Libraries Have Always Been About Learning?


In an IMLS podcast in August, Acting Director Marsha L. Semmel spoke to 21st Century skills and what they mean to libraries and museums. I think she makes some good points and provides some good explanation, but I don’t totally agree with everything.

From the transcript of the podcast;

When we discuss the “21st Century Skills,” what do we mean? We are talking about learning and innovation skills like critical thinking, creativity and innovation, communication and collaboration. We are talking about fluency in information, media and technology skills, the ability to analyze information and the ability to think critically about that information that is bombarding us from so many media sources every day. We’re talking about life and career skills like flexibility and adaptability, like initiative and self-direction, social and cross-cultural skills. And we’re also talking about some 21st century themes – themes that have to do with environmental literacy, health literacy, financial literacy and global awareness.

Where did the 21st Century Skills movement come from? Really this is a national and international conversation that has arisen with the rise of the global economy, with the enabling of a whole new set of technologies that allow people to be connected in different ways, the need to understand non-routine, non-repetitive work and the need to be able to do that work. So the skills that are associated with doing those sorts of jobs have to do with innovation, problem solving, creativity, the mastery of the new information and communication technologies.

This is a fair assessment and brief summary of 21st Century skills (small ‘s’). However, Semmel failed to acknowledge The Partnership for 21st Century Skills that began the 21st Century Skills (capital ‘S’) movement in American education in 2002. (See P21 History that includes a list of the founding partners.) P21 caused the “national and international conversation” that deliberately arose from people who saw the problems and offered solutions. In June 2009, P21 held a National Summit on 21st Century Skills (YouTube video below).
Nothing about this 21st Century Skills movement has been spontaneous or haphazard.

Where do libraries and museums fit in the 21st Century Skills movement? Libraries and museums have always been about education and learning. They have always provided important collections, powerful experiences and sources of knowledge and information. So libraries and museums have been evolving and changing to meet changing learning needs. They’ve been evolving from places that simply present knowledge and information to places that share knowledge and engage their communities and work with their communities to co-create experiences.

Semmel’s notion that “Libraries and museums have always been about education and learning.” is presented as fact, but does anybody remember this point being stressed, or even suggested in their MLS program? I do not, and I’m certain I would remember. I think she’s getting libraries and museums confused and using the terms interchangeably (since that’s the business IMLS is in), or generically, which to me speaks to a lack of familiarity with libraries and their circumstances in this 21st Century skills movement. I’m not saying people don’t learn in a library, but I am saying that being all “about education and learning” seems more applicable to museums.

The IMLS Initiative on Museums, Libraries and 21st Century Skills, which we’re also calling “Making the Learning Connection,” is really about positioning museums and libraries in this larger conversation that’s occurred in classrooms, in corporations, in workplaces, in government agencies as powerful places for learning 21st century skills and promoting the 21st century skills. Our project provides a portal, a website, a self-assessment tool and a community learning scanning document that provides information for people outside the museum and library field to know more about what museums and libraries can contribute to the 21st Century Skills movement, but provides valuable tools for people who work in museums and libraries to intentionally position their institutions to provide, promote, deliver these kinds of skills.

If libraries have “always been about education and learning”, why is it that the IMLS initiative “is really about positioning museums and libraries in this larger conversation that’s occurred in classrooms, in corporations, in workplaces, in government agencies as powerful places for learning 21st century skills and promoting the 21st century skills.”? If libraries have “always been about education and learning”, wouldn’t we BE a major voice in the conversation “that’s [already] occurred”, rather than need to be positioned in it? And, would we need to convince the rest of the participants that libraries are “powerful places for learning 21st Century skills and promoting” them?

However, I do agree that because we are just libraries, we do need to be positioned “in this larger conversation … and promoting the 21st century skills.” (small ‘s’). Because, libraries are not known as places of education and learning. I’ve been stating all along that school and academic librarians are miles ahead of public librarians in this effort, and in understanding 21st Century skills. But, that’s only by virtue of being a part of the education system, not because they are libraries. School libraries are still THE MOST vulnerable segment of the school system, and the first of the educational resources to be cut.

Our point is that for a museum or a library to truly be a 21 century skills organization, they have to look across the entire scope of their organization. There are implications for who they hire, for how they present their programs and how they create their programs, for how they include different – and invite different communities and change their definitions of access, for how they demonstrate and define their accountability and measure their outcomes and for how they work in collaboration with a whole set of learning institutions that can range from the school system to the university system to the chamber of commerce to social service organizations and to various types of businesses.

I also agree with Semmel’s assessment that “There are implications for who they hire, for how they present their programs and how they create their programs, for how they include … and invite different communities and change their definitions of access,”. We do need to change our definition of access, as well as work in collaboration with EVERY sector of our communities.

Although, I think she’s treading on dangerous ground when she includes “who we hire” in her assessment. Considering fair hiring and anti-discrimination laws and unions, who libraries hire is not always an option, and encouraging any discriminatory hiring practices does not reflect well on our profession. However, how we educate and what LIS students learn to enter the librarian profession IS within our total control, and it should start NOW by teaching new librarians to understand 21st Century Skills, and how to incorporate them into library services and programs. WE HAVE TO!

So taken as a whole, I think this podcast from IMLS was intended to stir peoples’ emotions regarding libraries and museums and 21st century skills, and less about providing a summary of the library’s place in a 21st Century Skills society. It’s great to see IMLS taking a leadership role on the issue.

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