Seattle Public Library by OzinOh via Flickr

OK, dumb question:

What does learning look like in the library?

I’m sitting in the Undergraduate Library as I write this, trying to gain a new perspective on a familiar place and feeling very much like Margaret Mead — if Margaret Mead were a librarian with a laptop.

Around me, I can see clumps of students on the first floor:

• A handful are sitting quietly in armchairs among the low bookshelves of popular fiction and nonfiction books in the browsing collection. They’re reading novels, studying, or checking their smartphones.
• One or two students have dragged a couple of armchairs into the narrow rows between the magazine racks and are studying in their own little hidey-holes.
• Many students are working quietly at long shared tables, most on laptops.
• Others are discussing what sounds like a group project at a series of smaller round tables at the rear of the room.
• Many students are consuming media in multiple formats simultaneously: Listening to headphones, checking phones, typing on laptops, reading, studying notes, writing notes.

And me? I’m drinking hazelnut coffee, sitting in another of those comfy armchairs, typing away and stopping to people-watch or surf the web. I was trying to write this post from the quiet of my little nook in the Graduate Library, but I couldn’t focus. I needed a bit more light, a bit more caffeine, a bit more of the low hum of the UGL.

In class this week, we talked about the design of learning environments from multiple perspectives: Educators’ effort to connect to students’ prior knowledge and cultural communities, and the effort to offer formative and summative feedback that would help them grow as learners. In terms of practical applications, we looked at how different forms of assessment (multiple choice, open-ended, ratings scales) could shape student reflection and synthesis — or, in some cases, highlight the lower-level skills of factual recall that we’re trying to get beyond.

On the latter point, I am already mucking my way through the trickiness of survey design as I try to figure out how to ask good questions for an information case study for another class. (I mentioned my penchant for existential dread before, but it bears repeating when one is designing survey questions: What is “success”? What is “ease of use”? What is “pleasant interaction”?)

But I want to spend the rest of this post on the question of libraries as learning environments, both in the physical library-as-place sense, and in the sense of libraries as larger institutions of knowledge creation.

Last week, a professor in the College of Architecture spoke to SI students about the evolving connections and overlaps between information and the built environment — (and I’m simplifying here) he calls this idea “ambient information,” i.e. information that’s not experienced as intrusive but is still in some way absorbed.

He also stressed the notion of restorative spaces, spaces that renew our reserves of attention: Gazing out a window on a courtyard with flowers, for instance, or sitting at a streetside cafe and watching people go by. And, to be sure, spaces that restore attention are becoming increasingly important in a world that runs on an attention economy.

As some writers lament the decline of wandering online — what the French capture so beautifully in the languid term flaneur — while users migrate to the walled cities of Facebook and Google, I return to this concept of restorative space, of social space that can also be contemplative and that invites multiple forms of interaction, a space that can even surprise.

Where is this space? It sounds a lot like a library.

As the online world of information continues to shift from virtual expressions to physical expressions and back again — think mobile apps that help a patron find a call number using GPS, a type of augmented reality — I want to remind myself to consider in what ways libraries are both conventional and unconventional learning spaces.

Yes, we teach classes in the library, and we check out books to readers who are studying and learning.

I think libraries can also provide a very particular type of place — a place that opens up the space for learning by restoring attention, an opening for engagement of the mind, whether for daydreaming or deep reading.

All right, I admit this is getting a little woo-woo even for me, and I certainly want to acknowledge that there is plenty of bad design in libraries and foreboding infrastructures of call numbers and maze-like stacks and all the rest.

So, what do you think? How do you experience the library as place or space? Do we need new ways for thinking about the way learning happens in these spaces?

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