Whiteboard notes on networks

"Groups and Networks" by Stephen Downes via Flickr

I’ve got lots of asterisks in my notes from this week’s class on expert and novice learners, and the potential (and pitfalls) of online learning tools and techniques. Asterisk = Blog about this later!

Some of the larger themes from this week’s class relate to big questions like values and skills: What are our professional and institutional values? How do those values inform our work as educators and community members?

I’ll do a fly-by of some ideas that got me thinking:

• The Darien, Conn., public library and its shift from “customer service” to “hospitality” as a guiding principle.

I think a lot about the word “service.” Before coming back to school, I worked as a newspaper journalist for several years, a job I considered an occasionally tricky mix of business and service. I still believe in the importance of the Fourth Estate as a philosophical ideal and a practical need — journalists at their best tell joyful and awful human stories, document history, and provide checks on power.

Yet as a business, journalism is struggling through many of the same cultural and technological shifts that are changing librarianship: How to remain relevant, how to make budget, how to demonstrate the worth of what we do.

The shift from “customer service” to “hospitality” might seem like mere semantics, but I think there’s something more there. “Customer service” in libraries means being helpful, smiling, checking for feedback, and all of those other fundamentals. But does it also occasionally place librarianship into what I call the “concierge” category of service, the “You ask, and then I get you stuff” model?

In choosing a model of “hospitality,” maybe the library is implicitly claiming a bigger stake in its community as a **participant as well as a service point, as a place with ideas about what its community could or should become, as well as a place where you can find and do things.

Connecting this idea back to journalism, I see more start-up and nonprofit news organizations developing their niche online by having more of a distinct point of view, and by doing at least one thing better than anyone else — watchdog journalism, or environmental news, or data reporting.

What is one thing that a library can do better than anyone else?

I am interested in what anyone else makes of this idea.

** In this vein, I recently discovered the Green Garage Detroit urban sustainability library. I think it’s still getting under way, but you can read more about it and its goal to become fully embedded in its community here.

Update: Green Garage Detroit has a great post published today about new visions for librarianship: “The shift from thinking about libraries as repositories of information in a variety of formats to agents that facilitate the exchange of knowledge between community members is a profound one.”

• Is librarianship as a profession engaged in a shift from traditionally left-brained to right-brained? What do we make of the tension between traditional library-as-institution values and the shifts currently taking place in the profession?

I love that we talk a lot about learning theory and librarians-as-educators in this class. Maybe some of the tension librarianship is feeling during this cultural and generational shift is related to the same conundrum that has always faced educators: Is teaching an art or a science?

We talked a little bit about this in class, and I believe we came up with the answer: Well, it’s both.

I agree with this, and in my own limited teaching experience, I’ve found it a very delicate balance between the two poles.

Again, I also think some of the tension in this shift can be attributed to libraries being faced with more explicitly demonstrating their value in much the same way teachers must both evaluate and be evaluated (constantly).

What also makes this shift complicated is that — again, like traditional print newspapers — libraries once had a much more fixed definition. Now, libraries can be defined in multiple ways (sometimes all in the same building!): as quiet sanctuaries from the digital life, or as places to connect with classmates or community members, or as makerspaces for digital arts, or as places to get expert training in research, writing, and technology.

My tiny hometown Carnegie library was beautiful — and oh-so-traditional. Marble steps, heavy oak tables, card catalogs, and books. Oh, and no talking, no computers, and no events (at least not that I can recall). I also can’t remember ever talking to a librarian, despite how much time I spent there quietly working my way through the horse novel section.

I wonder what it looks like today.

Editor’s note: The title of this post is also a really fun card game where the rules are always changing!