Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.


Connected Libraries

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about that vague and sometimes frightening phrase, “the future of libraries.” Of course, that means thinking about e-books and the implications of the digitization of information, but more specifically and immediately how that will impact my role and what to do about it right now. It all keeps coming back to why we read books in the first place: connection. It’s about finding commonality with others, sharing who we are and learning from each other. Regardless of what shape the information takes, the library is the public place where connection, sharing, and learning happens.

When groups of kids come to learn about the library, I tell them that, in a nutshell, the library is about sharing; that’s the one-word definition to explain what a library is and how it works. A community pools its money for greater purchasing power and together owns a shared collection of resources. That’s why we take turns using the books and other resources—this is my book and I get to use it, but it’s also his and hers and theirs, so I have to share and let them have their turns too.

But “share” has another meaning besides taking turns. It’s what authors do when they put their thoughts on paper and give them to others. Traditionally, this sharing has been thought of as going in a single direction, from the authors of the collection to the library patrons. Authors produce, readers consume. With the digitization of information has come a similar term, though, the democratization of information. Computers and the Internet have made it easier than ever before for everyone to become producers, to create and share their own information products. This blog post, for instance.

And libraries are not just community collections, they’re also public places and spaces. The buildings, meeting rooms, study rooms, bulletin boards, display areas, and—more and more all the time—web sites and online spaces. Library spaces don’t just have to be warehouses where collections are shared, they can also be forums where community members can produce and share their own creations. I can write a blog post on the web, but it will most likely remain anonymously buried and unseen among the millions of other posts if I don’t have a way to connect it to others. In this new digital world, the library can serve as the location to create those connections where we can find and interact with each other. That will only happen, though, if we stop thinking of the library as merely the place to consume and start thinking of it also as a place to produce.

I say all of this as part of my refection on a webinar I recently attended from the Urban Libraries Council called Connected Learning. I can’t share it properly since, unfortunately, there’s no free archive online, but I’ll summarize my notes. Connected Learning is an initiative started in Chicago by the MacArthur Foundation, and here’s something similar to the webinar on their website. And here’s their brand new website for Connected Learning. I’m going to have to spend some time exploring there to see what other ideas it inspires. But first, my notes.

They started by looking at how young people learn online/with digital media on their own. They identified three spheres of activity: peer, interest, and academic, and the best learning takes place at the intersection of the three. The friendship interactions are primarily consumption based, and 80% of youth participate in this sphere online. The interest sphere is primarily where production takes place, with 20% of youth participating. Think of this production as creative hobbies like fanfiction, where participation is interest driven, competency based, and encouraged by peers. In its ultimate form, it’s “geeking out” about something. This passionate geeking out is what connected learning wants to accomplish, because most learning happens during production, not consumption. (As I’ve always said about school: students learn a lot more when they’re being active doers, not passive receptors.)

They see great potential for youth to learn by doing through the web, doing things they can access at home, school, libraries, museums, and throughout their communities so that their learning, peers, and interests are all connected wherever they go. Programs and activities should be guided by three design principles: shared purpose, production-centered, and openly networked. Shared purpose: projects with collective goals; collaborations and competitions; cross-generational. Production-centered: digital production tools; remixing and curating; circulation and visibility. Openly networked: cross-institutional and cross-setting; multiple entry points; open assessments, badges, and certifications. That’s very jargony, but they explain it all very well at the website. Both mentors and badges are excellent sources in this process for offering both guidance and feedback.

What does that mean? Basically, that people are motivated to learn and improve when a subject interests them and that it’s more fun to do it with friends. Usually those aren’t traditional school subjects and we don’t think of them as academic things, but they can be. Fanfiction improves writing skills, music lyrics are stronger with poets as inspiration, robots that smash things require mechanical and engineering knowledge, etc. The presenter said educators understand the idea of “play” as important to learning in preschoolers, but we don’t “do play” well for juveniles and teens. Play—pursuing something of interest with friends—is learning, and it develops practical skills when it leads to some kind of creative product. Libraries can support this effort by not just being a place to research and learn about areas of interest, but by also being a place they can connect to others over their shared interests and can share their finished products.

What does that mean in practical terms? That’s what we have to figure out. Two very simple examples would be traditional book discussion groups and writing book reviews and reactions in blogs, sites like Goodreads, and library catalogs. More recent discussions have focused on the idea of “maker spaces,” where libraries provide the tools for all kinds of creation. (Note to self: go back and read that article, because it looks to have some good ideas.)

One of the ideas that caught my attention in the webinar was that of badges. I was recently part of a group that heard a presentation from a company on their new software for an online summer reading program that we might purchase and use. One of their key ingredients was letting kids collect badges to display on their profiles to indicate how many books they’ve read, reviewed, etc. The idea also came up during a different webinar I’ve previously written about, one by a futurist titled Libraries and the Era of the Learner: A Vision for the Future. I actually wrote a kind of rebuttal to that one instead of proper notes, but the more I reflect and learn the more I think there is a nuanced way to combine both my ideas and the presenter’s instead of seeing them as opposed the way I did. The link might just be the idea of play.

I wrote about how people are intrinsically motivated to share what they learn and I wondered how we can encourage that in the library, the creation and sharing. The webinar presenter talked about using “gaming mechanics design principles” to make the experience of using libraries more fun for people. Give them quests and challenges to complete and find ways to make them shared activities. Part of that is giving them badges as visual representations of skills and achievements (and also as guidance on a path for what to pursue next to advance). He dreamed of a day that library badges would be so respected as marks of self-pursued learning tracks that they’d be accepted on resumes and job applications alongside education degrees.
I have to admit I have a gut level resistance to the idea of badges because they seem inherently showy, when my Mennonite background has ingrained in me individual humility. And I’m suspicious of the idea of gamification since I generally don’t find externally imposed game challenges and puzzles very motivating. But I’m studying up on these ideas to see how I might incorporate them into my existing schemes. I deeply believe in the motivation provided by autonomy, mastery, and purpose, as delineated by Daniel Pink in his book Drive and other sources, so if games can still feel autonomous and purposeful and if badges can indicate mastery, then I think I can get on board with it.

On a much simpler level, I really like Candy Chang’s idea in her short TED Talk. From the transcript:

. . . So with help from old and new friends, I turned the side of this abandoned house into a giant chalkboard and stenciled it with a fill-in-the-blank sentence: "Before I die, I want to ... " So anyone walking by can pick up a piece of chalk, reflect on their lives, and share their personal aspirations in public space.

I didn't know what to expect from this experiment, but by the next day, the wall was entirely filled out, and it kept growing. And I'd like to share a few things that people wrote on this wall.

"Before I die, I want to be tried for piracy." (Laughter) "Before I die, I want to straddle the International Date Line." "Before I die, I want to sing for millions." "Before I die, I want to plant a tree." "Before I die, I want to live off the grid." "Before I die, I want to hold her one more time." "Before I die, I want to be someone's cavalry." "Before I die, I want to be completely myself."

So this neglected space became a constructive one, and people's hopes and dreams made me laugh out loud, tear up, and they consoled me during my own tough times. It's about knowing you're not alone. It's about understanding our neighbors in new and enlightening ways. It's about making space for reflection and contemplation, and remembering what really matters most to us as we grow and change. . . .

I think it would be quite easy to create something like this in our existing spaces (in fact, we already are trying to do some things like this). Giving people opportunities to interact, share, and connect even in simple little ways like this, an approved public forum, can make the library more playful, fun, and relevant. Can make it more meaningful. Chalkboards and whiteboards in the library; quick little surveys, quizzes, and polls on the website. Maker spaces. People want to share.


One final thought on the idea of sharing. Libraries collections consist of information, but also of stories. Stories have great power to help us define and gain insight into ourselves, others, and the world around us. The best storytellers are so moving and powerful because they are willing to make themselves and their characters vulnerable. That’s where we find connection, in our exposed vulnerabilities. So if we want to encourage sharing, we have to set the example with our willingness to risk being vulnerable ourselves. For more on that, a previous post about another Ted Talk: Thoughts from a Researcher-Storyteller.


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