George Lucas Educational Foundation

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

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

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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?

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 post was created by a member of Edutopia's community. If you have your own #eduawesome tips, strategies, and ideas for improving education, share them with us.

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CFoote's picture

I love this depiction. Libraries ARE at their core idea spaces, and you are right that this connection between ideas and people is what they've always really been about. It's heartening to see many schools and educators centering their schools around library as learning space, connecting space, and idea hub. And you get it--it has ALWAYS been about these connections between people and ideas. It's not that people cannot interact with ideas in a quiet library--it's that shifting this perception is critical to an understanding of what these modern hubs are all about.

The misconception of libraries as quiet storage facilities is possibly one that plagues museums as well. When you work in either, you know the reality is that you are in a place where people are not just "looking", but loudly or silently, engaging with media--be it books, sculptures, or oil paintings. It is that engagement that is what these spaces are really all about.

Librarians can help curate these interactions as much as they curate collections -- creating pathways to help connect people with ideas, creating spaces that are interactive and connective, and building community around their users and ideas.

All of these experiences are built with intention--from the design, to the culture of the school, to the policies that enable and encourage "connections" in every sense of the word.

Where I struggle most with this is that too often, articles reference the "quiet dusty library." But I wonder how many librarians are representative of that sort of environment anyway. We have to be careful not to further stereotypes in our languaging. For example, the library in our school has been loud, busy, noisy, media filled for more than 25 years. It seems that many libraries have changed, but the stereotypes haven't. To really make these conversations happen in a meaningful way, letting go of the stereotype is important because it obstructs and obscures the conversation and perpetuates this by-the-wayside image of libraries as warehouses, which is proved untrue by the myriad of busy, Makerspace-filled, technology savvy, Skyping, student-creativity centered libraries. How do we tell those stories better? Both as models and guides, but also to show we aren't novelties, but the "norm" for what a 21st century library looks like?

All that being said, I love the questions here because they are what many of our spaces are centered around. I appreciate your languaging in shifting the story from the space to the "idea flow" it provides.

Great food for thought.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

Great vision, Grant! I'm happy to say that our middle school library has long been a busy, creative space where furniture arrangements encourage students to work together, collaborate and connect. It is a popular hangout space, which means it is loud and active, not dusty and "shushed." Our new Maker Lab looks like it will become another reason for students to hang out in the library, but we are encountering issues with supervision (we have nearly 1000 middle schoolers, one large library, and just one librarian with no assistant). I'm curious how other schools have handled supervision in large spaces like libraries.

Grant Lichtman's picture
Grant Lichtman
Author, speaker, facilitator, "Chief Provocateur"

Thanks for the comments and I hope that others who are struggling with the ideas about what to do with libraries going forward will connect with you as they look for models to follow or provoke thinking. I wonder if some element of this is not just about the name, and the baggage that name "library" carries after a few thousand years. I know of some schools that call that space a Connection Lab, or something else completely. I wonder how we would approach the conversation if we just said "on our campus we don't need a library anymore, but we do need a portal for idea flow". How might the conversation, the spaces, and the learning change?

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Grant, just last Friday, I raised your question "What is the library of the future?" with our media specialist and principal. We have a very small elementary school and recently the library was moved to a smaller room with a bit more of the school book collection being moved into the classroom libraries. Which is a good thing so the books get closer to the students day to day lives. But currently our library is now a more traditional room we go to once a week and check out books for 15-20 minutes and hear a story. For more extensive work, our media specialist typically joins us in the classroom for integrated media work. So we will be asking ourselves what is this library room for beyond the storage of books that we can't fit in the classroom. Thanks for the creative thoughts on our library spaces!

Grant Lichtman's picture
Grant Lichtman
Author, speaker, facilitator, "Chief Provocateur"

Thanks, John. Here is another idea: at K-8 Design 39 Campus in Poway, the only books in the "library" have been donated by the community, and any student can take one if they want, and return it if they want. Would your community be able to donate books? I like that question: is book storage really how we want to use precious space at our schools?

Anne Steiner's picture
Anne Steiner
District Librarian, Manteca Unified School District

Your "Portal of Idea Flow" idea reminds me of think tanks. I've always wondered who works at a think tank and how can I get a job there? Seriously, who are these people? Well, what if it was our students and staff? I would love to have a think tank on every campus in our district!

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