue for academic librarians. Education technology specialists, writing specialists, student services, peer coaches and tutors, teachers of life skills and those who provide other areas of support and expertise all add to the synergy of experiences in a learning commons.
So the librarian is coordinating a diverse group of people, bringing in other experts and professionals to create that “cluster of services” in a space that is open to sharing all those different cultures. Simon emphasized that this is not about “getting rid of librarians,” but rather about transforming and expanding the service. Creating new spaces that may or may not include the physical collection allows for an invigorated learning space that can give learners a sense of ownership and engagement.
The reality is that a learning commons is not purely a library; the library is just one component. A learning commons is not built around physical collections. Nor is it a typical library environment. A learning commons is a whole new type of library.
And that brings us back to the students. The magic happens when the facilitated space brings in kids who wouldn’t otherwise see themselves in, or feel comfortable in, a traditional library. A learning commons is more inclusive and relevant. A learning commons does not reduce the impact of a library; in fact, it expands it, and takes it to new places and new people.
And that reflects the world the kids are living in. I am continually inspired by a 1913 quote by Bengali poet (the first non-European to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature), Rabindranath Tagore, when he said: “Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time.” True then, true now, and true for every generation to come.
How does all of this translate into the school library setting, with its smaller space and staff complement? How do we leverage the strengths and gifts of the school community in supporting the whole student?
It takes a growth mindset and careful planning to make it work – being open to creating welcoming spaces and facilitating new ways of learning. It takes true engagement with the teachers, students and wider school community to make the connections, relationships and innovations that can make a difference for learners. It’s really about the program and services – and the remodeled space supports that.
The whole idea remains the same – to encourage people to read, enjoy, explore, and engage with learning.
There’s more to this than funky furniture decisions, technology infusion and collaborative learning spaces. Anyone who doesn’t see the need for professional facilitation of the space needs to be reminded about what is going on in that space. Anybody can create a study hall or maintain a room of books, but a teacher-librarian with an open mindset, a solid grasp of the curriculum, expertise in digital literacy and facilitation, and collaboration skills to support knowledge creation is needed to perform the wizardry that truly creates a learning commons.