Learning Environments

Replace "Library" With "Portal of Idea Flow"?

April 2, 2015         Updated April 1, 2015

Many educators are asking, “what is the library of the future?”  Beth Holland has fostered a great Edutopia discussion on “Library as Learning Commons”, but I wonder if we are pushing our thinking far enough. I am afraid that we may well be asking the wrong questions. We think about the future of the library because we have libraries on most school campuses; they have been a central, if not iconic part of the school landscape for centuries.  In fact at many public and secular schools, the library, along with the gymnasium, are often the two largest buildings on campus where people congregate in both structured and informal ways. Libraries, even those overseen by hushing adult monitors, have always had both an academic and a social component. Is our thinking constrained by the physical and mental images we all have of what a library has been in the past?

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Do we need to re-tool the space in our libraries? Fill them with idea walls, 3D printers, flexible furniture, ubiquitous technology, and makerspace materials? Should we get rid of the thousands of books that no one has touched in years or decades?  Good questions. But why do we see libraries as suddenly a place for innovation, design, and making stuff?  I think it is for two reasons.  First, they are big underutilized spaces. Second, we confuse the process of innovation with the causality of connectivity.  As I have quoted previously, Steve Jobs said that the root of “creativity is simply people making connections”, but one will not derive the other unless we make it so.  Alex Pentland in his powerful book Social Physics demonstrates that an overwhelming key to both individual and group creative performance is the flow of ideas. 

Libraries, despite the Latin root, have not been a place to store and access books. The idea of a library is much grander than that. At their heart, libraries have, for centuries, been the conduit through which ideas have flowed between the relatively fixed and static population and place of a school or a community and the rest of the world. For centuries books were the medium through which those ideas flowed.  Sometime in the last few hundred years libraries added periodicals. In the later part of the last century we added digital media and computer terminals, which began to supersede paper as the media and mechanics of idea flow. Libraries have been a major and critical terminus of connectivity for humankind for hundreds of years.

What if we tossed out the entire current concept of a library and replaced that space on our campus or in our community with a “portal of idea flow”?  What might that look like? 

  • It would contain books, other printed materials, and digital media to the extent that they are still used as conduits for the transfer of ideas.
  • It would have many accessible high-speed points of connection to the Internet, with plenty of capacity to grow in both bandwidth and speed.
  • It would be accessible and inviting to people across communities from the school and, most importantly, from outside the school.
  • It would have physical spaces that encourage the creation and sharing of both new ideas and existing knowledge amongst various groupings of people.
  • It would make a particular point of encouraging the gathering of people who spend a lot of time being creative: inventors, artists, start-up entrepreneurs, makers, storytellers, incubators, philanthropists, architects, product designers, and the like.

And what might it NOT look like? Do we still need huge quiet places for students to gather and study? Or might that function be replicated better elsewhere?

How stoked would you be to have THAT building/portal in the center of your campus? How energizing would it be for your teachers and students?  What new learning opportunities might arise? How might that help blur the artificial and confining lines between “school” and “the world”?  How might it radically amplify the kind of deeper learning that many of us seek for our school communities?

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we've preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer's own.