Rethinking Library Patron Instruction: Libraries as Social Learning Centers

Social learning—a theme to be explored in ALA Editions’ Rethinking Library Instruction: Libraries as Social Learning Centers ecourse as we prepare materials to help library users learn what they need to learn about library resources—is hardly new. But it is something that is going to leave us far behind if we don’t jump in and stake our claim sooner than later.

Tony Bingham (President and CEO of ASTD—the American Society for Training & Development) and Marcia Conner (partner with Altimeter Group and a columnist for Fast Company magazine) provide a wonderful introduction to the topic in The New Social Learning: A Guide to Transforming Organizations Through Social Media. And Char Booth addresses the topic in the library context in her ALA Editions book Reflective Teaching, Effective Learning: Instructional Literacy for Library Educators, particularly in “Learning from/with Others” (chapter 3).

A few of us, furthermore, are beginning to document and promote the important role libraries are and can be playing in becoming social learning centers onsite as well as online. We already have the model of the academic information commons. And we’re beginning to see public library versions including the Denver Public Library Community Technology Center and Brooklyn Public Library’s Leon Levy Information Commons that was approved in 2010.

The Digital Youth Network and its fabulous YOUMedia collaboration for teens with the Chicago Public Library is the latest library social learning space to receive widespread attention; highlighted in the MacArthur Foundation’s Panel Discussion on Re-Imagining Learning in the 21st Century and Digital Media: New Learners of the 21st Century,  the 50-minute PBS program which is at the heart of the Panel Discussion program, YOUMedia demonstrates that dreams of libraries as social learning centers are far from being flights of fantasy.

Karen Cator, Director of the office of Educational Technology in the U.S. Department of Education —just one of several Panel Discussion presenters—overtly provides the big picture for anyone interested in social learning: “We have an incredible opportunity to transform learning into a deeply social experience, one that can leverage mobile technologies, social networking, and digital content. We can leverage the long tail of interest and design education environments that include prior experience, outside-of-school experience, multiple languages, families, the community, all the places that students live and breathe…”

Chicago Public Library chief Mary Dempsey, in the same program, brings it closer to home by noting that libraries are no longer “just about information consumption.” Through innovations such as the Library’s YOUMedia space, libraries can help learners take advantage of environments where they are surrounded by new media and a world where “learning takes place anywhere and anytime,” she says.

And Elise Valoe, in an American Libraries magazine article (“The Evolving Library: Supporting New Teaching, Learning Styles”), reports that “libraries are now collaborative environments where individuals and groups converge to study, socialize, and gain access to resources…the library is a center of interactive learning” fostering social learning.

It’s probably clear to everyone by now that part of what we are rethinking in the ALA Editions ecourse is what it means to produce library patron instruction in an onsite-online world where synchronous and asynchronous learning are seamlessly interwoven. As we think about learning environments—those physical and virtual places where learning occurs—we have to remember that we still serve significant numbers of people face to face, at their moment of need. We also need to remember that we serve a significant number of people via online access at computer workstations and through wireless connections within library building. And there’s that third dimension in which an overwhelming majority of those we serve are arriving in our libraries online rather than physically entering our buildings.

Our social learning environments have to be adaptable to meet our users’ continuing as well as evolving learning needs. We also need to be as adaptable as we possibly can be in terms of effectively employing technology to reach and respond to library users. And we have to willingly embrace the increasing important role that nearly everyone working in libraries can and must  play as trainer-teacher-learners prepared to facilitate the learning process for all whom we serve.