Friday, January 20, 2012

School Libraries: Applying Innovative Ideas to a Threatened Species

While there are few who would argue that school libraries in Canada are in "good" health, there are even fewer who seem committed to supporting their desperately needed evolution. Those "few" are people who have the power to influence how school libraries are staffed and designed. One of the most powerful hang-ups that most people (parents and teachers, alike) have about school libraries is that they exist to support student reading. Walk into a local school library and you will see a collection of print materials that supports recreational reading for youth. You will see very few non fiction sources including encyclopedias and other reference tools. These are "online" and there seems a pervasive assumption that children can get their research material from the "Web". So, while reading is critically important to student acheivement, this CANNOT BE the ONLY thing school libraries should be focusing on.

It is time for drastic change.

And when I say, drastic...I am not kidding.

Ironically, as school libraries struggle to exist and be staffed, the Web becomes an increasingly tangled mess. For example, Google has recently come under attack because its results focus on paid or "optimized" placement and granular results that provide little meaningful context. The ability to peruse actual information sources has been greatly compromised to serve more lucrative, commercial ventures. Since most grown-ups struggle with finding context specific and ACCURATE information, it is a mystery how children are expected to do what many adults cannot.

This brings me to my suggestion.

I suggest that school libraries need to reinvent themselves as something much more sophisticated than what they currently are. They should not be a simple wharehouse of neatly (if you are lucky) catalogued materials to serve children. They should be "idea centres" where students, staff and faculty can put their ideas together for the purpose of innovation. This is NOT about repackaging a library and renaming it a "Learning Commons". This is about changing the PURPOSE of the library. What it is called is not important. It is what it DOES that is important.

The term "technology" is central to many discussions around the future of libraries and education. However, although learning to use technological tools may have value, the real value is in critical thinking. Critical thinking requires an environment that is conducive to creative thought and what could be more appropriate than a library in providing that environment? It could be an environment where librarians, teacher-librarians, library technicians, students and other staff are able to congrgate, discuss, and share.

A huge area of concern for most people is personal information management - managing the deluge of the information that shapes their decisions and activities. Students and teachers both need help with this. This goes far beyond the need for library to have neat shelves and catalogued books. Although private enterprise has moved into this area, this does not resolve the problem for the majority of people. Indeed, its absence in schools deprives our children the opportunity to become informed citizens. Creating productive, creative and informed adults should be central to the ambitions of our schools. However, by abandoning the school library - watching it waste away as its supply of resources is choked off by school districts - we ignore the future and what our children will need to be successful in it.

Since Canada will rely increasingly on its knowledge base to compete in the global marketplace, it seems bizzarre that school districts would forsake their libraries rather than invest in them. This investment, to clarify, goes well beyond funding collection development and a lonely teacher-librarian or library techncian. This investment should be in INNOVATION by creating spaces where all members of a school can congregate, research, share, problem solve and create. To believe that all of this can be achieved in a single, segregated classroom is misguided. To believe that this can happen without an "idea centre" is misguided. To believe that collaboration and equity among ALL school staff and teachers is critical to student acheivement is on the path to creating new centres of learning for our children. For our future.

I have had the pleasure of working with dozens of folks in school systems, and have learned a great deal about their constraints. Some of it resides in a lack of respect for non-teaching staff and an inability to think outside the proverbial "box". If no action is taken, school libraries and their potential for shaping the future educational outcomes of students will be eliminated. Entirely. If no effort is made then, perhaps, we deserve it.

What we have done in school libraries is simply not good enough and the proof lies in their pallid state. It is the responsibility of our ENTIRE COMMUNITY to fix this. It can start with you.

To solve the school library problem, we need people to think brilliantly and act courageously.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Libraries as a Cradle of Innovation

Having recently finished a book by Frans Johansson called The Medici Effect (2004), January seems like a good time to talk about the germination of ideas. Fresh year, fresh ideas.

Johansson's central thesis is that innovation springs from the intersection of ideas that he calls the Medici Effect. Using a broad range of examples, he illustrates that the most profound innovations have been the result of different fields of study and practice coming together to create an explosive transformation in thinking and problem solving. Through a fairly broad exploration of this idea, the author suggests that people must let go of their assumptions, surround themselves with diversity, and self-educate. In fact, these behaviours are considered important prerequisites for successful innovation.

For months now, I have been mulling over the role of libraries as places where "ideas intersect". It nicely aligns with Johansson's idea of intersectional innovations that are born from interdisiplinary exploration. The unexpected is much more likely to emerge when people of diverse backgrounds collaborate. According to Johansson, the convergence of science, the leap of computational power and the global movement of people are forces that stimulate the creation of unexpected ideas. Indeed, this might help explain the rapid and accelerating state of "innovation" we have seen in recent decades.

If we take a step back from our jobs as library professionals and think about the role of libraries - whether they are public, corporate or academic - we can see that central to their purpose in modern culture is providing a place for ideas to converge. If we look at libraries from this perspective, it becomes much easier for library professionals to adapt to changes in the field of publishing. For example, the rapid adoption of ebooks does not negate the function of the library. It may stimulate change, but it does not lesson the role of the library.

While schools provide formalized educational opportunities, they are not the hub of all innovation. As Johansson points out, most successful innovators share a noteworthy attribute - they are self-taught. Libraries, whether virtually or physically, provide a place for people to come together and share ideas. If innovation is a valued component of our global culture and we look to it to help us solve the myriad of problems that face us, the role of libraries has never been more important. However, it will take some library innovators to push the boundaries of what defines libraries in order to lead the way.

The new Surrey City Centre library in British Columbia provides a relevant example of how libraries can bring people together with the "Human Library" project. People with very specific backgrounds and expertise will lend themselves to others, within the walls of the library. This may be seen as the first step in an exciting movement towards the further development of libraries as the hub of intersecting ideas.

Echoing in my head is the voice of Daniel Quinn's telepathic gorilla , Ishmael, telling his human pupil:

"Your task is not to reach back but to reach forward...but you must be inventive - if it's worthwhile to you. If you care to survive...You're an inventive people, aren't you? You pride yourselves on that, don't you?"


"Then Invent." **

* Johansson, F. (2004). The Medici Effect: breaking through insights at the intersection of ideas, concepts, and cultures. Boston: Harvard Business School.

**Quinn, D. (1992). Ishmael: an adventure of the mind and spirit. New York: Bantam, p. 250