For the benefit of others: The public librarian in a learning society

How can we assist the school system to educate people in the ways of the knowledge- based society and reap its benefits? How do we supply them with the tools of lifelong learning? In order to be a resource of great knowledge, librarians need to learn more about the learning-process and the knowledge society. It will probably require a new approach to learning.

At the local municipal libraries of Sandviken, Hofors and Ockelbo in central Sweden, there is at present an extensive change in the management of how to meet the increased demand for library service aimed at students and adults in the learning process.

These regional libraries intend to be distinguished by flexibility, acceptance of changes and as learning organisations. It requires leaders with visions who possess the ability to encourage independent and creative colleagues to try new approaches and ideas whilst reflecting on learning.

A learning society
An ever increasing understanding of the knowledge society is required at public libraries. By tradition public libraries have adapted themselves to the idea that people look for knowledge and experiences from within their own needs and prerequisites. Learning constitutes a personal desire. As library users become more independent in their search for knowledge, librarians need to develop a more instructive and analytical role. As such, libraries and librarians can act as a resource in a learning process catering to all age groups.

The knowledge society is a learning society. In his book Teaching in the Knowledge Society: education in the age of insecurity, Andy Hargreaves merges these two concepts. Economic success and a culture of continuous creativity are reliant on people’s ability to learn. Teaching in such a knowledge society develops the cognitive learning ability in students, enhancing their creativity and initiative. Students learn to participate in networks and view problems as opportunities to learn from, place reliance in collaborative processes, accommodate changes and actively pursue the development of an organisation.

It requires a certain kind of professionalism and Hargreaves views teachers as catalysts in the knowledge society, those most crucial of actors to realise the full potential of the learning society. They inhabit the dual role of intermediaries of those opportunities offered by society but also as a counterpart to the potential threat a knowledge society can assume as a result of a cynical, global economy.

This new notion of a knowledge society offers prosperity and endless choices but is simultaneously characterised by economic and social rifts. We live amidst escalating threats of terrorism and environmental pollution, threats that invade our private spheres and affect our view on the situation in the world.

Changing perspectives
In the UNESCO report Learning: the treasure within, Jacques Delors presents four crucial cornerstones for learning:

  • To learn in order to know
  • To learn what to do – how to apply knowledge
  • To learn how to be – developing a sense of personal responsibility in the attainment of mutual goals.
  • To learn how to coexist – develop an understanding of other nationalities, their history, tradition and spiritual values and an appreciation of people’s increasing mutual interdependency, the purpose of which is democracy, coexistence and a global collective identity.

Teaching students concerns the development of social and relationship skills, such as an appreciation of rights and responsibilities. This entails the constructing of trust, identity and citizenry and nurturing a ‘social investment’, i.e. the ability to structure networks and form relationships. Trusting others is the very foundation of prosperity and democracy and learning should not be limited to a prerequisite for economic growth. Learning must also create values for the good society, values concerned with character, community spirit, democracy and global citizenship.

New attitudes to learning require new attitudes to teaching. No teacher knows enough to stand alone. The teacher is no longer a solitary participant in the learning procedure but one of many participants in the process ‘lifelong learning’. From the pedagogues’ point of view it is about changing perspectives and positioning the student centre stage. Teachers, librarians, learning-centre personnel, fellow students and others within the student’s sphere act as catalysts and supportive participants in the student’s own learning process. Each student has as his starting point individual prerequisites when it comes to learning and has varying needs of pedagogic support and guidance.

The librarian as pedagogue We speak increasingly of how the librarian acts as a pedagogue. By assisting students (and other users) to assume responsibility for their own learning and guiding them in finding what they are searching for, increases the student’s ability to eventually find suitable approaches to relevant information.

Focus moves, merging the process of thought and the utilisation of information rather than emphasizing search procedures and establishing sources. The case not being about how people locate information but rather how they process and utilise the information they find.

Modern research views information searches as a composite process, where sentiments and thoughts are discernible though not isolated from other dimensions of a learning task. Subject contents, accountability structures and other frameworks for a task are also included. People create their own knowledge and continuously strive to find meaning in information in order to apply this to previous experiences.

Instead of shoving the concept of information competence down the throats of the teaching staff, librarians should consider that they, in several respects, know as much about knowledge and learning as qualified teachers. Librarians should see themselves as pedagogues and teachers. A platform for dialogue needs to be established to find new approaches to learning and revise the older ones. An exchange of viewpoints should be on the agenda.

New attitudes towards learning require new attitudes related to the role of the librarian in the learning process. A consequence of libraries changing perspectives from that of their traditional role could be to use the student’s perspective as their starting point and analyse how best the library can support teaching staff and students.

InfoComp – an ongoing dialogue between school and public library
Collaborative efforts between educational coordinators are often below par. In Sandviken we have tried to come to grips with this through, among other things, a mutual further education project called InfoComp. Teachers and librarians are paired off to instruct their colleagues in the interplay between information retrieval and learning.

This collaboration, which is an ongoing dialogue between the pedagogues of the school and public librarians, has influenced the participants’ views on information retrieval, media and learning. For our instructors, called pilots, the previous demarcations are erased as to who is teacher and who is librarian. Instead, they are supervisors who coach and challenge their colleagues to evolve in their professional roles.

Quality rating of libraries as learning environments
All libraries in Sandviken, Hofors and Ockelbo are to be quality assured. Our libraries should be able to offer their users a pedagogic environment, stimulating studies, access to a variety of printed and electronic media, information and guidance regarding studies, easily accessible premises and opening hours and technical equipment enabling web-based distance tuition. The library staff should offer their users guidance in information retrieval and a critical attitude to sources. The library as a meeting place for people, business companies, associations, organisations, should be acknowledged and a possible approach to this is cooperation between representatives from all levels of learning.

A special book on methodology connected to quality workmanship has been produced to function as a guiding manual for library dialogues and to accommodate local operational programmes for main libraries and their affiliated branches. Goals are drafted for local commitments. The book describes various services and undertakings. Examples of activities we are about to undertake for year 2005 is Roving Librarians, the opportunity to schedule a librarian for personal guidance, offer custom-made courses in information retrieval, engage in media-planning, publish a study gateway on the Internet, take part in Ask the Library in within a new organisation with subject groups were all librarians and assistants take an active part and assume responsibility for purchases, discarding parts of the collections and exhibiting media.

Competence development and an overall view
Quality assessments need to be initiated from scratch and permeate all parts of the organisation. As students use the public libraries in other capacities than students, e.g. as parents, research for personal needs or general readers, it does not appear to have been entirely thought through to consider adults who study as a special user group, a concern for a mere few among the staff and limited to a certain part of the library.

EU funding has been granted the local public libraries in Sandviken, Hofors and Ockelbo, made achievable through the Swedish ESF (European Social Fund) Council and Växtkraft Mål 3.

The funding is aimed at implementing a 2-year project of competence development beginning in the autumn of 2005. The intentions of the planned efforts are to create a higher degree of awareness of library assignments, well developed pedagogic methods and an understanding of reflective approaches to work. Staff should be able to work with purpose and goals, activity plans and evaluations. IT competence and comprehension of suitable marketing ventures need upgrading. The purpose is for the regional libraries to be viewed as an attractive and evolving cultural working environment for visitors and staff.

The core of all quality work is about participation. To participate and influence. But also to assume personal responsibility for ‘one’s own part’ as well as for the organisation as a whole. Development ventures must be made understandable and seen as manageable and meaningful to the staff. Prerequisites for successful quality work are a prevalent trust and an open-minded atmosphere within the organisation.

Our services often stem from the meetings of users and staff. The users’ sense of a service’s quality is very much aligned with the reception and service they are met with. Quality from the users’ point of view can be defined as providing for the users’ needs, those avowed and those not. The users’ experience can be placed in direct proportion to how meaningful and challenging the staff find their assignments. Worthwhile quality presupposes staff in rapport with their work.

A strategy to learning
Pedagogic work methods and considerations amount to more than teaching others how to learn. There is no one who can tell someone else how it should be! We need to start pondering on it ourselves. To do this we need tools, we need theories and most of all we need instruction. We need to learn how to learn in order to go forward and gain knowledge. This does not only apply to students but also to librarians who need to reflect on their own learning.

A personal strategy will in the end be the decisive factor: To maintain a curiosity towards the person with queries, find out what he wants, knows and thinks and based on that knowledge, contribute with input and questions. It will be my own outlook on people, my values and views on what constitutes knowledge and how the learning process is structured and how this shapes the pedagogic attitude I have and which in turn shapes the method I choose to use

Translated by Jonathan Pearman