The word: “learning”

The word “learning” is increasingly being included as part of a re-badging of libraries and library services. For instance, some examples I have come across: “Learning Hub”, “Learning Centre”,  “Learning Resources Centre”, and “Learning pods / spots / zones”… and so on….

Lately I have witnessed anecdotal evidence of a slight swing back in favour of calling libraries “libraries” (the “L word” as many of us like to joke), but “learning” seems to have taken root for now. This is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on who you talk to.

“Learning” seems also to be increasingly finding its way into our job titles. I myself am a Library Manager, but neither “Librarian” nor “Library” appear in my title. The word “Learning”, however, does. I am a “Learning Resources Leader”. Personally I think it is a fitting title, although no title ever says it all, does it?

No matter what you think of the “L word” (either of them), its inclusion in the official labels and titles which describe our domain, has raised an important question: “what exactly is the involvement between libraries and learning”? How do we define the relationship? In what particular sense is learning the business of librarians, other than to facilitate it when it needs to occur, or inspire it when it was least expected?

Every week, I get to teach people how to do new things. I go into classrooms and run sessions, I tutor one-on-one or in small groups, I demonstrate new resources and talk about research and referencing and the difference between a sweeping statement and a supported argument. Words cannot express how much I love that aspect of my job. I feel so privaledged to be involved in this way, but teaching is not my profession and I would never claim to possess the insight and expertise that comes from a Teaching degree.

Really, I swan in, deliver a toolkit, hopefully entertain a few people along the way, and swan back out again. I don’t have to mark papers,  set exams or face cranky parents. I spend a lot of time helping teachers to find what they need in order to do those things. I am certainly intimately involved with the business of learning, and there is a level of responsibility implied here, but learning per se, is not an accountability of mine; not in the same way that teachers are held to account for students’ learning.

The main prerogative of libraries has never been to assess or quantify learning in an academic sense. Even where libraries provide explicit instruction and tuition, such as information literacy programmes in school librarirs or university libraries, or special interest programmes in public libraries, the emphasis is on exposing individuals to a learning opportunity, rather than bringing about a specific skill in relation to a benchmark or grade. I was never fired because a first year Uni student plagiarised despite having attended one of my mandatory library induction sessions. Perhaps the library should be accountable? Now, there is a question for another day!

So where does this leave us?

In truth, the inclusion of the word “learning” makes me anxious to promote the unique value of librarianship as a profession distinct from that of teaching. I don’t want patrons to get confused and start thinking of libraries as educational institutions in the traditional sense. That’s not what we are. We are great as we are. We fill a gap which the marginalised used to fall into (some still do). My own experience is that truly great teachers and lecturers recognises this. They know the value of great librarians and great libraries (or even not so great libraries). They tell their students: “visit the librarians…they have magical skills and can show you increadible things”.

So, despite the changing terminology, I shall continue to take a holistic approach to “learning” in the library. I shall keep devising new ways to deliver experiential learning opportunities, and I will keep printing sign-up sheets for popular learning activities or programmes (interestingly often not branded as “learning”). I will support the teachers and supplement, compliment and enrich the experience of the learners, as they chomp through the curriculum. I’ll also be there when learners need a diversion or a break. I’ll keep giving out free advice (solicited or not), and there will be no test at the end.