From Scarcity to Abundance: Libraries, Learning Spaces, and Collections

Last week I had the good fortune to attend a workshop on creating learning spaces at the Fielding Graduate University Winter Session. The workshop created a learning space in its own right in a large hotel ballroom. We participated in exercises to expose us to the different experiences two Fielding graduates had as they taught online courses for the first time. We heard about the model a student had built to show the difference between collaborative and networked online learning experiences.

Finally, the space was transformed into a maker space as we broke into groups to respond to a design challenge–to create a prototype exhibit for a museum. This was a real life problem and as part of the exercise we presented our prototypes to a member of the museum staff who provided feedback. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to use her feedback to refine our designs, but we had a chance to experience a design process that emphasizes rapid prototyping and gathering feedback early.

Besides being fun, it was great to get outside of ourselves and work on a problem that was new and fresh. Later in the day, we got bogged down when we started to think about what Fielding’s learning spaces should be. We were too close to the problem and had too much invested in solving particular problems.

On the same day, Barbara Fister posted Schrödinger’s Library on her Library Babel Fish blog. Barbara thoughtfully analyzed the trend in libraries toward repurposing library space from “storage” for collection to “a digital scholarship center or study spaces that students clamor for or a new classroom where students can use archival or rare materials”. She also cited the Ithaka research that shows a gap between faculty and library directors’ views about the purpose of the library. I have seen this dichotomy in focus groups with faculty and librarians at client sites.

It has occurred to me that what may seem like nostalgia on the part of faculty for their graduate school days when they could browse the stacks and come upon material serendipitously may represent a kind of learning that is important and that should be accommodated, particularly in certain disciplines. I am also concerned that if librarians focus on the learning process–regardless of how sophisticated the view of that process may be–they will lose opportunities to collaborate with faculty on learning outcomes that may involve deep engagement with content. If faculty and librarians are embattled over who is responsible for information literacy, the students stand to lose.

When a domain such as higher education is undergoing change and is under threat, one of the results can be turf wars. Is it possible that the polarization between librarians and faculty over the issues of the purpose of the library and responsibility for student information literacy comes from a scarcity mentality that results from being under threat? What if librarians changed the conversation from either/or to both/and? What if learning space design specifically addressed concerns faculty have expressed about the need to engage collections in certain disciplinary areas (art and music come to mind immediately)? What if learning space design engaged the question of how to incorporate the kind of learning that results from serendipitous discovery into the use of digital collections?

In last week’s learning spaces workshop, the design assignment we received was abstract but included some important underlying principles such as the goal to have visitors leave the exhibit area feeling hopeful. While my ideas about learning spaces in libraries are also somewhat abstract, they also include some basic principles:

  • shift the conversation from one of scarcity (dividing up responsibility for information literacy, housing collections or creating learning spaces) to one of abundance
  • think about ways to expand the use of print collections in learning spaces beyond engagement with “special” collections
  • model serendipitous discovery in the digital environment
  • use rapid prototyping to design new learning spaces and programs that can be refined and adjusted based on feedback from stakeholders, including librarians, faculty, and students

Perhaps some of these principles are already in use in some places. If so, I would love to hear about these efforts.

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